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16 December, 2008  
Mrs Judge goes to Canberra

Virginia Bell, who is to take Michael Kirby’s place on the High Court, has fused marvellous stage presence and legal brilliance into one seamless performance. Consequently, this is an amazingly excellent selection

imageWell, that’s the end of a once fine institution.

I’m talking about the Glebe Supper Club, where Justice Virginia Bell presided for 30 years as artistic director.

Can she possibly direct future extravaganzas while keeping up appearances on the High Court?

Certainly, it will be tricky and her enormous theatrical shoes will be difficult to fill.

The GSC turned on a magnificent evening for the 50th birthday of Mrs Judge, as some of her friends refer to her.

She was carried by Nubian slaves into the amphitheater on a sedan chair, where numerous frolics unfolded.

The performance by the world famous, although somewhat aged, Soubrettes was memorable. Dressed as cans of Sirena tuna they gave a particularly moving rendition of “I’m in the Mornay”, apparently a reference to the judge’s cooking skills, which begin and end with tuna mornay.

Under her direction the Glebe Supper Club devised and presented a splendid 60th birthday celebration of her old friend, the journalist and social conscience David Marr.

Her idea was that Marr should be put on trial, charged with “dilettantism”. Virginia Bell was the judge and after lengthy hearing she found Marr guilty.

It was clearly the correct verdict, even though no defence witnesses were heard. This is an important insight into her judicial skill.

Actually, she had long held the view that Marr had wasted his time writing a biography of Garfield Barwick and that a far more profitable avenue of research and literary expression would have been to produce a biography of the retailing pioneer Joyce Mayne, whom she regards as a far more significant figure.

imageApart from the law, the theatre is Justice Bell’s big love. As a performer her timing is second to none and no one else on the bench gets close to summoning the full array of emotions and facial expressions required for judging.

She had an early stint as a television barrel girl, with the stage name Ginger de Winter.

In 1986 she and TV man David Lyle presented on the Nine Network a Salute to Australian Soaps, featuring the famous “bomb aftermath” episode of Number 96.

Justice Bell is a strong supporter of the rights of workers and rose to the position of President of the Australian Barrel Girls Association, fighting for better pay and more clothes.

She succeeded your editor as presenter of ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live, a hosted discussion program of compelling combativeness. She did the stint for a year before returning to the law.

She is also one of the most acutely diverting speakers on the after dinner circuit.

She has addressed gatherings on the difficulties elderly male judges have in handling detailed evidence about female genitalia.

She has spoken at length about how the entry into the barristers’ caper of greater numbers of women created uncertainty about the old iron-clad rule on entering and exiting lifts in Phillip Street chambers in order of seniority.

As a public defender her theatrical flourishes astonished the court and frequently turned a difficult case to her advantage.

At one stage of her career she had a busy practice representing men who had been sprung by the coppers trawling for trade in public toilets.

The prosecution case frequently unravelled as Ms Bell asked the arresting constable to drop his trousers in order to be able to better demonstrate to His Honour and the jury the visibility and position of the accused’s penis.

Former High Court justice Michael McHugh thinks highly of her ability and so too does Vladimir Gummov.

One of the life members of the Glebe Supper Club is Senator John Faulkner, the cabinet secretary and Special Minister of State.

It would not be a surprise if he didn’t warn his colleagues in government that Justice Bell would be an amazingly excellent choice for the High Court.


Reader Comments

Posted by: Chris Hazel
Date: December 15, 2008, 7:22 pm

very amusing, as usual. loved the Joyce Barwick tale
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: December 15, 2008, 11:42 pm

I once acted with her at school, in (appropriately) the School for Scandal. Needless to say, she was the better actress. Now wishing I had gone to the recent Class of '68 reunion, but I didn't think it would have the same amusing potential as the Glebe Supper Club.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: December 18, 2008, 11:32 pm

On thinking about it, it's not surprising we both ended up in crime, and with a certain ribald attitude to male sexuality, given that our adolescence was spent right in the heart of the Red Light district of Sydney, which was at the time flooded with R & R men.... Of course, she being a day-bug got to go home at night, whereas we boarders had to lie awake listening to the screams in the streets.......