Three attempts were made to hang Lee
More than A Shadow of Doubt?
By Jo Loosemore
A new radio play throws light and shade on an old story. A Shadow of Doubt re-imagines a historic murder mystery and the unsolved case of Babbacombe's John Lee.
A new radio play dramatises a local murder mystery. The play features the historic characters who were involved in the case of John 'Babbacombe' Lee, who became known as 'the man they couldn't hang'.
Did he murder his employer, Miss Keyse, or didn't he? And why did the gallows fail three times? Mystery has surrounded John Lee since 1884. Now his story can be heard on radio.
A Shadow of Doubt is written by Teignmouth-based writer, Eleanor Fossey and the play based on this local story was commissioned by BBC Radio Devon.
The play tells the story of John 'Babbacombe' Lee, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his employer, Miss Emma Keyse, in Torquay in 1885.
Lee stood on the gallows three times in Exeter prison, but each time they failed.
Although he was then sentenced to imprisonment in Portland, he remained 'the man they couldn't hang'. He is the only man to have survived the trapdoor system of execution.
"This is a local story and one that I didn't know a lot about. The more I read, the more fascinated I became about the story itself and the characters within it," said Eleanor Fossey, playwright.
The radio play is a dramatic interpretation of what may have happened on the night of the murder and subsequent fire at The Glen on Babbacombe beach in 1884. It also considers the trial and events on the gallows.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks remembered by the Reverend Pitkin, who followed Lee through the period. It also dramatises the opinions of those at the time who were involved in the case.
Pitkin is visited by a mysterious American, struggling to come to terms with his past. The vicar tells him Lee's story and of the surprising faith he remembers the prisoner having.
"I have never met a prisoner more steady and quiet."
The American questions Pitkin about Lee and his fate. Through their conversations, the play introduces the characters who were involved in the trial and in the failed execution.
"My difficulty was deciding who the main characters of the story were. As I researched they started to become alive. There are so many sides to this story and the characters tell different parts of it," said Eleanor Fossey.
"But you also have to remember that this is a drama and not a documentary."
The radio play is based on research published by Torquay historian Mike Holgate as well as Lee's autobiography.
A Shadow of Doubt features a cast of local actors.
This is one of more than 20 radio plays produced by BBC Radio Devon.
Many have considered local historical stories including the Bideford women who were hanged for witchcraft in the 17th Century (The Witches of Bideford) and Hallsands, the story of the South Devon village that collapsed into the sea in 1917.
A Shadow of Doubt is broadcast on Thursday 18 September as part of a three-hour programme devoted to the John Lee story.
last updated: 18/09/2008 at 13:01
Lee: Jack Corrigall
American: Tony Crocker
Mrs B: Rita Wood
Rev Pitkin: John Palmer
Eliza: Mary Froom
Jane: Marion Macbeth
Elizabeth: Helen Randall
Gasking: James Stevenson
Pearce: Nic Burge
Warder: Cliff Raymont
Cowtan: Ken Hayden Sadler
Berry: Nick Bradshaw
Manisty: David Gent
St Aubyn: Al Wadlan
Clerk: Nic Burge
Collins: Paul Wonnacott
Miss Keyse: Mavis Jones
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