Review: Life beyond the law

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5RB’s Iain Christie made his debut on the West End stage this summer in Dear Lupin. He tells Counsel about his move from the courtroom to the theatre…

In her best-selling book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, former palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware lists, amongst the recurrent themes that emerged from her conversations with patients in the last few months of their lives, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. 


Something like this thought must have been in the back of my mind when in 2010 I approached my head of chambers at 5RB and announced I wanted to take a year off to go to drama school.

Acting was my first love. I remember coming off stage when I was 17 after playing Antony in a sixth form production of Antony and Cleopatra with a feeling of sheer exhilaration which lasted for days. At Durham University I took part in a student Revue at the Edinburgh Fringe and played other leading roles, including Touchstone in an open-air production of As You Like It which toured around English stately homes one carefree summer. Happy days.

From an early age, I also wanted to be a barrister. Like many of my generation I grew up watching Crown Court and was fascinated by the twists and turns of the trial, the clever questioning of the advocates and the suspense of the final outcome. I used to come home at lunchtime to watch the programme and often had to run back to school to avoid being late on Friday afternoons after staying to hear the verdict. It wasn’t until later, however, that I came to appreciate that what attracted me was the performance of the actors as much as the drama of the courtroom.

I had an audition at RADA after completing my pupillage. Martin Shaw (Twelve Angry Men; Judge John Deed) was on the panel. I was not selected and was invited to re-apply the following year. But life in my early twenties seemed urgent and I felt the pressure to get on. At the same time, I threw two other balls up in the air by applying to undertake the BBC’s News and Current Affairs training programme and to join the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as an assistant legal adviser.

So it was I spent the next decade as a diplomatic service lawyer, representing the UK in international treaty negotiations and in cases before the European Court. I worked on the Bill team that took the Human Rights Act through Parliament, before returning to private practice, arriving in chambers on the day the Act entered into force on 2 October 2000. Over the coming years, together with my colleagues at 5RB, I was fortunate to play my part in developing English media law in line with the European Convention, in particular balancing the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

Apart from the odd performance for the Bar Theatrical Society or Inner Temple revels, however, my desire for a more creative outlet was being frustrated. Whenever I sat in the audience at the theatre I increasingly felt I should be on the other side of the curtain. I started doing evening classes in improvisation, then a one year foundation course in drama followed by a Diploma in musical theatre.

Unlike other stories I have read in this column (“Barristers don’t surf” by BabyBarista, Tim Kevan, Counsel April 2010), my chambers was supportive of my taking a sabbatical. When I had that conversation with my head of chambers, Desmond Browne QC, his response was “it sounds like this is something you have to do.” He was right. For years I had been telling myself that “one day” I would train as a professional actor. I distinctly recall waking up one morning and realising that day had arrived.

I tackled the application process more diligently this time and auditioned at schools that offered a one year postgraduate training. I was offered places at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) and Drama Studio London (DSL) which is where I ended up training.

For a few years after graduating from DSL I tried to combine my legal practice with my other interests, but if you want to excel at the bar you need to devote yourself to it. So last year, 25 years after I was called, I made the difficult decision not to renew my practising certificate and became an Associate Member of chambers. I joined a co-operative agency, 1984 Personal Management, in which I now work one day a week as an agent representing other actors and as an actor being represented by the agency. When not acting, I pursue my other passion for conflict resolution, working as a mediator and facilitator. So much for “resting”.

Earlier this year I was put up for the part of understudy to James Fox in Dear Lupin by its director, Philip Franks, who I had previously performed alongside in a production of Murder in the Cathedral in the Temple Church. Therein lies one of the first similarities in the worlds of theatre and the law: work often comes through referrals and one job may lead to the next, sometimes from the most surprising sources. As I write this I have just been asked to appear in a short film by the young woman who I got to know working behind the bar at the Apollo Theatre this summer who turns out to be a filmmaker. My part? A theatre manager who has overcome the disappointment of his acting career never having taken off. Hmmmm…

Dear Lupin is a two-handed comedy adapted for the stage by actor and author, Michael Simkins, from a book of the same name which won the Sunday Times humour book of the year award in 2011. It is based on the letters of former Sunday Times racing correspondent, Roger Mortimer, to his wayward son, Charlie (nicknamed Lupin after Mr Pooter’s disreputable son in Diary of a Nobody) played in this production by James’s real life son, Jack Fox.

