Lost – The Misleading Cases
Alan Patrick Herbert once highlighted the complexity of the British licensing laws by accusing the House of Commons of selling liquor without a licence. He also wrote the lyrics to popular songs and shows, including the hugely successful ‘Bless The Bride’, with its earworm song ‘Ma Belle Marguerite’ now rattling around in my head as I write this.
An interest in the absurdities of the legal system caused Herbert to write the ‘Misleading Cases’ as a series of articles for Punch magazine, six volumes that operate on a wonderfully simple premise; a judge, Mr Justice Swallow, and a defendant, one Albert Haddock, square off against each another in a series of skirmishes designed to test the limits and limitations of the law.
Haddock is a tireless everyman who would stretch the patience of a saint; in ‘The Negotiable Cow’ he makes out a cheque on a cow and leads it to the office of the Collector of Taxes. ‘Was the cow crossed?’ No, your Worship, it was an open cow.’ The question is, did he break the law? Haddock also writes a cheque on an egg and puts a payment in a bottle, which he floats up the Thames. Haddock rows the wrong way up a flooded street, and is arrested. Haddock has his wineglass pinched by a waiter, and sues for damages. Haddock argues his way out of a charge of obstruction by referring to an obscure point in the Magna Carta. The cases were fictional, but were sometimes reported in the press as fact.
Along the way, big issues were aired and serious political points were scored. How is free speech defined? What is the meaning of education? What exactly are politicians supposed to do? Do police officers provoke decent citizens? How much freedom do we really have? Herbert’s tone is light, but the questions give one pause to think.
‘Misleading Cases’ aired as a superb television series that ran for three seasons in the 1960s, with a Who’s Who of British acting talent, starring Roy Dotrice as Haddock and the wonderful Alistair Sim as the exhausted, eternally patient judge. Swallow is exasperated but clearly an admirer of Haddock’s thorough knowledge of his rights. The BBC disgracefully allowed the entire set of shows to be wiped. The tiny clip below is all that survives.
This piece will appear in a longer version in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, coming from Quercus next year.