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Crown Court - 'Marathon' (1975)

Crown Court - 'Marathon'

'Marathon' is a specially extended episode in the long-running drama series Crown Court, which is a Granada Television production. The episode was first broadcast on Saturday 9 August 1975 (ITV, 8:15-9:30pm).

On this page ZoŽ is pictured as Joan in several screen captures from the programme.


Broadcast from 1972 to 1984, Crown Court is televisionís longest-running courtroom drama series. The relatively early episode entitled 'Marathon', in which ZoŽ plays a timid witness at a manslaughter trial, exemplifies the series's commitment to replicating as authentically as possible for viewers the experience of watching a court case. The action unfolds entirely within the court building; the events that led to the trial are revealed through witness testimony alone (not flashbacks or similar plot devices); and the jury is composed of ordinary members of the public rather than actors playing roles.

As the BFI's guide to British TV history, Screenonline, explains, Crown Court is a very innovative drama. 'The twist was that though the cases were fictional, the jurors were real people', who delivered their own verdicts. Screenonline adds that the combination of scripted action and an element of spontaneity gives the series 'a hybrid format that feels strangely contemporary in the modern age of ''reality TV'' and observational documentaries'.

Another innovation apparent in 'Marathon' is the episode's extended length. Normally, each case presented by Crown Court would be broadcast in three short instalments during weekday afternoons. By contrast, the trial depicted in 'Marathon' unfolds in a single, intense, feature-length episode, which was originally shown to a primetime audience on a Saturday evening. Hundreds of episodes of Crown Court were produced, but only a small number of them, all shown during the summer of 1975, share this format. The likelihood is that 'Marathon' reached a larger audience this way than it would have done had it been broadcast during the daytime.

'Marathon' begins, like other episodes of the drama, with the Court Reporter outlining the background to the case: 'At 10:15, on the night of April 28, 18-year-old Benjamin Merton committed suicide by jumping off a footbridge at Fulchester South station in front of a goods train. He'd spent the previous weekend at a 48-hour ''marathon encounter group''.' The reporter then summarises the charges brought against the accused: 'Prosecution allege that the boy was a latent psychotic; that Michael Lucas, the clinical psychologist who led the group, was grossly negligent in exposing him to this intensive experience; and that this mistreatment was the direct cause of Benjamin's subsequent suicide. Lucas is on trial for manslaughter.'

Following this brief introduction to the case, the trial begins. Among the witnesses are two of Benjamin's fellow participants in the marathon, which took place at Michael's secluded cottage. Zoe's character, young Joan Carmichael, is a witness for the defence; prim, middle-aged Ann Nicholson has been called by the prosecution and is the first witness to speak at the trial.

When prompted by the judge, and for the benefit of the individuals at court who are unfamiliar with the term, Ann describes a 'marathon' as 'a workshop for group interaction and personality development'. This kind of activity represents an 'unorthodox', experimental approach to psychiatry, she emphasises. In Ann's opinion Benjamin had a breakdown during the marathon, which left him in an 'absolutely uncontrollable state'. The teenager verbally attacked her, and when she tried to calm him down, Michael asked her not to intervene. Ann abruptly left the group soon afterwards, horrified by what she had seen.

Ann paints a vivid picture of Benjamin's wild, erratic behaviour and Michael's apparent negligence Ė but then admits to having once harboured unreciprocated romantic 'feelings' for the psychologist. The defence barrister, Adam Honeycombe, seizes on this admission as a means of casting doubt on her account of events. He suggests that personal grievances have 'strongly coloured' Ann's testimony. Can a witness who not only lacks professional psychiatric expertise but also has a complicated relationship with the defendant be regarded as a credible source of information about Benjamin's state of mind?

Benjamin's overprotective mother, Sylvia Merton, infantilised her son, nicknaming him 'Bibby'. She was the last person to see the 18-year-old alive. Like Ann, she believes that Michael's decision to allow 'highly strung' Benjamin to take part in the marathon was 'a criminal thing'. What's more, Sylvia was firmly opposed to psychiatric treatment of any kind for her son, even after he took an overdose at the age of 16, and tries to play down that suicide attempt as just a 'little pill thing'. She is in denial about the fact that Benjamin was often very unhappy.

Anxious and tense, Sylvia tells the court that the teenager 'burst into the house' like 'a stranger' the day after the marathon ended. His sweaty, unkempt appearance seems to have appalled this uptight woman just as much as his unusual behaviour. Tragically, Sylvia failed to grasp the significance of Benjamin's assertion that he had experienced a 'breakthrough', not a 'breakdown', and instead assumed that he had taken leave of his senses. She wanted to call the doctor, but he prevented her from doing so. Furious that 'Bibby' Ė usually so quiet and docile Ė was behaving oddly and daring to challenge her authority, Sylvia shook him hard and screamed at him. Her voice trembles as she admits that Benjamin ran away after this incident Ė and she was too afraid of making a scene in the street to follow him. He killed himself soon afterwards.

