“I should like to give the defendant one last opportunity to denounce her master, and relinquish voluntarily the powers which link her to the Prince of Darkness.”
Hear ye, hear ye! The Collinsport Imaginary Witchcraft Court is now in session, Judge Hanley and his two unnamed and non-speaking associates presiding.
Yes, it’s finally time for the trial of Victoria Winters, girl governess, who’s been in prison for the last five weeks, charged with wearing funny clothes, knowing people’s names, owning a book, and running out of the house when a guy outside was yelling something about fire. That’s a pretty chilling rap sheet.
But this is the United States of America, or however much of it there was in 1795, and an accused person has the right to a speedy trial before a jury of her peers.
Unfortunately, Vicki comes from the 1960s, which means that her peers won’t even be born for another 150 years. That would hardly be a speedy trial, so let’s just chuck her in a courtroom and hope for the best.
To kick off today’s true-to-life legal drama, we start with a quick burst of fourth-wall-breaking experimental theater. Abigail Collins stands against a black background, looks us in the eye, and tells the truth.
Abigail: Victoria Winters is a witch!
Reverend Trask: She must hang!
Abigail: Satan will try to rescue her!
Trask: He will not succeed!
It’s phenomenal. I don’t even know what to say about this opening, except that this is what happens when a network hands New York theater people a daily television show and then doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what they do with it.
But check it out, they have a new courtroom set, and three whole judges! Sure, only one of them is allowed to talk, but this is luxury. We’ve been standing around in a drafty mausoleum for weeks, with nobody to talk to but the sound effects library.
The mission statement of Dark Shadows is to put things on television that we’ve never seen before, but aside from the period setting, the courtroom was familiar territory for the 1960s TV audience.
By the late 60s, the American public was just emerging from nine seasons of Perry Mason, an utterly bonkers courtroom show where the crusading defense attorney would win every case — not by establishing reasonable doubt or any of that boring law stuff, but by identifying and exposing the actual murderer, right there in the courtroom during the trial.
Perry Mason’s technique was to get somebody up on the witness stand and pepper him with questions, until the witness finally says, “Well, the chump had it coming,” and then it’s all over. It was never a surprise who the real murderer was, because it was always the guy sitting in the chair at 9:50 pm.
And so, for nine long years, Perry untangled The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Petulant Partner, The Case of the Posthumous Painter, The Case of the Playboy Pugilist and The Case of the Prankish Professor.
I’m serious, those are all real episode titles. There were 270 episodes; these are just the Ps. Here, have some more: The Case of the Provocative Protégé, The Case of the Pathetic Patient and The Case of the Polka-Dot Pony.
But those were the pioneer days, when they established all the groundbreaking innovations of television justice — including rushing into the courtroom during the trial with new evidence, which is presented at once with no discussion, and changing the charges leveled at the defendant while they’re sitting there quietly in the courtroom.
By 1968, the rules of TV justice were so fuzzy that you’d have to work really, really hard to come up with something crazy and surprising in a courtroom scene.
Let’s see what Dark Shadows can do.
Right off the bat, we start with an interesting twist — Vicki’s defense attorney is her new boyfriend, young Peter Bradford, while the prosecuting attorney is…
Huh. The prosecutor is Reverend Trask. Okay, that’s novel.
Trask begins the trial with this opening statement: “I should like to give the defendant one last opportunity to denounce her master, and relinquish voluntarily the powers which link her to the Prince of Darkness.”
In other words: Step aside, Perry. This is justice, Dark Shadows style.
Peter rises to the bait.
Peter: Your honor, Miss Winters does not admit the possession of any such powers!
The Judge says, “Mr. Bradford is right,” which means it’s 1-0 so far. Advantage: Witch.
Trask picks up on the word “possession,” and does another little riff on the persecution of innocent souls, sending Peter up to the bench to object again.
The Judge says, “Trask, you will attempt to limit your editorializing, I trust,” so that’s 2-0 for Vicki. Things are going great so far.
Trask calls Abigail to the stand, to testify about Vicki’s strange arrival at the Old House. And look at Peter, sitting at his little desk back there! That’s adorable; he looks like a determined, crusading fifth-grader.
Abigail says that Jeremiah would be alive today if it weren’t for Vicki, so Peter gets up on his hind legs.
Peter: I object to this, your honor!
Trask: Do you, sir? Well, no more than this noble family objects to the loss of one of its most illustrious members.
A little shouting match erupts, and the Judge intervenes, reminding Trask that the connection between Vicki’s arrival and Jeremiah’s death has not been established.
So there. The trial’s hardly started, and already it’s 3-0. This is gonna be easy.
Abigail talks about Phyllis Wick, the governess that the family was expecting, but who never showed up. “Obviously,” she says, “some evil force would not permit her to come.”
Peter gets up and walks over to the witness, shouting in her face. “It may be obvious to you that some ‘evil force’ did not permit Miss Wick’s arrival,” he hollers. “It also may be that, just by chance, somewhere between Boston and here, she changed her mind.”
Abigail insists, “The stage overturned, and she is missing to this very day!”
