16 JUNE 1979, Page 25


Richard Ingrams

Having attended two different court cases in recent days my mind has been not unnaturally drawn to the themes of Crime and Punishment. The first was Regina v. Thorpe and others which has been extensively reported elsewhere in the Spectator — ad nauseam, according to the Editor. though I myself could have done with more. The second is the slander case of Gillard v. Goldsmith which is continuing this week in Court 36 at the Law Courts, and looks as if, in the mortal words of Fergus Cashin, it will 'run and run'.

Counsel for the crown has described the story of Mr Thorpe as Shakesperian, and compared it to a Greek tragedy, but for a wide variety of reasons I find this an unsatisfactory view of the matter. Guilty or not — and at the time of writing the verdict has not been announced — it is hard to see the former leader of the Liberal party as the 20th-century equivalent of King Lear or Oedipus Rex. It would require the immense range of psychological wisdom of Christopher Booker to do justice to this theme in about two full page articles. I can only say that on a brief visit to the Old Bailey I had no sense that I was witnessing a drama on tragic dimensions. The whole show — the accused, the lawyers, the ranks of `investigative' journalists — all looked unbelievably seedy. I was happy to leave after 40 minutes.

The essentially boring nature of crime and criminals was born out by Inside Story (BBC-2). This documentary series has on a number of occasions been a distinct cut above the average. In dealing with the subject of parole on Monday, the producer Rev Bloomstein displayed four convicted criminals at Wormwood Scrubs each of whom told his story. There was of course some attempt here to drum up an 'issue' in the shape of the secrecy in which parole applications are considered. This might be a suitable topic for the third leader in the Guardian on the uneventful day but it is hardly meaty enough for two hour long documentaries. Again, the tendency of criminals to tell lies makes their testimony of doubtful value. Of the four on show only a unrepentant arsonist who started four fires in a week causing £160,000 worth of damage provided a little light relief with his suggestion that if he was a genuine arsonist he would not be allowed to buy matches in the prison canteen.

The point had been made the previous evening by Feodor Dostoevsky, the distinguished Russian novelist, that the only interesting criminal is he who confesses and repents, something which none of the Scrubs inmates was prepared to do. I was heartened to read in one of those press reports which tells you in advance what people are going to say on the television that John Hurt, the very talented actor who played Raskolnikov had not read the book in advance of essaying the role. Since I have been talking about honesty I have to say here and now that neither had I read the book when I watched the programme. The production however was so good that one could tell that it was a faithful representation of the original.

There is a tendency, I know, to overpraise something that is merely passable when the general run of things is quite atrocious and degrading. But I am prepared to give very high marks to Crime and Punishment (BBC-2). In three 80 minute instalments it was just the right length to tell the story without omitting any of the main characters. Timothy West and John Hurt were both outstanding, though the high point of the final episode was Sian Phillips as Katerina Ivanovna raging mad and tubercular, with blood streaming from her lips — luckily with my black and white set I was spared the full horror of this — teaching her little children to dance in the street for money.

I am now heavily into Dostoevsky and warn Spectator readers that I am contemplating a long Bookeresque analysis in which I shall show how he predicted in the character of Raskolnikov — 'a heart unhinged by theories' — the coming of the Russian revolutionaries; I shall demonstrate how he was a better writer of dialogue than Ibsen or Chekhov, and there may even be a second article on the religious symbolism.of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov symbolising mankind and Porfiry, the prosecution, God. On the other hand the Editor of the Spectator may decide that like the Thorpe trial this is all a bit on the boring side.