Fear of Fulchester:
The Horrors of TV's Crown Court
Ivan Kirby looks back at ITV drama, Crown Court, a perennial of 1970s/80s daytime television programming that - in pursuit of justice - often featured horror-inflected episodes...
A day home sick from school. A blanket on the sofa. A soothing parent administering soup and Lucozade (the kind that came in a cellophane-wrapped glass bottle, naturally). Mention Granada’s long-running Crown Court (1972-1984) to a British forty or fifty-something and these are the kind of memories you’re likely to invoke. Along, perhaps, with a hazy sense of a familiar TV character actor being tried for shoplifting or similar.
Strange as it may now seem, ITV didn’t start broadcasting in the afternoon until October 1972, when it launched a brand new lineup of daytime programming including future TV legends Rainbow (ITV, 1972-92, Pipkins (ITV, 1973-81), and Emmerdale Farm (ITV, 1972-). And, of course, Crown Court, a revival of an earlier Granada series called The Verdict is Yours (1958-63). Its compelling format saw a scripted courtroom drama performed by actors in front of a jury comprising genuine members of the public, who at the conclusion would decide on the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Crown Court stripped each case across three consecutive weekday afternoons in half hour instalments – meaning that poorly schoolchildren strong-armed back to school the next day might never know the verdict. The Crown Court in question is situated in the vaguely Northern town (or city, depending on that week’s script) of Fulchester, whose name would later be famously appropriated for the home of Viz’s cast of characters.
Despite its early timeslot, Crown Court never shied away from featuring the darkest of crimes, and it wasn’t unusual for grim tales of murder, rape, incest or paedophilia to appear on the same afternoon schedule as House Party (ITV, 1972-81) or Paint Along with Nancy (ITV, 1974-78). And this being the 1970s and early 80s, when (as many Horrified articles will testify), the occult, the supernatural and the just downright freaky were everywhere on British TV, it’s no surprise that Crown Court would occasionally dip its toe into the horror genre.
Let me now be your guide to the five most horror-inflected Crown Court cases. Witchcraft, demonic possession, folk horror and, er, imaginary killer robots, they’re all here (and I’ll finish up with a rundown of the series’ other mildly spooky-flavoured stories).
Destruct, Destruct (1973)
The other entries on this list are all products of the explosion of occult subject matter in 70s popular culture. Destruct, Destruct is something altogether different. Its focus on children and its extraordinary prologue depicting the events that lead to the trial, its bleak style reminiscent of the more disturbing public information films of the era, make it prime Haunted Generation/Scarred for Life material. The defendant is 13 year old Philip Ainsworth, accused of murdering a schoolmate. Thanks to that prologue we already know that Philip killed the unfortunate boy by putting a plastic bag over his head (an imitable-by-young-kids-moment you’d never see on TV now), but the defence case is that his mind was disturbed by the belief that he was under the control of the Rexors, remorseless robots bent on the destruction of humanity. Wonderfully, there’s an arse-covering dialogue exchange establishing how the Rexors are nothing like TV’s popular the Daleks. As polite, besuited, pale-faced Philip, young Alastair Mackenzie is a memorable addition to the screen’s sinister children, fit to stand beside Damien Thorn and the denizens of Midwich. The most disturbing moments of the case are the occasional close-ups of Philip, accompanied by weird sci-fi machine noises. British horror icon Michael Gough turns up for the defence as a child psychiatrist, and Philip’s distraught mother is played by Marjorie Yates, best known to horror fans as an equally distraught mother in Nigel Kneale’s Murrain.
To Suffer a Witch (1973)
Here we have your classic 1970s News of the World type witchcraft scenario, with wide-eyed young models allegedly ensnared into joining covens where they’re required to take part in orgies (not, of course, depicted on screen) with sinister masked figures. The defendant is Adelaide Vincent, aka Hecate, leader of a Fulchester coven, accused of killing one of its more prudish members by means of a curse. Entertainingly, Adelaide’s defence is that the whole magic bit’s a load of old bollocks calculated to get the jaded sensualists of Fulchester to give her their cash… but is it really? Adelaide’s played by the great Patricia Haines, who’d played a similar role in the splendidly camp sexploitation schlocker Virgin Witch (Ray Austin, 1972), released the previous year. The similarities don’t stretch to having to take her clothes off for her Crown Court appearance, however.
