Shadow of the Noose – Simply Media DVD Review

shadow

Sir Edward Marshall Hall (1858 – 1927) was a barrister in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras who, thanks to the media, became a well-known public figure.  The most notorious court cases of the time – especially high profile murders – were reported in great detail by the newspapers, which meant that the exploits of Marshall Hall were keenly followed by millions of armchair criminologists.

Marshall Hall’s cases have been adapted for both radio and television.  In 1996, John Mortimer presented a six-part BBC Radio 4 series starring Tom Baker.  Prior to this, in 1989, came Shadow of the Noose, with Jonathan Hyde as Edward Marshall Hall, which ran for a single season on BBC2.  All of its eight episodes are contained within this double DVD release.

Jonathan Hyde (b. 1948 in Brisbane, Australia) moved to Britain in the late 1960’s and graduated from RADA in 1972, winning the Bancroft Gold Medal.  His television career began in the late 1970’s with appearances in programmes like The Professionals, Thomas and Sarah and Agony.  Post Shadow of the Noose he continued to ply his trade in British television, in diverse series such as Lovejoy, Jackanory, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Peak Practice and Cadfael, before his profile was raised thanks to a string of Hollywood movies – Richie Rich, Jumanji, Titanic and The Mummy.

Appearing alongside Hyde in all eight episodes was Michael Feast as Edgar Bowker, Marshall Hall’s faithful assistant, whilst a host of quality actors made one-off appearances.  These include Peter Capaldi, David Bradley, Caroline Quentin, Gawn Grainger, Robert James, Sian Phillips, John Bird, David Schofield, Tony Doyle, David Rintoul, Alan MacNaughton, Michael Melia, Phil Rose, Philip Franks, Morris Perry, Derek Newark, David Graham, Tim McInnerny and Kevin Stoney.  An impressive roll call.

The series debuted with An Alien Shore (tx 1st March 1989).  Defending a prostitute discovered with one of her client’s bodies in a trunk seems like a hopeless case.  Everybody has already decided that she’s guilty, which explains why no barrister in London will take the case.  No-one, except Edward Marshall Hall.

Shadow of the Noose
Jonathan Hyde

We have to wait some eighteen minutes before sighting Hyde, but as soon as Marshall Hall is introduced the series wastes no time in deftly defining his character.  Newton (Terry Taplin), the solicitor representing the accused, Marie Hermann (Victoria Fairbrother), admits that it’s likely she’s going to hang, but tries to tempt Marshall Hall with the promise of fame (the trial is bound to be widely reported, so the defending barrister – even if he’s unsuccessful – will become a household name). He’s uninterested in fame, but is pained that Marie has no-one to defend her, and that’s why he takes the case.

When the focus switches to the courtroom then An Alien Shore, like the remainder of the series, really comes alive.  Marshall Hall thrives in this combative environment, becoming remorseless and implacable. An excellent example of this is the grilling he gives the murdered man’s son, Henry Stephens (Michael Melia).  Hyde excels whenever Marshall Hall is in cross-examining mode.

Despite the series title, not every case was a battle to save unfortunates from the gallows – for example, Noblesse Oblige finds Marshall Hall involved in a libel case. Lady Scott (Siân Phillips) alleged that her son-in-law’s marriage to her daughter foundered due to his homosexual tendencies. After a period of illness, Marshall Hall is desperate for any case to restore his fortunes, although this one is something of a comedown (and he’s not even the leading barrister).

Phillips is as good as you’d expect and the appearance of John Bird as Mr Justice Hawkins is another treat.  This episode also introduces Leslee Udwin as Henriette Kroeger, who will shortly become Mrs Marshall Hall. John Leeson, sporting an impressive false beard, pops up as a private detective.

Shadow of the Noose
Leslee Udwin

Gone for a Soldier opens with Marshall Hall’s marriage to Henriette. This was either a whirlwind romance or a great deal of their courtship took place off screen (the latter I assume). David Rintoul guests as Captain James Fairbrother, a rich and privileged military man who had a brief but disastrous relationship with his wife’s maid, Annie Dyer (Natalie Forbes). Annie’s child, born out of wedlock, is found smothered, with Annie apparently confessing to the crime. Marshall Hall springs to her defence.

It’s a strong episode in which Forbes is compelling as an unmarried mother struggling to survive in a harsh world.  Particularly affecting is the short scene down in the cells mid-trial, where Annie cradles a bundle of rags, pretending that it’s her dead child.  The case also shines a light on Marshall Hall’s character, especially his tragic first marriage.

