Arranged through Bill Kenwright with the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, it featured five fine players in the Murder on Air Ensemble and six ‘entertainment stars’, Martin Shaw (aka Judge John Deed), Maxine Peake (Martha Costello in Silk) , Felicity Kendal, Ray Fearon, Daniel Hill and Mark Farrelly. Messrs. Shaw and Fearon are also Kalisher trustees.
The evening’s chief purpose was to boost the capital base of the Kalisher Scholarship Fund. Set up in 1996 for the purpose of helping talented students who might otherwise be unable to afford to come to the Bar, the Fund provides two scholarships to pay the full costs of the BPTC. In addition, and along with presentation skills training, there are awards and bursaries throughout the year, a £5000 essay prize, and paid internships with Justice, the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies. Past recipients have established successful careers at the Bar.
The performance simulated an old fashioned radio play studio production, with the cast in evening dress. Jared Ash brilliantly performed the sound effects, aided by members of the cast - trains, telephone bells, a breaking glass, walking through a country lane, a grisly death. Although reading the script to microphone, the performances pitched things just right to a thoroughly appreciative audience. Single actors played more than one character and more than one accent.
‘Personal Call’, first performed in 1954, was the curtain raiser. It was a ghost story (or was it?) about a businessman who receives mysterious telephone calls from ‘Fay’, his former wife (or was she?), begging him to come to her at Newton Abbott station. Since this is 1954, ‘personal calls’ come via the operator (who can remember whether or not there were any), and only some of the (land line) telephones at the train station can take trunk calls. Ray Fearon, who has played Othello, was a plausible ‘hero’ who is willing to murder his wives. His latest one was portrayed by Maxine Peake, known to viewers as the abused wife in Criminal Justice 2 and as a notable Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, so she is used to playing women who need to be rescued. Once again she escapes death - but has the mystery really been solved?
After a long and civilised interval in the Parliament and Queen’s Rooms, the audience reassembled for ‘Butter in a Lordly Dish’, first performed in 1948. For those who do not wish to guess the ending too soon, it is best not to be able to recall the Biblical passage: Sisera was a Canaanite general who had oppressed the Israelites until he is defeated in battle; seeking refuge with Jael, he asks for water but is given milk and butter in a lordly dish before she hammers a nail (or perhaps a tent peg) into his skull, a scene which greatly recommended itself to baroque painters of the seventeenth century.
The play concerns a famous QC, Sir Luke, who has been knighted in the days when to practise as a top criminal barrister was recognised as a notable public service. As a star of the Old Bailey he prosecutes all the famous murder trials. In 1948 of course those who were found guilty were hanged and the underlying assumption is that his eloquence in court is the cause of a man going to the gallows.
One quickly saw why this play was chosen for this audience, quite apart from the fact that ‘butter in a lordly dish’ is a quote from the Book of Judges. In the opening scene, a landlady discusses with her daughter the latest murder trial as reported in the newspapers. Why, the daughter puzzles, does the judge’s summing up leave the matter to the jury in an even-handed way? As the judge he must know who did it; why doesn’t he just tell the jury? It is like a weather forecast without saying what the weather is going to be. The scene shifts to the grand home of Sir Luke, who as a barrister is well able to employ a butler to answer the telephone.
Barristers’ lives sometimes parallel the lives of those in the dock, and so it happens here. Sir Luke has prosecuted the ‘blondes on the beach’ murderer who although married had a series of girlfriends who were his victims. Sir Luke, also married, is also a great womaniser, his favourite being the family friend, Susan. When Sir Luke gets home, he spars with his oft-betrayed, art-loving wife and with Susan. He assures them that ‘Innocent people are always acquitted’, though there is a risk that women on the jury might have a soft spot for a murderer with a nice face. ‘You hang people and Marian hangs pictures’, is how Susan sums it up.
Sir Luke soon departs for a passionate weekend at the cottage of the lovely Mrs. Keene (Felicity Kendal). She plies him with a dinner of pate, cold duck and lashings of real butter, unimaginable luxuries during that era of rationing. She also poisons his coffee. She is in fact the widow of the ‘blondes on the beach’ murderer, a completely innocent man who nevertheless was hanged. He is innocent because she is the real murderer, a habit she has not yet abandoned.
Offers of help, whether financial or via mentoring support to the Kalisher Scholarship Fund , should be addressed to the Secretary, email@example.com; www.thekalishertrust.org.