A “dock brief” is a privilege granted in certain circumstances in the High Court, enabling an accused person to choose his own defence counsel from among barristers present who are not employed on other cases.
Because he can’t afford a lawyer, a dock brief is granted to mild little Mr Fowle (Richard Attenborough), a seed merchant and bird fancier who is on remand, accused of murdering his wife.
The brief is given to an incompetent barrister called Morgenhall (Peter Sellers) who has waited for nearly 40 years for a chance like this, and he is determined to make this case the turning point of his career and have the prisoner found not guilty.
Visiting Fowle in his cell, Morgenhall is not helped by the man’s willingness to admit guilt. Together they discuss events leading up to Fowle’s arrest and a picture of his crime emerges.
Fowle killed his wife, Doris (Beryl Reid) because of her long, loud laughter; it was her constant insistence on fun that got him down.
She roared at jokes in the newspaper and trotted out Christmas cracker jokes in August.
Another source of mirth was the ever-playing radio, which made Fowle thankful they didn’t have a telly!
When she took in a lodger (David Lodge) with a similar capacity for giggles and guffaws, it seemed as though fortune was smiling on Fowle and that the lodger might whisk Mrs Fowle away from her drab surroundings.
But when he made improper advances, Mrs Fowle sent him packing, only to be despatched herself (in the lethal sense) by poor little Mr Fowle who couldn’t bear the thought of her continued cackling.
Morgenhall is so anxious to gain Fowle’s acquittal that he tells the prisoner the defence tactics he intends to employ in court. His enthusiasm so affects his client that together they begin to enact the trial as they imagine it might proceed.
Placing a towel over his head, Fowle pretends to be the judge, and it is the ignorant Fowle who spots serious flaws in the expert Morgenhall’s ideas for defending him.
As they are called to the real trial, Morgenhall assures his client he will win the case with a burst of oratory that will shake the jury and sway the judge.
The outcome of the trial is not what Morgenhall hopes for, and there are repercussions that hold surprises for both the accused and his defender.
It’s largely a two-man show, although the two leading actors play a number of characters with Sellers taking on three parts and Attenborough six in an acting tour de force. An unorthodox flashback technique is used so when Mr Fowle relives past events, for example, he simply walks from his cell straight into his home (on an adjoining set).
Released in some markets as Trial and Error.
Mr Herbert Fowle
Clerk of the Court