London Stories: An Agatha Christie masterpiece

“You have been summoned for jury service.”

Date/Time: Sun 29 July 2018 15:00 (3 pm)

Location: London County Hall, Central Gallery, Row B, Seat 24

Jury service? Yes — and I went willingly. The occasion? I had bought myself a ticket to see Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” while in London last summer. The play, then 10 months into its run, was being staged in the magnificent London County Hall on the south bank of the River Thames.

July 29 was to be my last full day in London before flying home after teaching a two-week course in the city. I wanted to end on a high note, with a dose of arts and culture. I could not have asked for a better experience.

The setting was grand. The production was fabulous. It was one of those moments when I had to pinch myself and appreciate the circumstances that had brought me here: I was teaching a study-abroad class for the first time and exploring the British capital with six students from the Portland area. And now I was watching live theater in a nearly century-old building.

London County Hall, opened in 1922, sits on the south bank of the River Thames, flanked on one side by the London Eye.

After a farewell dinner on Friday night, my students and I went our separate ways on the final weekend of the program. I wound up here. Not in the West End theater district, but several miles away at the elegant London County Hall, which began construction before the First World War and opened in 1922, The building originally housed the London County Council government offices, but today it is home to two hotels, several restaurants, apartments and tourist attractions.

County Hall is next to the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel, and across the Thames from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Little wonder that this photogenic building in a tourist hot spot attracts so much attention.

Approaching the building from the south side, you enter a spacious foyer and climb a marble staircase which takes you into the theater. My seat was in the second level, perfectly centered and looking down at the stage. I was at the end of a row seated next to a friendly woman my age. Her name was Laura, as I recall, and she had come with her husband and grandchildren. She said they were retired and came in from the suburbs regularly for performances just like this.

The production itself was superb. Agatha Christie was a master storyteller, and this play was adapted from one of her short stories published way back in 1925. When she died in 1979 at age 85, she had written 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels, more than 20 plays and upwards of 150 short stories. With more than 2 billion books published, she was outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

In “Witness for the Prosecution,” the story centers on themes of justice, passion and betrayal in a courtroom setting. A young man, Leonard Vole, is accused of murdering a widow to inherit her wealth. Leonard is brought to trial and we, the audience, quickly lose ourselves in the gripping drama as he and other witnesses, including his callous wife, are called to testify. At stake is a possible death sentence if he is found guilty.

Even some 10 months after I saw the play, I have fond memories of losing myself in a world-class production featuring British stage actors at the top of their craft. Along with sharp dialogue and crystalline acoustics, there are white-wigged jurists and swift set changes that keep the story moving to its climax — and then to a surprising, alternate ending.

When I came home, I was excited to share the experience with my wife. I rented a DVD of the 1957 film adaptation starring Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich and directed by Billy Wilder.

The movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but watching it six decades later, I had to wonder why. Viewing it on the small screen in black and white, I was put off by the appalling sexism embodied by Laughton’s character. Did I miss all that in London? Or was the dialogue toned down for a modern audience?

In any event, catching this matinee performance was a highlight among highlights during my short stay in London. In just five more weeks, I’ll return to teach the same class, this time with 10 students in tow from Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver.

Lori will join me toward the tail end of the program, so we can have a few days together to explore the city.

We definitely want to see a play or two. I just may try to talk her into seeing this one. It’s scheduled to continue its run through March 2020. #SeeYouinCourt

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London stories: The journalists’ church

St. Bride’s Church and its magnificent steeple can be found just off Fleet Street, where print journalism began in the early 1500s.

One of the most indelible memories of my trip to London last summer was the visit to St. Bride’s Church, also known as The Journalists’ Church.

The church is situated just off historic Fleet Street, where the British printing press was established in the early 1500s. My Media Literacy students and I were there on a field trip to learn more about that history when our tour guide led us into a quiet courtyard and pointed out the elegant structure designed by the famed architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

The entrance to St. Bride’s Church

According to historians, St. Bride’s roots go back to shortly after the Roman invasion of 43 A.D., making it one of the oldest sites of worship in Britain. This is the eighth church on the site, succeeding others lost over the years to fire, World War II bombs and other causes.

Little did I know of what awaited us inside — a pristine interior with lit candles and an altar dedicated to the memories of journalists who have died in the course of their duties around the world. 

Seldom have I been moved as much as I was by this tribute to the men and women who work so selflessly and courageously to cover wars and other events around the globe, as well as happenings in local communities.

On the day we visited, there was a newspaper story that recently had been added to the display — an account of the four journalists and a sales associate who were killed at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, by a gunman upset by coverage of his failed defamation lawsuit against the newspaper.

Less than a month before our visit, 5 people were killed at the Capital Gazette in Maryland in the deadliest attack on journalists in recent U.S. history.

I was reminded of their deaths — and of my visit to this hallowed space — when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this month. Along with honors bestowed on leading organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the Pulitzer judges awarded a special citation to the Capital Gazette for its “courageous response” in covering the deadly shooting at its own offices, coupled with a $100,000 bequest to further its journalistic mission.

I was reminded, too, by the death of a young journalist just days ago in the United Kingdom. Lyra McKee was killed April 19 while reporting on a night of violent unrest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She was 29 years old.

Around the world, 54 journalists were killed in reprisal for their work in 2018 — three times as many as the year before — according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The tally includes Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose murder allegedly was ordered by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. As we all know, President Trump refused to cast blame despite a CIA assessment that the prince had ordered the killing.

My students were touched just as I was during the half-hour we spent inside McBride’s. Though it was sad for all of us, I was heartened to see them move slowly through the pews, taking in the names of reporters, photographers and others who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their profession and the public.

In a class discussion afterward, one student said through tears that the visit had forever changed his perception of the news media and his appreciation for the First Amendment freedoms we enjoy in the United States.

It was a profound experience for me as well, and one I look forward to repeating with another group of students when I return to the U.K. in July.

London stories: A feast for the eyes

George at the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of London’s finest.

I don’t want to jinx myself, but things seem to be ramping up quite nicely for the 2.0 version of my Media Literacy in London course.

As of Tuesday, when I held the last of four information sessions about the course, a total of 14 students on two campuses have opened applications to be part of the class this year, with a couple more expected in the coming days. Six students participated last year in the inaugural year, and I hope to register 10-12 for the two-week program in July.

While Portland State’s Education Abroad office has been amazingly supportive with suggestions and resources, it still falls upon the individual faculty member to market a study abroad course like this one. So, in addition to getting the word out by speaking to several Communications classes since September, I’ve been sharing photos from last year’s trip during the info sessions.

And, hey, that gives me a good excuse to share some of my favorites here.

From the moment I landed at Heathrow Airport, I knew I was in for an amazing experience in London. It’s an incredibly diverse, dynamic city where centuries-old buildings can be found alongside modern structures, and the history and traditions are everywhere you go.

Thanks to a panoramic bus tour on Day Two and a walking tour of Fleet Street on Day 8, both led by professional guides who were born and raised in London, my students and I got a wonderful introduction to the city and its history and many of its most famous landmarks.

With my students outside Buckingham Palace, the principal residence of Queen Elizabeth.

In between, on a Sunday morning, we also enjoyed a narrated tour of the city skyline as we floated along the River Thames toward Greenwich, a borough in southeast London that is a World Heritage Site and offers spectacular views from Greenwich Park.

I can’t possibly name them all, but I can say that I still remember fondly seeing such attractions as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Here are some of the images from the summer of 2018. I’ll follow up with more, tied to specific themes, in the weeks and months to come.

Click on an image to move easily through the photo galleries.