Call The Gun Expert
BBC 1964
The Jockey Cap Case - 1927
TX : 2nd July 1964
Cast :
Robert Hewitt (Browne), Paddy Joyce (Kennedy) and David Swift (Counsel).

Synopsis : When Police Constable Gutteridge (Robert Cawdron) was found shot through the eyes in 1927, ten thousand policemen were alerted in the quest for his killers. A spent cartridge case with an odd mark on its base was the only tiny clue.

Notes : The series was broadcast between 9:25pm and 9:50pm on Thursday nights.

The Trick That Failed - 1918
TX : 9th July 1964
Cast : Terry Raven (Boy Assistant), Rita Craig (Girl Assistant) and Norman Mitchell (Manager).

Synopsis : In 1918 a music-hall audience applauded as Chung Ling Soo (Billy McComb), the famous Chinese magician, was fatally wounded performing his dangerous trick "Catching The Bullets". Was it murder, suicide, or accident? The reconstruction of the extraordinary affair in which Chung Ling Soo - "The Magician From The Temple Of Heaven, The Greatest Wizard Of The World" - was shot dead on the stage at the end of the second house at the Wood Green Empire on Saturday, March 23rd, 1918, is the basis of the series in the series of six programmes about notable cases in the career of Robert Churchill, the gun expert. The Trick That Failed has often been named, with good reason, "the wicked gun trick". Simply, it is the one in which a gun, apparently fairly loaded and aimed, is fired at the performer without harming him. There are at least a dozen recorded cases of men being killed while working variations of the act. But the very real element of danger, inseparable from the use of firearms, has not deterred generation after generation of conjurors from attempting it. They all have their own secret methods of doing the trick, and they are all convinced that they have devised an absolutely safe way of performing it. But again and again the unbelievable happens. It happened to that mysterious man Chung Ling Soo. In theatrical circles the story has persisted that Chung Ling Soo's death was the consequences of either murder or suicide. His fellow illusionists could not believe the trick, however it was done, was not foolproof. Their guess was that behind the tragedy there was a tangled love affair. Robert Churchill, in his lifetime, chose to keep the secret to himself. It will be revealed tonight.

The Green Bicycle Case - 1919
TX : 16th July 1964
Cast : Petronella Barker (Bella Wright), John Gatrell (Marshall Hall), Alan Rolfe (Uncle), Ralph Wilson (Policeman) and Clifford Cox (Farmer).

Synopsis : "The most baffling and fascinating murder mystery of the century". Tonight's programme brings together Robert Churchill, the gun expert, and the great advocate, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. The two men were friends - they shared a common interest in firearms and shooting - but it happened that in the great criminal trials in which they appeared together Churchill was always a witness for the Prosecution and Marshall Hall for the Defence. In The Green Bicycle Case, one of the most memorable puzzles of the century, Marshall Hall wanted Churchill on his side. He got permission from the Director of Public Prosecutions to call him for the defence of Ronald Light (Bob Lord), charged with the murder of a factory girl in Lancashire. Behind the scenes Marshall Hall used his golden tongue to persuade Churchill to appear on his client's behalf. Of all the programmes in this series this is the one in which, as the author, I have been most deeply concerned in reproducing the clash of character, the subtleties of behaviour, in all the people involved. Marshall Hall himself in real life was more theatrical than life. Churchill, behind a self-effacing exterior, was as stubborn as a bull terrier. The man in this case on trial for his life - he was found innocent - remained an enigma. When an author is writing fiction his problem is relatively easy; he can make his creatures do what suits him. The reproduction of real life is more difficult. What you will see tonight is an endeavour to pin to the screen the fled wings of something that emerged forty-five years ago. Because of that, the actors who are playing another generation have had a greater responsibility than just another part.

The Teenage Murderer - 1926
TX : 23rd July 1964
Cast : Nicholas Bennett (Young Merrett), Michael Rathborne (Older Merrett), Betty Bowden (Mrs Merrett), William Lyon Brown (Counsel), Brenda Dunrich (Maid), Desmond Cullum-Jones (Salesman), Margot Thomas (Nurse) and Wendy Ascott (Girl).

Synopsis : Few could believe that a boy of seventeen would deliberately shoot his own mother. The jury gave him the benefit of the doub…the teenage murderer got away with it. History has placed the blame for his acquittal squarely on the shoulders of Bernard Spilsbury (Kenneth Benda), the Home Office pathologist, and Robert Churchill, the Gun Expert. It is undeniable that the evidence of the two most formidable witnesses in the land influenced the judge and the jury. It is probably true that neither Spilsbury nor Churchill were without suspicion of the youth - Merrett - they defended in 1926. The heart of the matter was whether they thought, as they did, that it could possibly have been a case of suicide or accident. Tonight, as the notorious affair comes to life again, you can make it a test of your own conscience - imagine yourself a member of the jury of the time - to decide whether it was right for Spilsbury and Churchill to advance the best argument they could for the defence, or whether they should have refused to appear at all. To help make a cool assessment, I am unfolding the story of the nefarious career of the teenage murderer not from its beginning but from its horrific end in 1954. You will know from the start - I beg you not to miss the start - that he was certainly guilty of the murder he was accused of twenty-eight years earlier.

The Whistling Copse - 1927
TX : 30th July 1964
Cast : Steven Scott (Whistlecraft), Michael Smith (Poacher), John Falconer (Judge), John Gordon (Counsel), Peter Stockbridge (Detective), Ronald Goodale, Nicholas Evans, Anthony Blackshaw and Mark Rose (Gamekeepers).

