The Witches of Pendle was written by Richard Shannon and co-produced with Tim Crook for the “Tales From The Courts of Law” series first broadcast between the winter of 1987 and spring of 1988 on LBC Radio in Greater London when it was situated at Gough Square behind Fleet Street. The first audio production was transmitted in 5 minute episodes with cueing by the LBC presenter Steve Jones during his lunch-time programme between 1.50 and 2 p.m.
The playwright Richard Shannon developed the script into a full length stage play renamed ‘Sabbat’ that was first produced at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London’s West End by IRDP’s stage theatre arm ‘On Air Productions’. The late Gerald Wells designed the set and stage managed three weeks of performances to enthusiastic audiences.
The first run in the spring of 1994 achieved critical acclaim and two of the actors, Mike Shannon (Richard’s father), and Alexandra Mathie, had starred in the first radio version of the story as ‘The Witches of Pendle’ that was recorded and directed in a small News Production booth at the famous London News Radio station.
This stage production also reverted back into a full audio drama studio with the direction
and recording of a new radio drama version that was broadcast on a later regularly scheduled radio drama programme on a new incarnation of LBC when it was situated in Hammersmith, and then the ITN building in Gray’s Inn Road during the middle to late 1990s.
Back in 1988, IRDP took the mono acting master into a multi-track stereo production suite, panned the performance to give it stereo dynamics, added sound effects and atmospheric tracks, and used early digital sound processing to reproduce the appropriate sonic ambience for the story. The short archive extract presented in this posting provides a representation of the style of production. Alexandra Mathie’s performance as Old Mother Demdike impressed the production team. She physically and mentally transformed herself and it was almost impossible to relate the character performed in the studio with the professional actress in everyday life outside of it.
The stage play ‘Sabbat’ was revived, rewritten and staged by the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster in 2009 with a sell-out run. To accompany the current commemoration of 400 years since the persecution of witches in Lancashire, Dukes has commissioned another production and national tour in 2012 with much critical acclaim.
Furthermore, the script has been published by Oberon Books.
The 400th anniversary has gestated a considerable amount of historical and cultural investigation of the events through art, exhibition, general news coverage. Richard Shannon’s play ‘Sabbat’ is clearly representing and symbolising the extent of interest and resonance that the story and legend plays in contemporary thinking.
The early radio production from 1987-8 was scripted with Tim Crook playing the role of a contemporary criminologist visiting the social and political narrative of the past. He was effectively questioning the ghosts of historical characters. ‘The Witches of Pendle’ was also included in a cassette compilation ‘Judges and Witches’ released in the Drama Collection in 1990 and could be heard with two further excellent original scripts by Richard Shannon- ‘Judge Jeffreys’ and ‘Mary Bateman’- productions broadcast by LBC Radio during the late 1980s.
The cast for the 1987/8 IRDP production of ‘The Witches of Pendle’ consisted of:
Alice Nutter and Old Mother Demdike played by Alexandra Mathie;
Alison Device and other parts played by Cate Hamer;
Judge Bromley and other parts played by Mike McCormack;
Mr Nowell played by Richard Shannon;
Other male parts played by Russell Richardson;
Tim Crook played himself.
The publicity for the production in 5 minute episodes and full length transmission stated:
King James I was obsessed by witchcraft. He created a climate of hysteria which brought about the execution of many poor and ill-educated women whose only crime was old age and disability. Criminologist Tim Crook illustrates how petty quarrels ended in denunciation with one neighbour pitted against another. As the law allowed a witch’s property to be handed over to the next of kin, even families conspired to point accusing fingers at their relations.
The IRDP archive of this production includes:
Original audio master of 1987-8 production.
Digital audio tape master for Stereo Theatre Drama Collection. 1989.
One double cassette pack of ‘Judges and Witches’ 1990.
Mini-disc masters of radio drama production of first ‘Sabbat’ 1994.
The 2012 national tour of Sabbat- The trials of the Pendle Withes, directed by Amy Leach resulted in a week of performances at the Orange Theatre in Richmond on Thames between Tuesday 3rd July and Saturday 9th July. Educational and historical fascination with the events, myths and memories connected with the history continue to be strong and the texts and archives arising out of the original proceedings are now on-line.
‘Good Friday 1612. High on a hill in the wild and lawless area of Pendle in Lancashire, a secret meeting is held at Malkin Tower. By the end of the year, most of those present have been sentenced to death at Lancaster Castle – hanged for the crime of witchcraft. 400 years later and The Lancashire Witches has become the most famous witch hunt and trial in British history.’