As the courts turned digital this summer, so too did the annual Bradford Fringe Festival. Lydia Pearce, a barrister and stand-up comedian, worked with comedians and members of the local legal community to produce and broadcast six radio plays based on historic court reports. The result was a riotous romp through the archives with the help of magistrates, judges, barristers, solicitors, court staff, probation and law students. Lydia explains...
Like everyone who completes the BPTC, I was desperate to land pupillage. Each year would see me dragging my charity shop suit across the North as I sat before multiple panels of barristers trying to explain why I was their next pupil (I overwhelmingly wasn’t).
The interviews in Bradford and Leeds for Broadway House Chambers were similar, but I was on home territory. I have been in and around Bradford for 20 years, part of many communities and witness to its history from the 2001 riots to the building of City Park via the university, friends and festivals. When I received my pupillage offer in 2017 I cried with relief and excitement.
Fast forward to March 2020 and life at the Bar changed immensely for all of us. My days went from catching the sleeves of my gown on the fire extinguishers lining the corridors of Bradford Crown Court to sitting at home watching the diary empty.
Looking for my next project I contacted Gill Arnold JP DL, Deputy Chair of the West Yorkshire Bench to ask whatever happened to the Magistrates History Plays, a former staple of annual Heritage Weekend, which had been cancelled a few years earlier. The original plays (pictured above) had been performed in the historic courtroom of Bradford City Hall every September. The plays were based on court reports of Bradford cases throughout history and performed by the magistrates with the odd guest star including the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police. I had been in the audience for the plays with my children before coming to the Bar and had also heard stories of the huge parties afterwards.
Gill, who had researched and written the plays for over 13 years, still had all the scripts and was able to send some over within a few days. The scripts then sat in my inbox for weeks until the intrepid women of the Bradford Fringe Festival put a call out for content as the summer arts festival went digital.
Gill was enthusiastic to relaunch the plays for radio, working together with the comedians of the Fringe and the local legal community. With Gill on board I contacted Paisley Boyd, who I had worked with on a comedy event all about gender pre-lockdown. Paisley is an energetic observational comedian with a mischievous stage persona. They explore everything from taking testosterone to Pringles with a vast amount of puns and word-play. Their style was perfect for radio comedy and fortunately they were more than happy to get involved.
Paisley says: ‘I have been performing comedy for about a year and whilst performing live had stopped due to lockdown, it was great to get involved in this project as a writer. I really enjoyed collaborating with Gill Arnold and Lydia Pearce to adapt the Bradford Legal Heritage Plays for radio. We each bought our own expertise to the team- mine was a huge amount of apple jokes amongst others!’
With the writing team assembled, six plays were chosen from the back catalogue to be revamped for radio. Jokes that had previously relied on sight gags and costumes were replaced with word play, puns and one liners. Secondary story lines were added to give depth beyond the court cases. For example, Mr Stringer who in the original play was prosecuted for stealing his neighbour’s apples was updated to include a sub plot of him being the local Lothario whose theft was perpetrated to cover up his genuine night time activities. Mr and Mrs Todd, butchers prosecuted for selling meat at above the set prices advanced the defence that they had been set up by the inspector, their long-time rival at the Bradford agricultural fairs. The magistrates were given withering lines to shoot at defendants and lawyers while their weary legal advisors had the job of reeling unruly witnesses in.
Once we had six scripts ready momentum had gathered through the local legal community. An eager cast of judges, magistrates (past and present), barristers from Broadway House, Park Square and New Park Court, solicitors from Lumb & MacGill, Shaikh Solicitors, Mohammed Hussain Solicitors, RCM, Platinum Partnership, SKB and Baxendale Vanzie all joined in. BPTC students, probation and CPS staff took prominent roles while Billy Pearce, star of Bradford panto for over 21 years, prosecuted District Judge Richard Clews in the panto-themed debut show.
Recording took place over three nights with a different cast each night. Each group recorded two plays with the ad-libs and laughter becoming more raucous each evening. Magistrates who had performed in the live plays asked to join the recordings each night leading to ever-increasing audience participation. Talents were uncovered as Amarpal Singh of Lumb and MacGill caused multiple re-takes as the frightfully overdramatic pantomime villain Virginia Good. Barrister Paul Canfield’s Southern upbringing was put to use as he broke into a before unheard West Country accent as the defendant caught stealing apples. Former Chair of the Bradford Bench Harry Atkinson ad-libbed his way through sentencing DJ Clews to prison with aplomb as we junior barristers giggled behind our mute buttons.
Once recorded the plays were edited into four episodes with the debut taking a full 25 minutes and the final episode including a ‘making of’ conversation between the writing team.
The plays were broadcast as part of Bradford Fringe Festival under the title All Rise: The Bradford Legal Heritage Plays. Broadcast on Bradford Community Radio every Saturday evening at 6.00pm over FM and digital, they are also available to stream via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Spotify. The shows have been listened to by over 1,000 people to date with positive feedback from audience members including Lesley Powell: ‘Witty, original and entertaining, fast become an early Saturday evening highlight. History made fascinating and who knew those in the legal profession had so many hidden talents!’
The enthusiasm of the listeners was matched by the enthusiasm of the performers with solicitor Amarpal Singh commenting: ‘I thoroughly enjoyed performing on this project. It was fun to spend time with friends over Zoom and all see a different side to each other as we put on this performance. The script was fantastic and I felt a lot of support from all those involved in bringing this together.’
Paul Canfield of Broadway House was involved over three different plays: ‘I had hoped that due to my tremendous vocal and acting talents I would be head hunted for the next Marvel or Star Wars movie. Alas, this was not the case. However, it was a tremendously fun experience working in collaboration with the Bradford Fringe Festival and friends from within the legal sector.’
All Rise became a firm favourite of the festival, gaining support from Bradford Theatres and interest from heritage projects. Laura Brooks, director of Bradford Fringe Festival is already planning for the festival next year: ‘The All Rise Radio plays have been one of the highlights of Bradford Fringe. Bringing history and humour together in a kaleidoscope of theatre, heritage and comedy. I cannot wait to work with Lydia and the whole team behind All Rise again next year when hopefully they be played out in front of a live audience!’
Lockdown has been an odd time for life at the bar, my morning rush to court has been replaced by grappling with CVP and the camaraderie of chambers has been transplanted from the library to WhatsApp groups. It’s not the same and there are plenty of negatives of which we are all acutely aware. However, in my corner of the world in Bradford West Yorkshire my legal community made something amazing out of this difficult summer and I couldn’t be prouder to be right in the middle of it.
You can listen to All Rise: The Bradford Legal Heritage Plays on YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and Instagram.
Pictured above: Top row L to R: Samreen Akhtar (barrister) Broadway House, Lydia Pearce (barrister) Broadway House, Vicky Reynolds JP, Helen Langley JP. Second row left to right: Abby Langford (barrister) Broadway House, Amarpal Singh (solicitor) Lumb and Macgill, Gill Arnold JP DL, Harry Atkinson. Third row L to R: Sarah Khan-Bashir MBE (solicitor) SKB Solicitors, Billy Pearce, District Judge Richard Clews, Koraisha Nuthoo Probation Service. Fourth row L to R: Riaz Shaikh of Shaikhs Solicitors, Paisley Boyd (comedian).
Pictured below: The Magistrates Heritage Plays at Bradford City Hall 2016. Pictured L to R: Trevor Eakin, Shaun Morris-Armitage JP, Rona Pickles JP and Harry Atkinson.