Updated: Jun 16, 2020
When Caroline’s dad died, we inherited his books. He was a coal miner’s son, a passionate self-educator, so he had quite a lot of them.
In one of them, Caroline found a picture of Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey, a great celebrity of the 1930s, defrocked for allegedly consorting with chorus girls and the like, whose life ended when he was accidentally eaten by a lion in a circus ring. Caroline knew all about the Rector of Stiffkey. Years ago, she had worked with his son, Arnold, shared a flat with his grandson, Guy and met his widow, Molly (‘How tiresome to have one’s husband eaten by a lion’).
The picture drew us to the book - H. Montgomery-Hyde’s biography of Norman Birkett, published in 1964. It has the best first sentence of any biography and possibly any book: ‘”If it had ever been my lot to decide to cut up a lady in small pieces and put her in an unwanted suitcase,’ the late Sir Patrick Hastings once remarked, “I should, without hesitation have placed my future in Norman Birkett’s hands.”’
It’s the word ‘unwanted’ that makes it special. It suggests that, having cut up the body, you go up to the loft-space where you keep the suitcases and think, ‘No, not the Samsonite, I might need that next time I go to Swanage.’
The rest of the book wasn’t quite up to the same standard as the first sentence - how could it be? - but still it gripped.
Norman Birkett, came from Ulverston in Cumbria and was a neighbour of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, to whom he bore a modest resemblance. The son of a Methodist minister, he left school at the age of 15 to take up an apprenticeship with a draper but carried on his studies at night school and eventually won a scholarship to Cambridge.
He became the most celebrated barrister of his day – first call for any case that was tricky, delicate or hopeless.
Those were the days when barristers didn’t specialise, so on Tuesday he’d be doing a multiple stabbing, Wednesday a scandalous divorce and on Thursday he’d be unravelling the intricate shenanigans of Consolidated Stuff vs Amalgamated Money. It was he who defended the Rector of Stiffkey in the consistory court, who secured Mrs Wallis Simpson’s divorce from Mr Simpson so that she could marry the King and precipitate an abdication without which HM Queen Elizabeth II would be a half-forgotten minor royal. He (unsuccessfully) defended Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian shocker ‘The Well of Loneliness’ against accusations of obscenity, and (successfully) saved Tony Mancini, the Brighton Trunk Murderer, from the hangman’s noose (Years later, on his deathbed, Mancini admitted he did it).
For a couple of writers, eager for stories, Birkett’s casebook was a gift. We (Caroline and I are writing partners as well as being married) filleted a dozen or so and sold them as afternoon plays to BBC Radio 4. Two series were made, the first in 2010 starring David Haig as Birkett and the second with Neil Dudgeon in 2012. Some of the plays are available as Audiobooks on Amazon and a lot of them have been posted (probably without permission but such is life in the digital age) on YouTube.
A few years later, Warren, the agent we’ve been with ever since he was in short trousers and I had hair, suggested turning some of the Birkett stories into novels.
Something approaching historical accuracy is just about possible for a forty-five minute play. In a novel it gets tricky. I have a great deal of respect, reverence even, for Norman Birkett. What if I wanted him, for narrative purposes, to do or say something stupid or wicked? What if I wanted to put thoughts in his head about his life, his wife, politics or religion? What if I wanted him to get drunk and fall over or lose his trousers (as it happened, I did want to make him lose his trousers).
‘Based on’, seemed a better idea.
And so, Arthur Skelton, very loosely based on Norman Birkett, sprang into being.
There are some obvious similarities between the fictional Skelton and the real Birkett, characteristics that seemed too useful not to steal. Both have two children. Both are tall, thin and geeky. Norman Birkett married a Swedish PE instructress: Skelton a sporty one-quarter Swede. Birkett had a clerk called Edgar, although Edgar Bowker, the real one, has very little in common with Edgar Hobbes, the fictional one. I should have changed the name, I suppose, but ‘Edgar’ seemed too perfect to abandon.
The cases are even more fictionalised than the man. Mary Dutton’s story bears some resemblance to that of Annie Pace, accused in 1928 of poisoning her husband in the Forest of Dean, but nowhere near enough to stand up to a historian’s scrutiny. These alterations, too, were necessary. Real-life is always far more implausible, coincidence ridden and downright silly than you can get away with in fiction.
Take, for instance, the story about a defrocked vicar who got eaten by a lion in a circus ring. Who in their right mind would believe a thing like that?