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The Parnell Commission (1939)

A true story based on a forgery case in 1888-89

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Cast

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Eliot Makeham ...
Piggott
Felix Aylmer
Mark Dignam
Wilfred Walter ...
(as Wilfrid Walter)
Brefni O'Rorke
Olga Edwardes
Graveley Edwards
Blake Giffard
Nigel Fitzgerald
Lionel Dymoke
Harry Hutchinson
Leo McCabe
Charles Oliver
Micheline Patton
Moya Devlin
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A true story based on a forgery case in 1888-89

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Drama

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18 July 1939 (UK)  »

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A Scoundrel...but the conclusion has a sad poignancy
17 September 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I have never seen this particular BBC television show (does it even exist anymore). In the late 1930s the British Broadcasting Corporation showed it was in step with technology by producing a series of dramas (some currently on the London stage) for viewing on specially licensed television sets that were usually used by wealthy people. The film was on disks (from what I heard) and for those based on current West End plays a special agreement was signed with the theater owners to destroy the disks after a few weeks used. This makes me believe that little of these items still exist.

The story here was partly used in that awful Clark Gable/Myrna Loy film PARNELL, and also was used in a series about Charles Parnell a decade or so in the past.

Parnell had been championing 1) respect for the hopes and aspirations of the Irish, and 2) a system in which the Irish would have fully equal control of their Parlaiment as the English, Welsh, and Scots had of theirs in Westminster. He formalized his idea as "Home Rule": a totally Irish Parliament in Dublin that would have it's own Prime Minister, but would coordinate it's foreign policy with Britain's. The idea was not so dismissible. Since 1867 the Austrian Empire was Austro - Hungary, with Emperor Franz Josef of Austria was also King Franz Josef of Hungary.

Home Rule got support from the Liberal Party's leader William Gladstone, although really due to the talent that Parnell had in organizing his large following into a block on Liberal policies. But once he gave his support Gladstone pushed it. Unfortunately, Gladstone's pushing was not enough, especially after a chunk of the Liberal Party called the Unionists (led by Joseph Chamberlain) broke with the Liberals, and started supporting the Tories. But the Tories had problems too with a small coterie of voters led by Lord Randolph Churchill and Arthur Balfour called "the Fourth Party". Parliament was in a state of crazy fragmentation for most of the later 1880s. But by 1887 the Tories were basically in control.

Parnell was hated for his pushiness and success. Then a letter appeared that seemed to be signed by him, that openly espoused a hideous terrorist act. In May 1882 Lord Frederick Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary of Ireland, and his assistant Thomas Burke, were slashed to death by a bunch of Irish political activists called "The Invincibles". The murderers were executed eventually, but the act of violence made anti-Irish sentiment strong. The letter that turned up suggested that Parnell supported the assassinations.

The letter (and several others) were published in the TIMES of London in a campaign called "Parnellism and Crime". Parnell insisted upon vindication, bringing a libel suit. The Tories had a Commission look into the matter in Parliament. It lasted from 1887 to 1889. For most of the period nothing seemed to be proved or disproved.

Then, in early 1889, it was announced that the man who brought the letters to the TIMES, an Irish "journalist" named Richard Pigott, was going to testify. The public was fascinated, as Pigott might unlock more of the provenance of the letters. Parnell and his lawyer, Sir George Lewis, were certain that Pigott (who dealt in pornography rather than news) forged the letters. They consulted with Parnell's barrister, Sir Charles Russell. Russell prepared masterfully.

The cross examination was carefully hidden. Russell watched while the Attorney General (Sir Richard Webster) carefully took Pigott through his regular testimony. Then he got up and asked Pigott to write some words down. Pigott was given several words and names, and one was "hesitancy". But when Russell reached that word, he asked Pigott to write the word with a small "h". Pigott did so, though he couldn't understand why. He did not realize Russell had a copy of the "Parnell" letter with a mistake - one that Pigott made when he was considering "why a small "h"?". Pigott was then questioned. At first he seemed to be doing well, and then Russell caught him on a lie that showed he was trying to sell information to help Parnell at the same time he was trying to sell the information to destroy Parnell. Pigott got hopelessly tangled with this. The day ended, and the following day, Pigott was confronted with "hesitancy". Further probing and prevarications resulted. He resembled a losing punch-drunk boxer at the end of the day. That night he signed a confession of guilt which was presented to Parliament the next day. But Pigott did not show up - he had fled to the Continent of Europe.

He was found in a hotel in Madrid about two weeks later. He ran to his bedroom, locked the door, and shot himself.

It later turned out that Pigott's crime was tied to trying to get more money together for his little children. Their mother was dead, and he was the breadwinner. Eventually a collection for the children was made.

Parnell was acquitted by the Commission after Pigott's confession was heard. However, within two years his career was destroyed by his involvement in the divorce of his mistress Kitty O'Shea, even after he married her. Parnell died in 1891. As for Home Rule, it would continue to exist to bedevil the Liberal Party (if not the Tories) until World War I basically showed how out of date the idea really was. None of the parties in the 1922 treaty creating Modern Ireland supported Home Rule.


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