The Kalisher Event

David Wurtzel reviews this year’s Kalisher event, a production of Witness for the Prosecution in Middle Temple Hall in May.

There can be few better causes than the Kalisher Trust, founded in 1996 for the purpose of helping talented students and young barristers with limited means who want to practice in criminal law.

One of its main fund-raising activities is the annual theatrical event which on 11 May was a reading of Agatha Christie’s 1953 play Witness for the Prosecution, the basis for the 1957 film directed by Billy Wilder. Traditionally in the audience are the distinguished members of the profession and of the judiciary. Traditionally on stage are actors who have played ‘legal’ roles and who generously give their time to support those who do it for real.

If barristers spend their lives acting against one another, actors spend their lives acting with one another. Martin Shaw, a Kalisher Trustee and Bencher of Gray’s Inn, once more led the cast (“the Kalisher Players”) as Sir Wilfred Robarts QC – those were the days when Silks were both well paid and knighted. There is a firm-but-fair judge who has his little joke of citing a decision in which he had been counsel (and lost) as payback for counsel who now appear in front of him. He was played by Ron Cook, who has portrayed Polonius and Napoleon (twice) in his time as well as appearing on Garrow’s Law – as has Jessica Raine who here plays the title part, and who can be seen as a detective constable in Line of Duty.

Mr Cook has also been in Mr Selfridge as has Tom Goodman-Hill who that evening played the defence solicitor. Returning to the part of the self-pitying defendant was Ben Nealon, who is a member of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. Just to complete the family atmosphere, in the audience was the playwright’s grandson, Matthew Prichard, who as an 8-year-old schoolboy was given the rights to his grandmother’s play The Moustetrap; she wrote in her autobiography that he was always the lucky one in the family.

The play was wonderful entertainment though perhaps not a guide to good advocacy for the young Kalisher scholars who were out in force that night. Witnesses were led in chief, witnesses of fact gave opinion evidence (“in your experience, when people break in, do they not take anything?”), a witness is accused of “wicked fabrication” (an approach more recently deprecated by the higher judiciary), there are roll-up questions in cross-examination and a good deal of what today we would call stereotyping (“any woman can fool a man if he is in love with her”, “never trust a woman” and “ungrateful beasts, women”). None of it mattered in the least. The simple story is that suspicion for murder has fallen on a young drifter who has been befriended by the deceased, a rich spinster who has made him her heir. He is not supposed to be good-looking (why, I asked myself, did they then cast Tyrone Power in the movie?) but he is plausible. His ‘wife’ is Romaine, a mysterious German woman memorably played by Marlene Dietrich in the film. It is brave of any actress to walk in the footsteps of Marlene Dietrich, but Miss Raine did it well. She agrees to give evidence for the Crown but she is finally demolished in cross-examination though the ‘trick’ is that every word she has said is true.

After the well-received performance, Max Hill QC, Chairman of the Trust, thanked those involved and noted the good work of the Kalisher Trust. It began by giving financial aid but it has more recently expanded greatly in its activities. They include an internship programme for qualified barristers with, amongst others, JUSTICE, and the Criminal Case Review Commission; delivering an educational outreach programme to mainstream schools in deprived areas called ‘the Art of Persuasion’ where barristers and judges deliver the workshops, and choosing two A-level students from London’s most disadvantaged boroughs to shadow the Recorder of London. This is in addition to the advocacy training for students, pupils and young barristers, the essay competition for pupils, and the scholarship and bursaries given to BPTC students.

The evening reiterated the profession’s support for the Trust and its work.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.