3 Clear Sundays (1965, UK)
Throughout this quintessentially English television play my mind kept oddly wandering back to that string of South Korean anti-capital punishment movies - like The Executioner (2009) and Harmony (2010) - often featuring kind, reformed, elderly prisoners who present no risk to the community, but who are still destined to be executed. Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is none of those things, but more like Lee Yong-gu in Miracle in Cell No. 7 (2013); an honest, loving and devoted family man, and also a gullible simpleton, around whom this appeal to the emotions in support of the abolition of capital punishment is wrapped after he too is sentenced to death.
Danny comes from a family of dedicated petty criminals, fiercely led by his mother Britannia (the wonderful Rita Webb). It’s a wonder that Danny, a barrow boy, has reached 25 without being in trouble with the law; even so, his mother is disgusted at his first spot of bother and his six month sentence as it results from assaulting a policeman (the Lees are thieves, not perpetrators of violence), and worse still, he pleads guilty.
He makes an inauspicious start to life in HM Prison Pentonville. He is desperate to receive a special visit from his girl, Rosa (Finuala O’Shannon), who is pregnant, but the Governor tells him he must wait the standard 30 days; Danny abuses him and cops three days in the punishment cells.
His new cellmates, crime boss Johnny May (George Sewell) and ‘Robbo’ Robertson (Ken Jones), quickly realise that his naivety (and eagerness to please) might be useful to them. They seduce him with stories of easy money and life on Johnny’s luxury yacht, and convince him that if he assaults a certain Prison Officer (who is in on the deal) he’ll only get another six months, of which he will be out in four, and they will get reductions in their sentences for going to the officer’s aid. The Prison Officer gets his money, Danny will pocket £2,000 himself (of which Rosa will get a £500 advance), and soon they’ll all be released and flying to Nice and then sailing around the Mediterranean. Danny is swept away by it all and agrees.
It all goes to plan… except that the officer dies from the whack on his head (but ironically not without somehow first attesting that Johnny and Robbo saved his life). They get their special remissions, while at his trial Danny readily admits that he hit the officer, but insists that he didn’t mean to kill him. The judge instructs the jury on malice of forethought and, despite Brittania’s brazen approach to one of the jurors, Danny - a man of dull intellect but with a good heart and led horribly astray - is promptly convicted and sentenced to death. One of the other men in the condemned cells, a murderer of prostitutes, is clearly bonkers. It’s people like these that the death penalty seeks to have put to death, we are warned.
Whether this film held any real sway in garnering support for the abolitionist campaign is not clear. The death penalty had been temporarily banned in murder cases in Britain in 1965, and that law became permanent in 1969… but it was not until 1998 that it was abolished for all offences. The last execution had occurred in 1964, before this film aired on TV.
The screenplay carries some impressive credentials; it was penned by James O’Connor, who was convicted of murdering a man during a robbery in April 1941, tried the following year and sentenced to hang. After eight weeks in a condemned cell in Pentonville awaiting execution, he was reprieved just two days before he was due to go to the gallows, on his 24th birthday, in 1942. He served 11 years for the murder, of which it seems he was probably innocent, and later wrote a series of screenplays for TV in the 1960s and 70s.
His ease with the criminal patois and the workings of the prison is evident throughout; from the perfunctory manner in which Governor’s requests are dealt with, to Johnny and Robbo’s patter that draws Danny into their plan, to the Lee family matriarch, Britannia, ruthlessly (and a bit comically) ruling her world, to the Prison Officers’ corruption on one hand and extraordinary compassion towards those in the condemned cells on the other.
And then there’s Danny; cast adrift. He is lost as a person to all except Rosa and her unborn child; the hangmen can’t afford to think of him as such, his mother is too bound up in making dodgy money and her three other boys to be there for him, the padre who hears his confession seems more interested in rites and rituals than the person, and Johnny and Robbo of course can’t save him without implicating themselves. We are asked to be in his corner.
The film is obviously dated, but remains highly entertaining… there are even folk songs interspersed with the action, just in case you were getting bored with the drama or thought that you had tuned in to Top of the Pops. It seems to me a better portrait of a dysfunctional criminal family and two experienced rogues taking advantage of a prison novice than a persuasive argument against the death penalty, but it’s well worth a look on all counts.
I managed to track down an old print of this, but you will find a better one on YouTube.
Posted on April 16th, 2017 at 11:14 pm. Updated on April 18th, 2017 at 8:36 pm.
#78 in the Top 500