CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

CONSIDER YOUR VERDICT


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CONSIDER YOUR VERDICT
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Despite the arrival of television in Melbourne and Sydney in 1956, radio was still immensely popular throughout the nation, and was the primary showcase for Australian drama productions. Hector Crawford Productions had become the leading radio drama packager since the company was created in 1945, and their output also encompassed music, documentaries and comedies.

Many of the Crawford programmes were broadcast on Melbourne's 3DB, owned by the Herald And Weekly Times (who also owned HSV-7), and it was for 3DB that the company produced the radio series Consider Your Verdict in 1958.

The basic concept of the series was simple: dramatic courtroom trials presented in a serial format. Consider Your Verdict, however, had one significant difference. Instead of being given complete scripts, actors were given a brief outline of their character's role in the episode, and were told to 'ad-lib' their responses to the questions asked by the 'lawyers'. This approach lent the programme a convincing quality - rather than slick, rehearsed answers, actors gave hesitating, often nervous and stumbling responses. This gave listeners the impression that they were hearing the broadcast of an actual trial, rather than a radio programme.

The first episode was broadcast on August 18th, 1958. Each 'case' ran for 4 to 8 half-hour episodes, Monday to Thursday of each week, with a one-hour 're-cap' each Sunday. The series was quite successful and ran until 1960, 312 episodes being broadcast.

Soon after, Crawford Productions adapted Consider Your Verdict to television for HSV-7. The concept remained the same, as did the emphasis on authenticity. The first episode 'Queen Versus Marsden - Part One' aired on February 17th, 1961, with part two screening the following week. The two-part episodes continued until ep. 14, after which each case was presented in a single episode.

Most of the episodes were titled 'Queen Versus (name of accused)', which is in accordance with nomenclature used in actual court cases. The majority of the episodes dramatised murder trials, although other offences were not uncommon. Occasionally a civil case would be presented with the episode title amended accordingly, e.g. ep. 19 'Reardon Versus Smithers'.

Each script was written by one of Crawford’s staff writers, and then edited for dramatic impact. To this end a small team of experienced law advisers were retained to ensure that all plot developments were legally feasible. Co-operation was extended to Crawfords from the Crown Law Department, the Victoria Police and the Melbourne University Department Of Law.

The series had no regular cast, with the exception of the 'court reporter', who introduced each case and provided a narrating link for the segments. Roland Strong and Laidley Mort both portrayed the reporter at different times. Various actors portrayed the prosecutor and defence counsels, with Terry Norris, Roland Strong, George Fairfax, Wynn Roberts, Keith Eden and Kenric Hudson appearing frequently - Hudson was occasionally seen as a judge.

Real-life barristers regularly appeared as judges, one of them being Eugene Gorman QC. He was a keen punter and an incessant smoker, and often a segment would have to be started again because a race broadcast could be heard from a radio under his bench, or a wisp of smoke would be seen from his cigarette.

Others who made regular appearances were Eric Miller and Gordon Timmins, who portrayed detectives. Timmins was in fact a real-life homicide detective, who later joined Crawfords as a technical adviser on police matters. He then played a semi-regular support role as Det. Doug Marshall in Homicide, and, in an unusual move, a different character with the same name in Hunter.

All these actors were given quite extensive scripts; however, as with the radio production, the actors playing witnesses were given only basic rundowns on the role, and all responses were ad-libbed. This technique was known as ‘prepared ad lib treatment’.

An actor’s brief consisted of:

  • a thumbnail drawing of each character,

  • a background and story of the case,

  • a chronology of events,

  • a list of exhibits to be produced,

  • a précis of the witnesses who are referred to but do not appear in court,

  • the opening addresses for both Prosecution and Defence,

  • a summary of the evidence for each witness.

Each actor had to study the brief, familiarise themselves with the story and memorise the facts of their own evidence. When giving evidence in court, the actors had to do so in their own words. This kept rehearsal time at a minimum, with a consequent saving in costs, and led to some excellent and realistic performances - and sometimes to extremely poor ones! In fact, an often-told story relates how the ABC hired some of these people that Crawfords got 'off the street' and, being unaware of the methods used on Consider Your Verdict, were baffled by the dreadful performances they got from what appeared to be competent actors.

The series was set almost entirely in the courtroom, with an occasional scene in a hallway or custody room. The courtroom set was quite impressively detailed, and further authenticity was lent by the strict adherence to courtroom procedure - perhaps sometimes too strict, as what criticism there was of the series centred on how slow the episodes seemed to be. It was suggested that concentrating less on procedure and more on drama would improve the pacing, and when this was in fact done in later episodes the series gained measurably.

