…to earn a crust

Like all kids, I had heroes when I was growing up. No, not Robin Hood, Ivanhoe or any of that lot; not even Batman or Superman and the other so-called Super Heroes. At first, I went for the action detectives: Simon Templar, Rockford, you know the sort. But it wasn’t the action that got me excited, it was the crime-solving part of the job. If you’d seen me in PE classes, you’d soon have understood that tough-guy physical wasn’t my thing. No, I’d be a Columbo, a Poirot or, these days, probably more CSI than CID. If I were growing up today, my heroes would be people like Gil Grissom from CSI, Jack Hodgins (or almost any of the interns) from Bones, or Tim McGee or Jimmy Palmer from NCIS. Yeah, the nerdy ones. I’ll admit it, intellectual acrobatics float my boat so much more than physical ones ever could.

By my mid-teens, I’d discovered Perry Mason and other courtroom dramas. These examples of the art of adversarial argument sowed the seed that eventually led to my desire to follow a career in the legal profession. I saw myself delivering oratorial excellence in the courtroom, turning the jurors’ minds with a well-crafted argument and winning justice for the oppressed, freedom for the innocent and proper judicial treatment for the evil miscreants that I believed were hiding in dark corners at every turn.

After much thought and study, I believed my calling would ultimately lead me to the bar. No, silly, the one where justice, not alcohol is dispensed. I decided I should study law at university and aim to become a barrister. Again, barrister, not barista! I started frequenting the public galleries of some of the highest courts in the land, soaking up the well-researched and cleverly-phrased arguments presented by the prosecution and defence briefs. I loved the air of superiority these people had about them, aided by the props of gowns and wigs, and the rigidly formal if somewhat archaic nature of the proceedings. It seemed to me that the actors I had been following on the television versions of courtroom dramas had captured the reality with great accuracy.  The only difference I could see between the actors and the real practitioners was that the latter didn’t work to a script drafted by others.

Posing as a college news reporter, I secured an interview with a clerk to a senior barrister. What I learned from her transformed my opinions. I shall probably never know for sure if her boss was typical of the profession; I don’t even know for sure if what she said was true, or just something invented to get rid of the unwanted intrusion of a wannabe reporter. What was clear was that, far from representing the brilliance of one person, the notes from which the barrister takes his or her cues, as well as all of the opening remarks and the bulk of the closing statement as presented are the result of long hours of input from an entire team of researchers and what could well be termed copy-writers. After she’d told me that, I asked her what her boss actually added to the case. Cutting through the verbiage, she said, in effect, that the barrister adds performance, drama, pathos, whatever is needed, as well as being able to react quickly if something happens to change the mood of the proceedings. When pressed, she admitted that if, for example, a witness gives testimony that differs significantly from what was expected, or introduces new facts, the barrister would call for a short adjournment, during which key members of the team would go to work. If there’s no time for that, the barristers have to think on their feet.

At that point, in my perception, the distinction between actor and barrister became somewhat foggy. Both work to an agreed script provided by a team of writers, and both have the ability to go off-script and improvise if the need arises. It was also clear that there are many cases where the barrister has to defend someone he or she does not fully believe to be innocent and so their job is to sow doubt through confusion and obfuscation to give them ‘the most robust defence possible’.

I think that was when I decided that, if I was going to go into a profession that required me to stand up and defend that which I don’t necessarily believe – I won’t say lie, that would be a serious disservice to the profession – then I might as well concentrate on my performance and leave others to craft the language. The deeper I looked, the more jobs I found where insisting on saying what you actually mean can be a distinct disadvantage. At one level (with politicians at the top but it’s by no means just them) there’s a refusal to answer questions or a rigid adherence to the ‘official’ line, and it goes all the way down to telling your boss what he wants to hear; like ‘of course I can stay an extra hour – the kids will be fine with their minder’.

My parents tried to tell me that I had made the worst possible choice of career, but my mind was made up. I went to drama school and became a card-carrying member of the thespian community and, like so many members of the profession, spend more time in receipt of benefits than of real money, more time in auditions than on the stage or set. But I persevered. I knew that there would be a role for me – something to get my teeth into so I could establish myself as a name. I tried out for more parts than I care to count, and when my agent called to tell me he’d secured me a period part, I was hoping for a costume drama, a fantasy series like Game of Thrones or one of those royalty pieces that are so popular these days.

I didn’t expect to be dressed as a medieval knight, guarding the entrance to a bloody toy shop!


I wrote this in response to Kreative Kue 171, issued on this site earlier this week. Feel free to join in; just follow the link.

8 thoughts on “…to earn a crust

        1. It was inspired by an actress who was a contestant on a celebrity game show. She, apparently, had originally planned to enter the legal profession but opted for acting for the same reasons.

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  1. Brilliant, although dismal, end! Those jolly words like “bar”, “barrister” and “thespian” can catch one off guard – especially if you’re dressed in a very short medieval frock.

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