Peter snaps, “Did you try to find her?” and for a second, it looks like these two are about to throw down. Then the Judge smacks Peter on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and tells him to take a seat; he’ll have an opportunity to cross-examine the witness later. That makes it 3-1.
Trask asks Abigail to describe the strange clothes that Vicki was wearing when she first arrived at the Old House. It’s been 45 seconds since Peter’s last interruption, so he blurts out, “There is an explanation for Miss Winters’ clothes, your honor!”
The Judge smacks him down again. 3-2. We’re losing ground.
On the next serve, Peter gets all the way through 30 seconds before rising to his feet to object again. It’s the same issue as before, implying a connection between Vicki’s arrival and all of the terrible things that happened immediately following Vicki’s arrival.
The Judge agrees with this objection, which brings us to 4-2 at halftime.
Obviously, while all of this is going on, the two non-speaking judges are sitting at the bench, making perplexed facial expressions. This goes quite a ways toward establishing the appropriate emotional subtext for the scene.
Especially this judge. I suppose it goes without saying that this is my all-time favorite television judge. This is Tom Gorman, who we’ll see later this year as Mr. Prescott in one of the most peculiar seduction scenes of all time. Seriously. He’s great in it.
Next, Trask asks the witness about the week when her brother Joshua turned into a cat. Abigail describes the whole thing, from the transformation through to the day when she saw the cat turn back into her brother in a puff of smoke.
This story is the only thing in the entire scene that Peter doesn’t interrupt or object to. Apparently, evidence pertaining to cat-transmogrification is just the ordinary bread-and-butter of the American legal system. There’s no point in asserting yourself here; you just wait until it’s over.
The trial moves on.
Trask: Will you testify as to the exorcism of the Old House at Collinwood?
Abigail: Gladly. I was convinced that Barnabas was under the spell of this witch, and that he was hiding her there, at the Old House. Finally, he agreed to let you, yourself, Reverend Trask, exorcise the Old House.
Peter leaps to his feet.
Peter: Your honor — since it was the Reverend Trask who conducted this exorcism, I would like you to — just for the moment — dismiss Miss Collins, so that I may interrogate Mr. Trask on his actions on that day.
Trask says, “I certainly have no objections, your honor,” and so the Judge agrees to this preposterous suggestion.
This may be the single weirdest thing that has ever happened in a television courtroom, not involving the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the middle of testimony, the Judge excuses the witness, and allows the defense attorney to cross-examine the prosecutor.
It’s kind of like an emergency room scene where the patient gets up off the table and takes a seat in the corner, so the anesthetist can poke around inside the surgeon for a while.
This is breaking new ground in television justice. This is what Dark Shadows is for.
Naturally, the whole scene instantly careens out of control.
Trask: I drew a circle upon the ground, and within it, inscribed the initials of the witch — Victoria Winters!
Peter: She is NOT a witch! That’s exactly what we’re in this courtroom —
Trask: I waved the burning, forked branch before the threshold — and the witch came forth from the house! The forces of evil had been conquered!
Peter: She didn’t run from that house because of your exorcism! She ran because there was a fire in her room!
Abigail: That is not true!
Vicki: Yes, it is! My room was burning!
Abigail: It was not! I was in there afterwards, and there was no sign of any fire!
Vicki: I saw the flames, and I saw the smoke!
Abigail: You saw the flames of HELL! That’s what you saw!
Judge: Order! Order! I wil have order in this court!
Vicki: NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!!!
And then there’s a sandstorm and an earthquake and there’s chickens all over the place and the courthouse burns to the ground and there are no survivors. The end.
Tomorrow: Duel It Yourself.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
A boom mic can be seen in the top left corner of the screen as Abigail is being sworn in.
Behind the Scenes
Judge Hanley is played by Leslie Barrett, who appears in five episodes. Barrett was a veteran of the early days of TV, appearing in four episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse between 1949 and 1953. His Broadway credits include The Primrose Path in 1939, and Eugène Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros in 1961. He also worked with Joseph Papp and the Shakespeare Theatre Workshop, appearing in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. He also had TV roles on The Twilight Zone, Dennis the Menace and Another World.
Barrett is the only judge who speaks, and he’s in the closing credits.
The 2nd Judge is played by Hansford Rowe, who appeared on several other daytime soaps, including The Edge of Night, Another World, and Ryan’s Hope. In the 1980s, he moved to prime-time, with appearances on Remington Steele, The Greatest American Hero, Newhart, Dallas, V, LA Law and a 1992 Perry Mason TV-movie. Rowe is now 90 years old, and as of 2013 was still appearing on television, with roles on Modern Family and Raising Hope.
The 3rd Judge (my favorite) is played by Tom Gorman, who’s played several other non-speaking roles on Dark Shadows recently, including a Blue Whale customer, a bartender, Vicki’s jailer and one of the servants who carried Barnabas’ coffin out of the Old House. We’ll see him again in more minor roles later on in 1968.
The Guard who locks Vicki’s cell in act 1 is Peter Murphy, the actor who’s played a lot of fill-in roles, including the recast Caretaker, a ghost haunting Julia, Burke lying on a bed, and the back of Barnabas’ head. We’ll see him as a jailer again in a couple weeks.
Tomorrow: Duel It Yourself.
— Danny Horn