Consider Your Verdict was an economical production. At a time when Australian drama was prohibitively expensive, Consider Your Verdict got off the ground because it was comparatively cheap to produce. The series was produced in black and white, at first recorded on kinescope and later on videotape.

Early in the week pre-production and rehearsal occurred, with recording taking place at the HSV-7 Fitzroy tele-theatre on Saturday, where the set was assembled each week. Three hours of studio time were allotted to record each episode, which occasionally ran over time if it was raining because the roof wasn’t sound-proofed. Sometimes when it rained a note was held up to the Judge, who would then say, "Excuse me Witness, would you please speak up? - The rain on the roof, you know!", and recording continued.

The series was the epitome of early television - radio with pictures - and in fact many Consider Your Verdict episodes could stand alone as a soundtrack only.

A myriad of well-known actors had guest roles in the series, among them: Terence Donovan, Annette Andre, Judith Arthy, Nigel Lovell, Brian James, Anne Haddy, Liz Harris, Tommy Dysart, John Gregg and Kit Taylor. The early Homicide cast, John Fegan, Terry McDermott, Lex Mitchell and Leonard Teale all appeared in different episodes. In fact, in ep. 139 'Queen Versus Benson', Terry McDermott played Det. Sgt. Bronson, the character he later portrayed in Homicide. Famed Aboriginal opera singer Harold Blair received much acclaim for his performance as a stockman accused of the attempted murder of his employer's nephew in episode 81, 'Queen Versus Bent'.

The jury in each episode generally consisted of members of the various service clubs and organisations, such as Jaycees, Rotary and Lions. Their acting fee was donated to a charity of their choice.

Producer of the series was Ian Crawford. Writers, assistant producers, directors, script editors, etc., varied with the individual episodes, and included such Crawford stalwarts as Ian Jones, David Lee, Dorothy Crawford, Phil Freedman, Sonia Borg and Terry Stapleton.

For the first 18 months of the series there were no on-air credits for cast or crew. Albert Moran, in his book Moran’s Guide To Australian TV Series,1 asserts that this was done to create the illusion that viewers were watching the proceedings of an actual trial. This is incorrect. Each episode closed with an on screen message clearly stating ‘In this programme you see simulated courtroom trials’ (emphasis added). The actual reason is that HSV-7 management were alleged to be opposed to the 'star system' and simply did not put credits on their programmes. A check of other HSV-7 productions of the time confirms this, and full credits were included on later episodes only after Actors Equity had intervened. Interestingly, interstate artists were referred to as 'witnesses' when acknowledging hotel accommodation and air travel on the closing credit voice over.

As the series progressed, Hector Crawford talked Channel 7 into paying for an extra half-hour of studio time, and a brief opening teaser relating to the case on trial was added. These made use of a variety of different sets and lighting effects, and served to gain the viewer's attention, adding interest to the episodes. Some of these segments were recorded ‘live’ in the Fitzroy tele-theatre; others were recorded externally on film, and then later transferred to video. In particular, Ian Jones, David Lee and Ian Crawford were experimenting with film, practicing their craft, trying to make it look better and more interesting, and developing skills that proved very useful later when Homicide went into production.

Consider Your Verdict was reasonably successful, and, as well as having the distinction of being the first Australian produced one-hour drama series, it won a Logie award in 1961 for Best Australian Drama Series (an almost inevitable outcome considering the lack of local drama production at the time). Consider Your Verdict also notched up an overseas sale: 26 episodes were sold to New Zealand in 1961.

Consider Your Verdict ceased production in 1963, after 163 episodes had been made. About the same time, Crawfords produced the pilot episode of Homicide. It is interesting to note that the early Homicide episodes finalised their cases with courtroom scenes, an obvious carry-over from Consider Your Verdict. The series provided a valuable training ground, as many of the Consider Your Verdict crew later worked on Homicide which, in turn, established a solid foundation for Australian drama production.

Consider Your Verdict was repeated many times in all sorts of timeslots, the initial 1962 repeat run causing conflict with Actors Equity over the issue of residuals. By today’s standards the series looks very primitive, and some episodes are slow to the point of boredom – which could explain why it has not been screened since the introduction of colour transmission.

CONSIDER YOUR VERDICT
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1. Albert Moran, Moran’s Guide To Australian TV Series, (Australian Film Television & Radio School 1993), p. 126. The errors in this work are numerous.



Filming Consider Your Verdict in the Fitzroy tele-theatre.


Giving evidence in the witness box.


A book cynically captioned this photo as an 'action scene'.


The opening title (left) and the later closing title (right).


George Fairfax appeared regularly as one of the Crown prosecutors.
(Thanks to Jennifer Birch for the photo)


Assembling the set in the Fitzroy tele-theatre.


Roland Strong as the court reporter.


Above and below: More views of filming in the Fitzroy tele-theatre.