Another first rate guest cast – Caroline Quentin, Gawn Grainger, Tony Doyle, Morris Perry, Derek Newark – are assembled for Beside the Seaside.  This week, Marshall Hall is called upon to defend Herbert Bennett (Vincent Riotta) who is accused of killing his wife Mary (Quentin).  He’s a womanizer, a conman and a spy, but is he guilty of murder?

The opening few minutes of Gun in Hand are played at an extreme pitch of melodrama, not previously seen in the series.  Edward Lawrence (David Bradley) and his mistress, Ruth Hadley (Nicola Duffett), are engaged in a violent argument.  As Ruth taunts and attacks him (a wonderfully blowsy performance by Duffett), Lawrence rushes off to find a gun, whilst the poor downtrodden maid cowers in the corridor.  A few minutes later several shots are fired and we see Lawrence cradling the dying woman in his arms.

Lawrence, a big wheel in Wolverhampton, has many influential friends – including the Mayor – so he can call upon the best, such as Marshall Hall.  Bradley has several stand-out scenes, especially before the trial where Lawrence is briefly reunited with his wife (devotees of Survivors will  be pleased to see Julie Neubert as Mrs Lawrence).  This episode has a generous amount of courtroom action, featuring Marshall Hall in full theatrical flight.  It’s easy to see why John Mortimer admired him so, and it’s clear that he borrowed certain character traits for his most famous creation, Horace Rumpole.  Both loved to bait judges and Marshall Hall’s final speech to the jury here is pure Rumpole ….

Turn Again offers a change of pace, as Marshall Hall becomes the centre of the story.  After winning a libel case for an actress against the Daily Mail, he finds himself targeted by the paper.  He declared that his client’s reputation deserved the same degree of consideration as any lady in the land, including that of Mrs Alfred Harmsworth (the wife of the Daily Mail’s proprietor).

Shadow of the Noose
David Schofield

Alfred Harmsworth (David Schofield) doesn’t take kindly to this and vows to break Marshall Hall.  Another excellent cast (Alan McNaughton, Kevin Stoney, Philip Franks, David Neal, amongst others) enhance an absorbing episode which raises some interesting points about the power of the press (which are as relevant today as they were then).  Because Marshall Hall refuses to apologise to Harmsworth he has to sit and watch the entire press pack wage an intensive vendetta against him. Hyde really hits a peak here as an embattled Marshall Hall finds himself under extreme pressure.

Next up is one of his most famous cases, The Camden Town Murder.  Peter Capaldi plays Robert Wood, tried for the murder of a prostitute called Emily Dimmock.

The opening drags a little, probably because Wood is not a terribly likeable or sympathetic character, but once Marshall Hall gets involved the pace picks up. The trial – with a typically barnstorming performance from Marshall Hall – is a memorable one (the noise from the public gallery helps to ramp up the tension) whilst the legendary David Graham, as Mr Justice Grantham, is the latest familiar face to sit in judgement.

The series concluded with Sentence of Death.  Marshall Hall’s latest client is one of the most infamous murderers of the early twentieth century – Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen (David Hatton).

Hatton makes an impression, with limited screentime, as the diffident Crippen, whilst Marshall Hall’s recreation of the night of Mrs Crippen’s death is easily the standout moment.  But there are a few problems with the episode – firstly, most people will be well aware of Crippen’s fate and secondly, Marshall Hall’s involvement with Crippen turns out to be fairly negligible (uniquely, this is the only episode which doesn’t feature a setpiece courtroom scene).   Having said that, it still poses some interesting questions – had Crippen accepted Marshall Hall’s instructions, would he have hung?  It’s more than likely that Crippen may have ended up guilty of manslaughter only and therefore would have served a relatively short prison term.

By the late eighties, although an increasing amount of drama was being shot on film, videotape was still also widely in use.  Shadow of the Noose was shot entirely on VT, although the production was far from straightforward. An asbestos scare at BBC Television Centre meant that the studios were put out of action and the series was forced to relocate to a warehouse in Bristol. But not shooting in a dedicated studio certainly gave Shadow of the Noose a different feel – for example, the lighting feels more natural. The move may have been bourne out of necessity, but it ended up working in the series’ favour.

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.  And although we see his first marriage in flashback and are present for his second, Marshall Hall’s off-duty life isn’t really touched upon.

These small niggles apart, 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.  A wonderful series which I’m delighted to finally see released on DVD.

Shadow of the Noose is released by Simply Media on the 20th of February 2017.  RRP £24.99.

Shadow of the Noose
Terry Taplin, Jonathan Hyde and Michael Feast
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