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They May Have Hung an Innocent Woman

by Tony Nash

(Profiling a Forgotten TV Gem 4)

All opinions are of the author alone)

(Major Spoilers ahead, read at own risk)

Lady Killers (1980)

Lady Killers: Don’t Let Them Kill Me on Wednesday (1980) ***** TV-14

Rita Tushingham: Charlotte Bryant

George Baker: Sir Terence O’Connor, Q.C.

John Woodnutt: Mr. Justice McKinnon

Colin George: Christopher George Arrow

Paul Arlington: Mr. J.D. Casswell

Patricia Heneghan: Ethel Staunton

Veronica Doran: Lucy Ostler

Peter Kelly Leonard Parsons

Karen Cuff: Lily Bryant

Stephen Cuff: Ernest Bryant

Hosted by Robert Morley

Written by: Jeremy Sandford

Directed by: Valerie Hanson

Synopsis: In 1935-1936, Irish Gypsy immigrant Charlotte “Lotte” Bryant was arrested and tried for the murder of her husband Frederick by poisoning. The case later became controversial when evidence was ignored that proved the deceased died through uncontrolled arsenic addiction.

Rita Tushingham in Lady Killers (1980)

Probably the most controversial case in the history of Britain, and one that left the country with an unfair blackeye concerned another Irish woman, Charlotte Bryant. Bryant had much going against her within the trial: not only was she Irish, she also had Gypsy blood, an ethnic group with a shady history, a history of repetitive infidelity and flirtations, and was completely illiterate. The prosecution did everything in its power to show Bryant as an amoral, cold-calculating murderess who intended to run off with her live-in lover after killing her husband, in spite of having children already. It became clear however, midway through the trial, that certain things just weren’t adding up. Stories were conflicting via both Bryant’s purposed lover, who was also married, and a widow friend Bryant offered shelter to, who admitted to having clashed with the dead man over her and her own children having taken up residence. Some evidence crucial to the case was outrightly dismissed and the jury was encouraged by the Justice himself to remember Bryant’s past history, though only the last few years had any real relevance to the case at hand. Soon people were beginning to wonder if an innocent woman was about to go to the gallows.

British 60s cinema - Rita Tushingham

Rita Tushingham, a British character actress known primarily for her important role in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, gives a compelling and thought-provoking performance as Charlotte Bryant. Tushingham portrayed Charlotte as a simple woman who may have indeed strayed quite a bit from her husband, but was very much a devoted mother and seemed to take religion seriously. Silent for most of the trial, Charlotte appears to be bewildered by all of what’s said about her by people she thought liked her. What makes her compelling is that she never actually denies having had several affairs and even found Parsons attractive, and tries her best to be honest with all the questions presented to her. Tushingham shows Charlotte as breaking twice during the trial: when her own son and daughter are asked questions in relation to their father’s death and when she hears the damning verdict of the jury. Tushingham shows off very well the extent of Charlotte’s illiteracy in that she has to ask several times about the questions put to her by both her attorney and the prosecution, clearly having no knowledge of how poison is supposed to work.

Charlotte Bryant | Photos | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers

Not long after Bryant’s conviction, information was given to the press about the findings of a second physician who discovered the doctor consulted by the prosecution had made a huge error in the amount of poison in Frederick Bryant’s system. This information, along with more inquiries by a local Suffragette leader discovered Frederick had become addicted to a narcotic heavily laced with ingredients used in arsenic, which also accounted for his previous attacks of illness. The presiding Justice was also openly accused of influencing the jury into accepting information that had no bearing on the case. The prosecution refused to accept the 2nd opinion to their expert’s mistake. The most damaging evidence of tampering by the courts was the omittance of the name of the person Charlotte confessed was the catalyst in her husband’s death. This led many to believe that Charlotte only looked the other way when her husband was killed, and not directly responsible for it. Opinions have varied as to whether Charlotte was a scapegoat in the government’s increasing action against the rising IRA terror group or if England’s strong elitist influences saw her as nothing more than a discardable guttersnipe.

So do YOU think these early 20th century murderers were guilty ...

Host Robert Morley, in a rare end of episode appearance, appeared to get choked up when discussing Charlotte Bryant’s final days before her execution. Whether he felt her conviction shameful and his country’s failure to uphold the law a disgrace is left up to viewer opinion in interpretation of how he speaks and his body language, but it is clear that many lost some faith in the courts after the new information became public knowledge.

The Hidden History Blog : The Life and Death of Charlotte Bryant

A case in which the conviction may have been a mistake or a deliberate act of a miscarriage of justice that will never truly be known makes for compelling drama and intriguing mystery. A rare case of where the viewer must draw his or her own conclusions.

(I found this episode very emotionally engaging, and is certainly a must watch for the series. As the episode got closer to the conclusion, I began to realize just how much was really against Charlotte Bryant, and how her unsavory past really played against her. I do believe she had knowledge her husband was killed, but wasn’t a directly involved player in the crime, and that her background as a poor Irish Catholic really had a lot to do with the court’s perception of her. The exceptional acting by everyone involved in the episode, especially star Rita Tushingham, evokes this highly and beautifully.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

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Filed under: TV: Analysis/Overview, TV: Special Topics

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