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Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

'Ancient History', originally transmitted on ITV, 17/3/1997, written by Nigel Kneale, directed by Tristram Powell

Retired GP Alexander Beck is questioned under the new War Crimes Act, accused by Dachau concentration camp survivor Avram Rypin of really being the Nazi war criminal Alexander Balinski. Beck claims that this is a case of mistaken identity. Kavanagh undertakes the prosecution, despite misgivings about the legislation and the difficulty of getting a conviction for crimes committed fifty years ago. His son Matthew trawls the Internet for information about the Holocaust. Lev Shapiro, a survivor of Dachau like Rypin, arrives from Israel to give evidence, accompanied by his grandson Yitzak.

Rypin and Shapiro identify Beck as Balinski at a pre-trial hearing, as does Karol Somper, who helped in the experiments at Dachau. He confirms that Balinski froze Jewish prisoners until they died and then would attempt to revive them. Lev Shapiro collapses at the hearing and dies before being able to testify at the trial.

The defence barrister Culpepper tries to undermine Rypin's testimony by suggesting that he couldn't identify the doctor doing the experiments at Dachau as he has poor eyesight and the Nazis would have smashed his spectacles. Rypin admits that this was true, but that he could always replace them from the hundreds of dead bodies in the camp. Somper refuses to travel from Poland for the trial, afraid that he will also be tried for war crimes despite the promise of immunity. Yitzak goes to Poland and threatens to transport Somper to Israel unless he gives evidence. Somper returns and gives damning testimony against Beck, insisting that the doctor really is Baliski and that the two worked closely together. When called to give evidence in the dock, Beck arrives wearing what he claims was his concentration camp uniform. His identifying concentration number has been burned off.

Culpepper is concerned that his defence is going badly and so agrees to use Halina Birnbaum as a character witness, despite her physical and mental frailty. In court she says that in Dachau Beck saved her life. She smiles at Beck across the courtroom. Kavanagh realises that she is not smiling, but is in fact terrified. She was one of Balinski's patients, frozen to death and then revived over and over. Only in this sense did he save her life. Beck admits that he undertook the experiments. Rypin speaks a Kaddish, a prayer for the dead, for Halina.