Strange Past (1974)
Crown Court’s venture into what we’d now call folk horror is scripted by none other than David Pinner, whose 1967 novel Ritual inspired Anthony Shaffer to write the screenplay that would eventually become The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Inspired by the unsolved real life murder of Charles Walton, the apparent victim of a ritual killing in the village of Lower Quinton on Valentine’s Day 1946, ‘Strange Past‘ focuses on an unsolved apparent ritual killing in the village of Long Griffin on Valentine’s Day 1957. The victim here, though, was a beautiful young supposed witch, her throat pierced with a hayfork and a cross slashed into her stomach. Was it a sacrifice by the villagers to appease nature after years of bad harvests? Or was it simply the work of a callow young lover who wanted to get rid of her? 17 years later, said lover stands accused of the murder. The Wicker Man had been released the previous year, so is it a coincidence or an in joke that the pub in Long Griffin shares its name, the Green Man, with the one on Summerisle? ‘Strange Past’ is dominated by a powerhouse performance from Alethea Charlton as a spurned lover of the defendant. She was no stranger to these kind of peculiar goings on, having played a suburban witch in an episode of Thames’ magistrates court drama Six Days of Justice (ITV, 1972-75)and a highly sinister landlady in the classic Thriller episode ‘Someone at the Top of the Stairs‘ (1973).
This truly frightening case centres on Megwyn Spiteri, who killed her five year old twins, and the question of whether she’s sane enough to stand trial for their murder. She claims that the children had been possessed by demons that she was trying to drive out. The prosecution contends that she’s just pretending to be insane. Denise Buckley’s extraordinary, twitchy, gurning performance as Megwyn certainly goes over the top enough at times for us to believe she could be shamming. Her tales of an evil presence waiting in the family’s new home for innocent flesh it could claim, the children’s sudden propensity to speak terrible blasphemies in their sleep and her own gradual domination by the evil forces are pretty chilling stuff though (and leave us in no doubt that this case comes in the wake of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)). Occasional Brit horror actor George Coulouris (The Woman Eater (Charles Saunders, 1958), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971), Tower of Evil (Jim O’Connelly, 1972)) makes an appearance as the glowering Maltese priest who first decided the children were possessed. Writer Roger Parkes adapted his script into a short story, ‘Interim Report‘, collected by master horror anthologist Hugh Lamb in 1976’s The Taste of Fear.
Capers Among the Catacombs (1977)
The most startlingly lurid of Crown Court’s ventures into the occult, ‘Capers Among the Catacombs’ takes its name from a 1974 Observer article regarding the infamous Highgate Vampire case, and lifts some of its dialogue (including the judge’s jokey asides) almost verbatim from the trial of vampire hunter David Farrant. The substitute Farrant here is self-proclaimed warlock Clifford Grant (Onedin Line (BBC, 1971-80) star Philip Bond), accused of desecrating a church and dancing with a corpse. The courtroom is stuffed with sinister exhibits including a huge pentagram and a goat’s head mask that Grant’s glamorous wife Tanith claims to wear in the bath. The evidence given by Anna Calder-Marshall as a member of Grant’s coven concludes with her entering a hysterical trance (after she learns she’s been cursed by the silkily sinister Tanith) and an impromptu exorcism by a vicar who earlier described in great detail his mildly sexual dreams of being pursued by demons. Much is made by the prosecution of the Grants’ choice of black bedclothes, and how this proves their depravity. The jury of ordinary Granada region dwellers look understandably perplexed throughout.
Further creepy Crown Courts:
‘The Medium‘ (1972): Ken Russell favourite and future Doctor Who baddie Christopher Gable plays a chic spiritualist accused of fleecing gullible old ladies.
‘The Death of Dracula‘ (1973): This one doesn’t quite live up to that enticing title, which refers to a stage magician’s elaborate trick, the malfunctioning of which sees his wife on trial for murder. 70s scream queen Luan Peters pops up as one of the dead man’s alleged mistresses.
‘The Inner Circle’ (1973): Focusing on a sinister (yet stylish) cult inspired by real life swinging London Satanists the Process Church of the Final Judgement, this features Hammer’s 70s leading man Shane Briant as one of its sleek leaders.
‘Not Dead But Gone Before’ (1974): A comic sidestep into the realms of science fiction, this concerns a mad scientist (George Pravda) accused of killing the millionaire sponsor of his cryogenics project. John Paul, star of the BBC’s eco-disaster series Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-72), appears as a witness.
‘The Ju-Ju Landlord’ (1976): Scripted by eminent Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta, this subtle exploration of inter-African racism concerns a slum landlord (Louis Mahoney) who keeps his tenants in line with performances of ritual magic. The highlight is the performance of a ritual dance in the courtroom by a scantily-clad gentleman.
‘Proof Spirits‘ (1981): Another go at the theme of the dodgy medium – this one played to camp perfection by Hammer horror goddess Barbara Shelley. Definitive TV Miss Marple Joan Hickson is the chief prosecution witness.
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