Trial and Error

David Wurtzel reviews a fundraising performance of case excerpts, both real and fictional.

Court 1 at the Central Criminal Court, which has seen enough drama in its time, was the suitable venue for ‘Trial and Error’, an evening of excerpts about cases both real and fictional which had taken place at the Old Bailey, some even in the very courtroom. It was devised by HH Judge Peter Rook QC and further scripted and directed by Anthony Arlidge QC, who also provided the narration as the ‘court clerk’. The two performances on 3 and 4 March were staged in aid of the Sheriffs’ and Recorder’s Fund which assists former offenders. Over £17,000 was raised.

A suitably City event, each scene was generously sponsored by a Livery Company whose members were in attendance, along with a number of people who had presided and/or pleaded in the building. The cast included barristers, judges past and present, judges’ wives, a singer, a court clerk and a broadcaster. Most took several parts, sometimes replicating their ‘day jobs’ and sometimes not; one judge played a defendant.

The performance began with a sinister rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’ by Ellis Sareen, leaping upon the table normally reserved for exhibits. The first act consisted of scenes from real cases including General Harrison (one of the regicides). Penn and Mead (where the jury, directed to convict by the judge, instead acquitted and found themselves fined and imprisoned as a result), Daniel Defoe (who libelled three judges), the Marquis of Sligo (who impressed sailors in order to man his own ship and whose mother married the sentencing judge) and Dr Bodkin Adams (quickly acquitted of murdering a patient). After the interval the scenes were fictional: Fagin, Pip’s visit in Great Expectations; Phineas Finn; and the surreal 1950s comedy One Way Pendulum in which an Old Bailey trial takes place without a defendant or a jury  (“so long as they are here in one form or another” the judge agreed to the continuation of the ‘trial’). With all due respect to the authors and to the performers, truth proved to be more dramatically satisfying than fiction.

One recalls in particular three performances. Rosemary Clarke (The Lady Clarke of Stone-cum- Ebony) vividly read the reports of the novelist Sybille Bedford of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and of the trial of Dr Bodkin Adams, as well as donning a suitable hat to be the Dowager Marchioness of Sligo. To Judge Peter Cowell fell the unenviable task of performing the opening speech by Mervyn Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the cross-examination of one of the defence expert witnesses. The wonderful absurdity of him enumerating for the jury how many times certain profane words appeared in a novel condemned for dwelling on pleasure and satisfaction, and of crossing swords with the expert over the proper use of “Puritanism” was far more entertaining than its deliberately absurd contemporary, One Way Pendulum. One does not know how the then Mr Griffi th-Jones delivered his words in court (or whether advice was taken from his son, the Master of Temple Church) but Judge Cowell delivered it so that he actually got away with it, which took some doing.

It was sobering to recall that the trial was within the lifetime of most of the audience many of whom were old enough to remember it.

Cross-examination honours also go to Nigel Pascoe QC as Geoffrey Lawrence QC, who demolished the witnesses for the prosecution against Dr Adams by suddenly producing previously undisclosed defence evidence which was their own contemporary record of the treatment of the deceased patient. There were no histrionics or triumphalism from counsel, just the persistent questions from someone who knew everything was going his way and was happy to keep the spotlight on witnesses who had clearly been making it up.

It all ended with a jolly rendition by the entire cast of the infectious ‘We Are Bound for Botany Bay’, originally sung by those who had been transported from this court. It was sung with gusto and without irony, knowing that things are different now. To prove it, the raffle prize winners were selected by one of the beneficiaries of the charity, a former offender who now has a home of his own and a job. There is a life after a sentence, thanks to the Sheriff s’ and Recorder’s Fund.

The Sheriffs’ & Recorder’s Fund, the Old Bailey’s own charity, has supported London’s ex-off enders since 1808. www.srfund.org.uk

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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.