Synopsis : At midnight in 1927 a poacher shot a gamekeeper dead. Two years later another gamekeeper was shot in identical circumstances in another part of the country. But the two tragedies had strangely different endings. The Whistling Copse was the scene of an encounter in a war which has been going on since 1066 and all that, a war declared when the conquerors, on penalty of death, reserved all the rights of venery to themselves. Poachers and gamekeepers have carried on a bitter feud with each other ever since. Again and again, as in the Whistling Copse affair, it has culminated in bloody tragedy. As a gun expert and sporting gunman, Robert Churchill was called many times to resolve what really happened in clashes in the night for the possession of jewelled pheasants roosting in the woods. When there was a fatality to explain on one side or the other, the defence was usually that the gun went off in a struggle. By exact calculation, and out of his vast knowledge of ballistics, Churchill was able to prove the truth of it. In The Whistling Copse, poacher and gamekeeper told two completely conflicting stories. Churchill's findings proved conclusively which was the true one. Then, a year later, there was another poaching case in another part of the country which was almost a carbon copy of what happened at Whistling Copse.

The Perfect Crime - 1934
TX : 6th August 1964
Cast : Enid Irvin (Mistress), Ivan Butler (Coroner), Anthony Sheppard (Surgeon), Kathleen Heath and Patrick Travis.

Synopsis : The murder of farmer James Dawson (Alan Hockey) on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire was never solved. Robert Churchill, the gun expert, worked with the police on it, but both were baffled. Undoubtedly a gun was involved although Jim Dawson, who was mortally wounded in the back as he went home to his farm, swore to his last breath that someone had thrown a stone at him. A weapon was never found but it was obvious that an unusual bullet, which made a gaping hole in his back, had been used to murder him. Macdonald Hastings has been through Churchill's notes on the case and tonight in Call The Gun Expert he puts forward his own theory on how and why the murder happened. In fact, Mac may well have found the answer to a baffling mystery.

Regular Characters
Portrayed By
Robert Churchill
Wensley Pithey
Macdonald Hastings

The series was produced and directed by Jack Gold and designed by by Roger Andrews (Part 1) and Stewart Marshall (Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6). Based on the book The Other Mister Churchill by Macdonald Hastings.

Radio Times cover promoting the series.

In virtually BBC Television's first foray into dramatized documentary productions, Call The Gun Expert portrayed six cases involving the celebrated Robert Churchill (performed by Wensley Pithey), a ballistics expert who had been called upon for almost fifty years to seek out justice through scientific means.

Macdonald Hastings selected six famous cases in which Churchill's services had been called upon, using as his basis notes bequeathed to him from Churchill himself. The series portrayed complex crimes told from the vantage point of guilty and innocent parties alike, with Churchill's involvement (or deliberate lack of involvement) serving to point the authorities in the right direction. The episodes were compact productions given the limitations of a twenty-five-minute time slot, and as such lead to an economy of scale in which Churchill's involvement in a case became the starting point for the programmes. The novelty of the second episode, The Trick That Failed, resonates throughout television (Doctor Who's The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is a prime example), as does The Whistling Copse, a scenario which has appeared in virtually all rural detective serials on BBC and ITV.

The Radio Times dated 25th June 1964 promoted the new series with an small article:
Macdonald Hastings introduces his series of six programmes about famous murder cases of the late Robert Churchill, pioneer gun detective, who will be played by Wensley Pithey. In his own field he was much a legend in his time and in his way as the Churchill whose name he shared. Robert Churchill was the pioneer of gun detectives. For fifty years, in almost every important case involving a shooting, Churchill was called to investigate. As Scotland Yard's gun expert he appeared, often in dramatic circumstances, in many of the most famous and fascinating murder cases of this century.

Call The Gun Expert is a series about six of these cases starting tonight with the sleuthing and trial of the murderers of Police Constable Gutteridge of the Essex Constabulary in 1927, perhaps the greatest of Churchill's triumphs. He was not always triumphant. In later programmes you will meet him when he was baffled; when his opinion was a matter of controversy; when he got a murderer freed; and when he refused to give evidence in the defence of a man who was found innocent. You will see him in the company of other great figures of the criminal courts of his day, men like Sir Edward Marshall Hall, the great defence advocate, and Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the pathologist.

Robert Churchill, like his illustrious contemporary, was obstinate, challenging and confident. He came from the same Dorset roots as Sir Winston; he even had something of Sir Winston's bulldog air. All the episodes are taken from real life. Events are enacted as they happened in the actual locations. The actors who are appearing are faithfully recording, often in the exact words, what was said and done at the time. Robert Churchill's part in the cases is not based on guesswork, but on his own criminal and private papers which he bequeathed to me in his will when he died in 1958 at the age of seventy-two.

My own part in the series, as narrator, involves me in two dimensions of time. I am playing myself, the contemporary reporter of the Tonight programme, as if I was present when the casebooks were unfolding all those years ago. I confess that, when I wrote this series, I wondered whether we could ever find anybody who could give a convincing performance as the real Churchill. Enough if I say that Wensley Pithey, who plays him, has sunk into the part so completely that, when Robert Churchill's widow met him, she recognized the outline of her own husband, even his mannerisms. So do I, Churchill's friend for twenty years.

The programme was extremely novel, as a gun expert has never been utilized as the central character in a drama production before or since. Wensley Pithey was highly acclaimed for capturing the spirit of Churchill, and whilst the programme was never commercially exploited, the series highlights the BBC's endless pursuit of productions with fresh and arresting concepts and content.

Text © Matthew Lee, 2003.