Play (your cards) wright

Advocates, it is good to do your own thing if you can find the time. One barrister’s hobbies and other diversions


From quirky baking to bracing half-marathons, it is good to have a relaxing hinterland well away from professional mayhem. Writing and acting are mine, but they didn’t start properly until a few years at the coalface. In the early 1980s, Shell UK wanted to drill for oil in the New Forest. I represented opposing local interests at the subsequent enquiry, where, happily, we won. Elated, I was sure there was a play in it: Black Gold the obvious title. I made the classic mistake of talking about the plot to all and sundry, so that it dissipated like dust in the wind, but I was hooked by the possibility.

One play later, I wrote Pro Patria, based on the time that Kim Philby survived an internal investigation and went on to spy for a further eight years before fleeing to Russia. Eleanor my lead character was a would-be head of MI6 before a defector came out of the woodwork. Had she been recruited as a spy during a youthful visit to Russia? I left the audience to guess until the final speech in the play, a flashback to her youth in the arms of a sleeping young Russian lover. This year I was knocked out by the superlative performance of Sarah Mckendrick as Eleanor at a reading in the Inner Temple and it remains my favourite play. My thanks to Alex Bryant, a skilled performer himself, for organising that evening of monologues, just published as Flying Solo.

Confession time. It can be incredibly satisfying to hear your lines for the first time. I have learnt they can be improved by good actors at the stage just before they have learnt them by heart. The trick is to accept gratefully their changes. Since then I have written a variety of legal or historical plays, dipping occasionally into comedy. There was the judge in a one-act play who insisted on directing the jury in cricketing terms. Another was about Shakespeare as an unreliable if poetic witness in an Elizabethan conspiracy to murder. But throughout I have been incredibly lucky in having a venue in the Inner Temple and the terrific support of the Drama Society. It has led to a close circle of friends always game for a new Pascoe production. And some marvellous performers. They include John Bromley-Davenport, Iain Christie and Hugh-Guy Lorriman in My Country Right or Wrong, about the decision to go to war in Iraq and its aftermath; and James Batten, Peter Cowell and Sophia Papacharalambous amongst many others.

"It is good to have a relaxing hinterland well away from professional mayhem. Writing and acting are mine…"

Acting, if that’s what you call it, became more serious in the 1970s when the American Bar Association came over in huge numbers and I was tasked by the now sadly defunct Bar Theatrical Society to find something to entertain them. Browsing through State Trials in the Inner Temple library, I came across the Trial of Penn and Mead (Old Bailey 1670) and the intriguing words ‘This is their own account of their trial.’ I enlarged the Observer’s role and we played it with an excellent cast; notably Tony Arlidge as William Penn. At its first performance, the audience was well oiled after a good reception in the Middle Temple. They rose unsteadily to their feet and gave us a standing ovation. Tony Arlidge drawled ‘Pascoe, next stop Broadway,’ before selling his script to a grateful visitor.

In 1993 the script came out of the cupboard and became a one man show. I did it for a week at the Edinburgh Fringe and it covered its costs. Ninety five plus performances later it is still going strong, together with a new one – Sweet Reason – about Lord Birkett. I don’t need much encouragement to perform them, usually for charity but occasionally for real money or expenses paid breaks. One surprise has been the variety of venues: Quaker Meeting Houses, theatres, village halls, courts and several times in the RCJ, with one Royal performance. Even a cellar.

But there comparisons with proper actors should end. I simply perform in my own comfort zone with the script not too far away. Happily my very talented and long suffering wife Elizabeth now shares other performances (Christmas Carol) and a new show about Shakespeare and advocacy (Merely Players). It has had performances in Philadelphia and last year in Auckland and we had a ball. But I hope never to forget the best theatrical putdown of all: this is a play where the actors appear to be enjoying it more than the audience. Still, you know what – it’s only a hobby.

The plays of Nigel Pascoe QC can be found on Amazon, including To Encourage the Others about the Court Martial of Admiral John Byng. Contact nigel.pascoe@gmail.com for charity performances.

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Nigel Pascoe QC

Nigel is a former leader of the Western Circuit, practises crime from Pump Court Chambers, and is a Master of Drama in the Inner Temple. He is on the editorial board of Counsel.