Sylvia's admission that she quarrelled with Benjamin on the night that he died sheds new light on the case. The defence barrister argues that her 'repressive and destructive relationship' with her son is a 'far more vital factor in the suicide than the marathon encounter group'. In this respect a phonecall that Benjamin made to his friend, Joan, shortly before he died is crucial. When Sylvia suggests that she is unable to remember what she screamed at Benjamin, the defence barrister makes clear that her son confided in Joan that his mother had revealed a family secret: Benjamin's father died in a mental hospital. Could the shock of learning the truth about his father's death have unbalanced the teenager's state of mind, sending him reeling?

Sylvia strongly disapproved of Joan's involvement with Benjamin and tries to undermine the young woman at the trial. She is adamant that Joan was 'no friend to him' and insists that her son's personal life 'was none of her business'. Sylvia believes that Joan interfered in Benjamin's affairs unnecessarily and should have kept her distance from the Mertons. Of course, with Joan due to give evidence shortly, the members of the jury will be able to decide for themselves whether she helped or hindered the troubled teenager.

The allegation that Michael failed to take proper care of Benjamin is also supported by the next witness, gruff consultant psychiatrist Professor Samuel Bonar. Samuel knew the teenager well in a professional capacity, having treated him following his overdose. He notes that Sylvia prevented Benjamin from completing the full course of treatment and seemed blind to its benefits, whereas he was convinced that the boy had been making progress. Sylvia, he reasons, was eager to avoid her son being regarded as a patient in need of psychiatric care, whatever the truth of the matter Ė perhaps as a result of what happened to his late father.

Taking Benjaminís medical history into consideration, Samuel pronounces Michael 'negligent in the extreme' for accepting the teenager's application to join the marathon. Samuel claims to have suspected that the teenager was a 'latent psychotic' Ė but the professor's position is compromised when the defence barrister forces him to admit that he failed to voice any such suspicion when contacted by the defendant. What's more, Samuel was not present at the marathon and possesses only very limited experience of this kind of exercise. By contrast, Michael has considerable expertise in this area, having successfully led marathon groups for more than 700 participants prior to Benjamin's suicide. His expertise must surely make Michael a better judge than Samuel of which candidates are suitable to take part.

Like Ann and Sylvia, the professor accuses Michael of negligence but is not aware Ė until told by the defence barrister Ė that the defendant 'carefully and affectionately calmed down' Benjamin before the marathon ended; his outburst was ultimately 'contained'. What Sylvia interpreted as madness during her last encounter with her son could in fact have been the behaviour of a teenager in very high spirits. Certainly that is the view held by the defendant, who believes that Benjamin's 'powerful emotional response' to the marathon was 'potentially very helpful'. The tension that Sylvia's son had bottled up for years was finally being released, partly as a result of a role-playing exercise during the marathon in which Michael encouraged the teenager to express his feelings about his difficult relationship with his mother. Benjamin's response to the marathon was a step forward, not a step back, the psychologist insists.

Michael passionately defends the actions he took during and immediately after the marathon. He is confident that Benjamin left him in a positive frame of mind and ensured that the boy stayed with Joan at her flat on the Sunday night, just in case he required any further support. Michael's only regrets about his handling of the teenager's behaviour are that he did not make clear to Ann that she had not witnessed a breakdown at the marathon and also that he allowed Benjamin to visit his mother unaccompanied on the Monday evening.

With so much hinging on Joan's evidence, the young woman is understandably nervous as she takes the stand to explain precisely what she witnessed at the marathon and heard during Benjamin's last phonecall. She stammers, fidgets and apologises to the judge ('terribly sorry. Iím a bit nervous'), who advises her to take her time. Is she an interfering nuisance (as Sylvia would have it) or a supportive figure in Benjamin's tragically short life (as Michael's testimony suggests)? The latter appears to be the more accurate description of Joan, who begins her testimony by quietly telling the court that she was 'the only person he really talked to at the office' in the Town Hall, where she and Benjamin worked. She remarks touchingly that she 'sort of adopted Ben'; he reminded her of her younger brother.