After a six week tour in the provinces the show “came in” to the West End for an eight week run at the Apollo Theatre throughout August and September 2015. James is an exceptionally versatile and wonderfully experienced actor to understudy. He is also as tough as old boots (coincidentally Lupin’s nick-name for his father). In over a hundred performances he didn’t miss a single show, a matter for which he was both proud and also disappointed on my behalf. My fellow understudy, ex-Cambridge Footlight Nick Ricketts, and I did however get to perform two understudy runs to an invited audience of friends and industry contacts, thereby making my debut on the West End stage.

Working as an understudy can be as frustrating as it is a privilege. Without this cohort of standbys (or “covers” as they are known in the trade) the West End simply could not function. The show must go on, and theatreland abounds with stories of occasions when an understudy has made his or her name by virtue of having to step in at short notice when the principal actor has fallen down the stairs or been confined to bed. It is also a recognised step along the professional ladder.

I came to appreciate that what you are paid for is to go through the daily emotional cycle of preparing for a demanding live performance only to have the repeated anti-climax of sitting in your dressing room overlooking Shaftesbury Avenue listening to the roars of laughter come up from downstairs, wishing it was you. But your presence is also required as part of a team to support the production as a whole which brings together so many different skills both creative and technical. Waiting in the wings during a performance really brings home just how many moving parts are required to create a theatrical experience for an audience. An actor is just one part in that.

I have written elsewhere about the similarities between a legal and theatrical training (The Lawyer, Drama at the Inns, 31 October 2014) which go beyond the obvious performance techniques and presentation skills. One surprising similarity is the process of textual analysis of a new script which resembles in many ways the mastery of a brief, extracting all the relevant information about your client (or character) that will be used to support and oppose your case (or story).

Throughout the different phases of my career to date, I have tried to retain the best of the old whilst embracing the challenges of the new. I have not turned my back on the law or the bar completely. I continue to be involved with the development of media law as Consultant Editor of Tugendhat and Christie: The Law of Privacy and the Media (OUP, 3rd edition forthcoming, Jan 2016) and Director of IMPRESS (a new press regulator being set up after the Leveson inquiry), as well as my role as Secretary of the Civil Mediation Council. I remain active as a Bencher of the Inner Temple where, along with Nigel Pascoe QC, I am co-Master of the Student Drama Society.

Occasionally the two worlds collide and I get the opportunity to perform in the Inns of Court, most notably with Shakespeare’s Globe, and also by virtue of the training and education function of the Inns. With a fellow barrister turned actor (of which I have come across a few, and some who have made the even more courageous switch the other way), I have devised a course on using narrative and improvisation techniques in advocacy for BPTC students. I am also involved with other training organisations which teach mediation, advocacy and leadership skills in schools or use legal role-play in the corporate world.

In the many competing demands and opportunities that life throws our way, what we end up doing is for most of us a combination of design and chance. Ideally I would like to do some regular television and film work in the future. Not surprisingly my natural casting is as a professional type – lawyer, doctor, police officer – of which there are many in popular TV series. As barristers, we know how infuriating legal dramas can be (although Silk probably came as close to replicating the out of court antics of the bar as Crown Court did to those in the courtroom). So an art-imitating-life part in a series like that would be great fun. Wherever it leads, I’d like to think that I am doing my best to avoid having at least that one of the top five regrets.

“Dear Lupin” is scheduled to return for a second UK Tour in the autumn of 2016, produced by Martyn Hayes and Kenny Wax Ltd.

Iain Christie will next be appearing in The Kalisher Trust’s theatrical evening on Sunday 15th November 2015 in Middle Temple Hall at 6.30pm in a world premiere of Francis Durbridge’s stage play “Send for Paul Temple”.  Various stars will be performing, including Martin Shaw, providing a long overdue opportunity for some feedback on Iain’s audition at RADA. Tickets are £50 including refreshments and are available from Aaron Dolan on aaron.dolan@criminalbar.com or 01304 849149.

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Iain Christie

Iain is an Associate Member of 5RB, Secretary of the Civil Mediation Council and Director of IMPRESS – the independent monitor for the Press. He is also a professional actor and this summer was understudying James Fox in Dear Lupin.