Lost – The Misleading Cases

The Arts


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.

5 comments on “Lost – The Misleading Cases”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    I remember the “crossed cow”. I’m not sure how we saw some of those but once seen never forgotten. That one stuck because I remembered learning about crossed cheques in high school, although we don’t do that here any more.

  2. Roger says:

    “The BBC disgracefully allowed the entire set of shows to be wiped. ”

    Just to console you, it seems that every Trooping the Colour that could be recorded has been saved.

    I can still recall, after many years of self- and other-inflicted brain damage, the lugubrious glee with which Alastair Sim intoned “Ah. Mr. Haddock…” as Dotrice bounced into view.

  3. admin says:

    I’ve never even been to Trooping the Colour and I live just up the road! They kept every Shakespeare production too, even the really crap ones.

  4. davem says:

    Very amusing.

    Such a shame – would have loved to see more

  5. snowy says:

    There are some audio only recordings of other episodes on YouTube, I listened to one yesterday.

    I did wonder if it could be remade and that lead inevitably into musing about who one would cast? I did sort of settle on Richard Wilson for the Sim role, but it might be more fun to switch gender and put somebody like Stephanie Cole or Shelia Hancock on the Bench.

    Finding a ‘Haddock’ is a bit of a struggle, all my first choices seem to be unfailingly dead. [I discounted David Jason as he is semi retired it seems], Ron Cook might do but he is a bit too young and ‘vital’. Tim West?

    Perhaps play up the no-nonsense North vs. effete South? Then Paul Copley would be a good choice. Just the right mix of affable and unbending grit.

    Enough noodling…

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