Joan looks particularly uncomfortable as she discusses Sylviaís 'weird' attitude towards Benjamin, while the stony-faced older woman looks on. It transpires that Sylvia was determined to limit her son's independence; he was denied a key to the front door and even forbidden from enjoying a night out at the theatre with the young woman. If Joan and Benjamin wanted to spend time together outside working hours, they were forced to do so without his mother's knowledge.

Benjamin trusted his friend sufficiently to confide in her that life with his mother made him feel very depressed. At that point Joan had suggested that he meet Michael, whose marathons and other group activities she attended and found helpful. Unlike Ann, the young woman participated in the whole of the marathon in question and saw what happened to Benjamin after he 'freaked', as she puts it. Crucially, Joan is convinced that her friend experienced something 'like a breakdown, but not a real one', and was calm soon afterwards. On Sunday evening Benjamin was 'elated', she emphasises. By contrast, when she spoke to him on the phone the next day about his motherís revelation, he was 'so upset' that she 'could hardly understand him'. The young woman made the desperate teenager promise to wait by the phone box while she 'drove straight over' to meet him, but sadly he had disappeared by the time she arrived.

ZoŽ's portrayal of Joan exemplifies the very concentrated style of performance demanded by Crown Court, as well as the high quality of acting evident in this series, which Screenonline describes as a platform for 'Many actors who would become famous'. As Crown Court avoids flashbacks and other means of illustrating the events that precede each trial, the actors playing the witnesses must bring the cases to life through their words and body language alone. As a result, subtle gestures can often be significant. Joan crosses her arms defensively, for example, when the haughty prosecution barrister, Jeremy Parsons QC, attempts to undermine her description of Benjamin's behaviour at the marathon. The gesture and use of close-ups at this point in Joan's testimony reflect the increased tension.

Joan's poignant account of events lends weight to the defence barrister's theory that the shock of learning the truth about his father led Benjamin to doubt his own sanity and ultimately commit suicide. The young woman evidently had enough faith in Michael to introduce him to her friend and has no criticisms to make about the psychologist's abilities.

The last person to take the stand is character witness Dr Harriet McCausland, who also holds Michael in high regard. Harriet has travelled to the UK all the way from the US, where she is employed by the Washington School of Psychiatry, in order to speak in support of the defendant, her former colleague. Apparently unfazed by the task of giving evidence, she confidently asserts that Michael is 'extremely talented and highly skilled'. Harriet points out that she was always impressed by his insights when they worked together to treat groups of disturbed adolescents in a clinical setting. Moreover, her experience of working with such teenagers leads her to doubt Samuel's assertion that Benjamin was a latent psychotic. She can think of no reason why the 18-year-old should not have been permitted to participate in the marathon. 'However you look at the case, he didn't do anything wrong,' she argues persuasively about Michael.

With two psychiatric experts at loggerheads, and dramatically different views of Benjamin's behaviour to consider, the judge has reservations about asking the jury to reach a verdict in the case. He suggests that the link between the marathon and Benjamin's suicide, on which the prosecution barrister has based his arguments, has been 'virtually broken' by the findings of the trial. Sylvia's ill-timed revelation appears to have had a far more traumatic effect on Benjamin than anything that occurred during the marathon.

The case against Michael collapses.


Justice Mitchenor ... John Barron
Jeremy Parsons QC ... Richard Wilson
Adam Honeycombe ... John Moffatt
Michael Lucas ... Michael Byrne
Ann Nicholson ... Hilary Hardiman
Sylvia Merton ... Gillian Raine
Prof Samuel Bonar ... James Cairncross
Joan Carmichael ... ZoŽ Wanamaker
Dr Harriet McCausland ... Marcella Markham
Clerk of Court ... Derek Hockridge
Court Usher ... Joseph Berry
Court Reporter ... Peter Wheeler


Writer: Olwen Wymark
Director: Laurence Moody
Producer: Kerry Crabbe
Designer: Knowles Bentley
Researcher: Alex Marshall


ZoŽ's character, Joan, can be glimpsed in a few clips from 'Marathon' included in a YouTube video. The video highlights the distinctive music Ė 'Distant Hills' by the Simon Park Orchestra, composed by Peter Reno Ė that accompanies Crown Court's closing titles.

Just a few years after 'Marathon' was broadcast, ZoŽ acted alongside Michael Byrne (who plays Michael Lucas) on TV again, when they appeared in historical drama series The Devil's Crown.


Unfortunately, 'Marathon' is not available on DVD or in any other format.

Some earlier episodes of Crown Court have been released on DVD by Network, and so perhaps 'Marathon' will be made available at some stage.  You might like to keep an eye on Network's forthcoming DVDs to see if that proves to be the case.

Related links

IMDb: 'Marathon' programme details

BFI: 'Marathon' programme details

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