Wed 20 Jul 2016
by Michael Shonk
COURT MARTIAL. ABC; April 8 – September 2, 1966. Roncom Films,inc / ITC Presentation / MCA TV / Universal TV. Cast: Bradford Dillman as Captain David Young, Peter Graves as Major Frank Whittaker, Kenneth J. Warren as Sgt. John MacCaskey, and Angela Brown as Sgt. Yolanda Perkins or Diane Clare as Sgt. Wendy. Produced by Bill Hill or Robert Douglas.
By the sixties. television drama was developing a social conscience. Lawyers were among the leaders of this type of drama with series such as THE DEFENDERS, BOLD ONES, and JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE often featuring cases that focused on the issues of the day.
COURT MARTIAL followed that path and occasionally found great dramatic success. The series featured the activity of a small unit of the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAG).
The star was Bradford Dillman as Captain David Young, a dedicated lawyer whose emotions and desire to find the truth often drove him beyond the call of duty. He was also a typical philandering bachelor of the era. Dillman at times overplayed the role as a womanizer, where in some serious scenes while he was questioning women Young was more interested in flirting than listening. Yet Captain Young was the conscience of the series.
Co-starring was Peter Graves as Major Frank Whittaker, the officer in charge of the unit, and the one who chose the cases Young worked on. Graves was able to make Whittaker likable despite the Major’s loyalty to rules over compassion. He often argued with Young over methods but was flexible enough to let Young follow his passion. Whittaker at times took on a case himself even if it meant he was on the opposite side of Captain Young.
Captain Young described the Major best when commenting, “Isn’t it nice to meet a man who not only has principles but lives by them.”
The staff consisted of two Sergeants. One was staff aide Sgt John MacCaskey played by Kenneth J. Warren. His basic purpose was to either lighten up the episode or give another character someone to talk to.
Finally there was the staff secretary. The series had two. First was Angela Browne as Sgt Yolanda Perkins. Next was Sgt. Wendy, played by Diane Clare. Both actresses were blonde and nearly interchangeable. Both were successful popular British actors. There was no explanation as to why the character Wendy suddenly replaced Yolanda. From the ten episodes I have seen the only difference between the two was Yolanda was more romantically interested in Captain Young than Wendy was.
COURT MARTIAL began as a two-part episode on KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE. “The Case Against Paul Ryker” (October 10th and 17th, 1963) starred Lee Marvin, Dillman and Graves. The two-part episode would later be re-edited into a movie called SERGEANT RYKER and released to theatres in 1968. The action took place in the Korean War.
In 1966 British TV network/syndicator ITC with Roncom Production decided to do a weekly series based on the episode with both Dillman and Graves returning. Not surprisingly the action shifted to WWII, a war more familiar to the British viewers that watched the series on the ATV network.
COURT MARTIAL became part of the late 60s British invasion to American network TV when ABC added THE AVENGERS and COURT MARTIAL to its line-up. ABC wanted to replace reruns with more original programs. COURT MARTIAL would take over for THE JIMMY DEAN SHOW.
Other British series on American TV at the time were THE BARON on ABC and SECRET AGENT (DANGER MAN) on CBS. THE SAINT was scheduled to follow in the fall on NBC. (“Broadcasting” January 31, 1966).
COURT MARTIAL focused on the tragedies of war, avoiding the pat expected happy endings common on much of American TV. Our heroes often lost their cases and the endings could make you wonder if justice had been served. It lasted only one season with 26 episodes filmed of which only 20 were shown in America (ten episodes are currently on YouTube).
The series was more appreciated in England, airing all 26 episodes and winning the British Society of Film and Television (BAFTA) award for Best Dramatic Series.
Production values were cheap. Location shooting was rare with much of the series shot at the Pinewood studio lot. There were too many British actors with bad American accents. Yet the realistic drama and depth of the characters and story more than made up for COURT MARTIAL flaws.
“Judge Him Gently.” June 3, 1966. Written by Gerry Day. Directed by Harvey Hart. Produced by Bill Hill. Supporting Cast: Diane Clare as Sgt. Wendy. Guest Cast: Joan Hackett, Fred Sadoff and Henry Gilbert. *** A badly wounded soldier who faced a life of constant pain and suffering dies after receiving an overdose of morphine. Captain Young is assigned to prosecute a hospital corpsman that had been drunk at the time.
After Young wins his case against the corpsman the Nurse in charge confesses she administered the fatal dose when the patient begged her to end his life. No one but Young wants to defend her and the act of euthanasia.
One of the best episodes of the series. Brilliantly written by Gerry Day, perhaps the best TV script she ever wrote in her successful fifty-year career. She was able to show the effects of war from the perspective of a female nurse. Joan Hackett was outstanding playing the tense emotionally broken nurse, adding an intensity and tragedy to the all ready powerful story.
The episode rejected melodrama for realism. It took on the issue of euthanasia as well as the cruelness of war with sensitivity and compassion. It rejected emotional scenes for scenes that showed the motives of all and the pain each dealt with inside. And most important it rejected judgmental easy answers.
“Taps for the Sergeant.” April 15, 1966. Written by Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by Peter Maxwell. Produced by Bill Hill – Supporting Cast: Diane Clare as Sgt Wendy. Guest Cast: Lee Montague, Moira Redmond, and George Roubicek. *** France, August 1944. Major Whittaker takes on the defense of a Sergeant who had fought with the French Foreign Legion and the French Underground before he joined the American Army. The Sergeant had disobeyed an order, an order that cost 12 men their lives.
The story of the Sergeant was dramatic enough but it also presented an effective look at the depth of Major Frank Whittaker. The ending is a good example of the series attempt at showing the darkness of war and the uncompromising world of the military.
“Without a Spear or Sword.” June 24, 1966. Written by Mark Rogers. Directed by Peter Maxwell. Produced by Bill Hill. Supporting Cast: Angela Brown as Sgt Yolanda Perkins. Guest Cast: Dennis Hopper. Susan Hampshire and Francis De Wolff.*** Hopper plays a lonely loser, Cpl. Winston that gets caught with a stolen art piece. The piece was part of a private collection that was robbed before it scheduled move to a museum.
The episode explored the emotional side of Young from his seducing the beautiful woman who worked at the museum to his caring concern for the Corporal. Where Major Whittaker was more disciplined, Young found it difficult not to get personally involved.
COURT MARTIAL was a humorless, depressing quality drama that had little chance in its time slot of Friday at 10pm and opposite then hit series NBC’s MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. This mix of COMBAT! and THE DEFENDERS deserves to be better remembered but instead joins the too many other forgotten attempts at quality dramas of the era such as SLATTERY’S PEOPLE and THE NURSES.