BBC Radio 7, 20 April 2009
This two-hander from 1957 took place in the cell of Fowle (David Kossoff),
a modest man convicted of murdering his wife. He was about to be brought to trial, defended by Morganhall (Michael Hordern).
After a long period of training, Morganhall had entered chambers, yet he lacked both the intelligence and the stamina to pursue
a successful career. He had spent most of his time sitting in the office doing crosswords; but fate now decreed that he would
act as Fowle's dock brief in his first case.
Such was the basic situation. Mortimer's play divides itself neatly into two halves -
before and after the trial. In the first half Fowle and Morganhall played a series of verbal games as they imagined what the
trial would be like: Morganhall cast himself as the hotshot counsel, charming the jury with the power of his rhetoric, while
Fowle assumed a variety of roles including the judge, the prosecuting counsel, the jury foreman, a doctor and an imaginary
witness called Martin. We also learned the circumstances of Fowle's crime, which comically inverted our expectations. Ostensibly
it seemed like the classic case of a menage a trois involving a husband, wife and a lodger; only this time Fowle
murdered his wife because she refused to run away with the lodger (and thereby ensure him a quiet life). The two
men enjoyed their verbal sparring, but uncomfortable reality kept breaking in: Fowle was incredibly guilty, and no amount
of verbal pyrotechnics - especially from an old hack like Morganhall - could persuade a jury otherwise.
This was apparently how things turned out, as the second half of The Dock Brief
began with Morganhall chastizing himself for failing to provide an adequate defence. He had become so tongue-tied that he
found himself incapable of speaking. Although prepared to indulge in more games with Fowle in the vain hope of mounting an
appeal, it was clear that his quest was futile. But Mortimer pulled a comic rabbit out of the hat, as he had Fowle reveal
that an appeal was not necessary. Apparently the judge was so disgusted by Morganhall's performance in court that he deemed
that Fowle had no case to answer. Fowle walked free from his cell whistling a happy tune, faithfully promising Morganhall
that he would call on the advocate's services once again, should the occasion arise. With this kind of 'help' to hand, why
should he worry about being convicted?
Nesta Payne's classic production pitted two actors of contrasting vocal styles
against one another: the meek and mild Kossoff against the pompous, fruity-voiced Hordern. They formed an entertaining double-act
who had great fun with Mortimer's witty lines.