BBC Radio 4, 3 January 2012
Sir Norman Birkett (1883-1962) was a busy KC who, in the days before
legal specialization, was often involved in three or four cases at once - a divorce proceeding, a murder and a libel case.
Many of his most famous cases were chronicled in the News of the World.
In Caroline and David Stafford's play, based on one of his most famous cases from
1922, Birkett (Neil Dudgeon) came across as a Rumpolesque figure, passionately committed to defending his clients, fond of
quoting poetry at apposite moments, and engaging in banter with his own She Who Must Be Obeyed, Billie (Bonnie Engstrom).
Billie was actually Swedish, with an engagingly detached view of the English and their rather quaint ways. Birkett was helped
by his clerk Edgar (Alun Raglan), a down-to-earth Welshman who kept his superior's feet on the ground, both literally and
In this story, the first of four, Birkett was called upon to defend Arthur (Carl
Prekopp), a blind First World War veteran accused of murdering his wife. Inevitably Arthur ended up being cleared of all charges,
but not before we had discovered a lot about his hellish life in the post-1918 period, as he tried to come to terms with his
medical condition, while trying to fulfill a useful role in society. Having been left virtually blind after a gas-attack,
Arthur had to learn new skills, obtain gainful employment and look after his family. Inevitably the task proved too much for
him; he ended up drowning his solaces in drink.
Although the play ended happily, with Arthur now a free man, we were left feeling
that he had not much to look forward to; he could go and see his daughter Renie (who was now beng looked after in an orphanage),
but he had no one to share his life with, nor any prospects of a future. Birkett could not help him either, even if he might
have sympathized with his client's plight.
While Birkett and the Blind Soldier told a familiar story of a lawyer triumphing
over adversity, the play nonetheless made some trenchant points about life in the years immediately following the end of the
First World War, as the soldiers found out to their cost that they were no longer living in "a land fit for heroes." The director
of this Afternoon Play was Marc Beeby.