In the latest retrospective look at television’s glorious legal history we check out a British-made programme that recreated several famous cases involving a theatrical turn-of-the-century barrister, one of the first lawyers made famous by the burgeoning tabloid press. It has a tenuous New Zealand connection, which is more than good enough for us to claim it as part-Kiwi.
Shadow of the Noose was a BBC drama about the life and career of British barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC, a well-known public figure due to his involvement in some of the most notorious and widely-reported court cases of the time, including high-profile murders.
The drama series starred one-time wannabe lawyer Jonathan Hyde as Marshall Hall. The Brisbane-born Hyde’s father was a successful barrister, and Hyde junior himself studied law in the city before quitting law school for acting. A regular mainstay of various British drama broadcasts he later became a familiar face in popcorn fodder such as Jumanji and The Mummy.
His sidekick was Edgar Bowker, played by Michael Feast, and the eight episodes featured various top-level actors such as Peter Capaldi and Caroline Quentin.
The series was a curious co-production between the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Television New Zealand. TVNZ says the broadcaster partners with global partners on projects, with a recent one being Legend of the Monkey with ABC Australia and Netflix.
The BBC made eight episodes, all of which were written by Richard Cooper, and they aired between 1 March and 19 April 1989 on its secondary channel, BBC Two.
The series debuted with An Alien Shore where Marshall Hall appears to have taken on a busted flush, defending a prostitute who is caught with one of her clients in a trunk. Every barrister in London has declined Marie Hermann’s case, until Edward Marshall Hall steps in.
“I almost dare you…”
Replicating the dramatic courtroom hyperbole that enthralled the public in 1894 with eyes glazed and arms waving, Hyde challenges the jury: “I almost dare you to find a guilty verdict”. He gets the murder charge down to manslaughter.
In Noblesse Oblige, Marshall Hall is involved in a very different matter, a libel case. Lady Scott alleges that her son-in-law’s marriage to her daughter foundered due to his homosexual tendencies. Having recovered from illness, Marshall Hall is desperate for a case to restore his fortunes.
Gone for a Soldier opens with Marshall Hall’s unexpected (as in there was no pointer in the previous editions) marriage to Henriette. But then it’s back to business – defending a maid accused of killing the child she had out of wedlock from a brief fling with a rich and privileged military man. His case is not helped by Annie Dyer’s apparent confession.
In Beside the Seaside the barrister is called upon to defend a man regarded as a womaniser, a conman and a spy who is accused of killing his estranged wife, in the coastal town Great Yarmouth, hence the title.
An extra-marital affair is also at the heart of Gun in Hand which begins with Edward Lawrence and Ruth Hadley engaged in a violent argument. The scene ends with several shots being fired and Hadley dying in her lover’s arms.
But Lawrence is a big wheel in Wolverhampton with many influential friends, including the mayor, so can call upon the best, and engages Marshall Hall. This episode sees the barrister at his most theatrical and the court is in effect his stage.
A tabloid target
As in Hanlon in which the final episode of that New Zealand series focused entirely on the central character, Marshall Hall is the centre of the story in Turn Again. He is targeted by a scurrilous tabloid newspaper owner vowing revenge after the barrister wins a libel case for an actress against the paper. It’s an episode that raises some interesting points about the power of the press, which are as relevant as they were in 1989 and more so now, as they were a century ago.
The Camden Town Murder is one of his most famous cases, defending Robert Wood, who is tried for the murder of the prostitute Emily Dimmock. The trial is a memorable one, with a lot of noise from the public gallery to ramp up the tension.
The series concluded with Sentence of Death. Marshall Hall’s client is one of the most infamous murderers of the early 20th Century – Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen.
Marshall Hall’s recreation of the night of Mrs Crippen’s death is the standout moment. It also poses the question – had Dr Crippen accepted Marshall Hall’s instructions, would he have hanged; or even been convicted of manslaughter?
Throughout the 1980s, videotape was still widely in use, and Shadow of the Noose was shot entirely on that format. An asbestos scare at BBC Television Centre in London meant that the studios were put out of action and the series was relocated to a warehouse in Bristol.
Timeline rather vague
One review of the DVD isn’t overwhelmingly impressed with the chronology: “It’s a pity that the timeline between each episode is rather vague. In real terms, the cases we see in the series took place over a period of a decade or more, but there’s never any feeling that time has passed.”
But the writer isn’t put off: “ … there’s little to fault across all the eight episodes. Shadow of the Noose is a consistently strong series, powered by Jonathan Hyde’s electric performance. His Marshall Hall is a pure showman – delighting in taunting judges and wooing juries – whilst the uniformly excellent guest casts help to bring the stories to life.”
Shadow of the Noose was released on DVD in 2017 and a quick check of eBay UK and Amazon UK at the time of writing found several copies available, as well as the novel based on the series.