Butter in a Lordly Dish is the name of a half-hour radio play written by Agatha Christie and first performed on the BBC Radio Light Programme on Tuesday January 13, 1948 at 9.30pm in a strand entitled Mystery Playhouse presents The Detection Club. It was repeated on Friday January 16 at 4.15pm and has never been repeated since. No recording exists and the play has never been commercially published. It remains one of Christie's least-known works. The title comes from the Bible: Book of Judges, 5:25 - "He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish". "He" refers to Sisera and "she" is Jael. In the Bible, Jael kills Sisera by hammering a nail through his head. The same fate awaits Sir Luke Enderby in Christie's play at the hands of Julia Keene. The play was one of a series of six written by members of the Detection Club to raise funds for the organisation. The other five plays and their first broadcasts (all on Tuesdays at 9.30pm) are as follows:
- The Murder at Warbeck Hall by Cyril Hare, broadcast on January 27, 1948
- A Nice Cup of Tea by Anthony Gilbert, broadcast on February 3, 1948
- Sweet Death by Christianna Brand on February 10, 1948
- Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble by E. C. R. Lorac on February 17, 1948
- Where Do We Go From Here? by Dorothy L. Sayers on February 24, 1948
The play was repeated, with a new cast apart from Richard Williams, reprising the role of Sir Luke Enderby, on 11 March 1956.
The play received its first production since 1956 as part of the Agatha Christie Theatre Festival in 2001 at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea and has occasionally been performed since as a special event. The play was included in Murder on Air, a special production from April 22 to May 3, 2008 by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company of three of Christie's radio plays (the other two being The Yellow Iris and Personal Call) at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
Both radio productions were believed to be missing from the BBC archives for decades, but in 2014 the 1956 production was rediscovered, and was issued on the Agatha Christie; The Lost Plays CD in 2015 to mark 125 years since Agatha Christie's birth. Also included on the CD were the 1960 version of Personal Call and a 1955 production of Murder in the Mews, both of which were also found in 2014.
In a boarding house off the Pimlico Road run by a Mrs. Petter, one of the guests, Julia Keene, is taking her leave after staying there for a short time. Mrs. Petter's daughter, Florrie, having seen Julia leaving a posh cocktail party in a house in Mayfair, wonders why the lady has been lodging with them. Florrie has elaborate and fanciful suspicions that Julia is involved in a gang of cat burglars and her job is to stake out the territory ahead of the other gang members. Florrie's mother scoffs at her daughter's ideas.
The talk turns to other crimes and the latest news in the papers of a trial at the Old Bailey involving a taxi driver where the jury is still out considering its verdict. Florrie is scornful of the judge's summing up but praises the reported prosecution speech by Sir Luke Enderby. He is a well known King's Counsel who came to public attention for successfully prosecuting a man called Henry Garfield in a serial killer case known as the "Blondes on the Beach". The accused was a good-looking man who attracted women and Mrs. Petter uses this example as an excuse to tell her daughter to be careful of the men that she meets. Their conversation is interrupted by Julia who asks to use their telephone. She is left alone to make the call and she rings up a house in Chishold Gardens where she asks to speak to Sir Luke Enderby...
Hayward, the servant, tells Julia over the phone that Sir Luke is not yet back from the Old Bailey. After finishing the phone call, Hayward lets in a visitor to the house – Susan Warren, a society lady. Sir Luke arrives soon afterwards from the trial having won his guilty verdict. Soon afterwards his wife arrives back home after a day out at Christie's and she and Susan soon talk of the nature of juries and the verdicts they reach – particularly when there are a number of women on the jury who might be influenced by their feelings for the accused. Like Mrs. Petter and Florrie they cite the case of Garfield and the "Blondes on the Beach".
Sir Luke announces that he is leaving for Liverpool that night on another case to the surprise of Lady Enderby who knew nothing of this plan. He soon goes and Susan sympathises with Lady Enderby on her husband's constant infidelities. Lady Enderby is philosophical – at least he wasn't unfaithful on their honeymoon ten years ago! He is devoted to their boys and kind and considerate to her. She is sure that his flings are just that – meaningless encounters.
Arriving at Paddington, Sir Luke meets his latest flame – Julia Keene. They get on the train and travel to a station strangely called 'Warning Halt'. From there they walk across the fields to an isolated cottage that Julia has found for their tryst where she has already brought in food for a meal. After a cheerful fire has been lit she brings in a meal of food rarely seen in the days of rationing including duck, pate and a large dish of butter – "Butter in a Lordly Dish" as Julia names it.
After their meal, she pours him coffee and once again the talk turns to the nature of Sir Luke's work. Julia asks him if he is troubled that his eloquence can lead to the execution of man and she also brings up the subject of Henry Garfield. Sir Luke tells her that there was no doubt as to the man's guilt in his view: he had known associations with the victims and he only avoided arrest the first few times due to alibis supplied by his wife. She might also have swayed the trial but for the fact that she was ill in hospital at the time with typhoid.
Sir Luke is suddenly troubled with a cramp in his leg and the phrase "Butter in a Lordly Dish" is also concerning him. His cramps get worse and his eyesight also starts to become fuzzy. Nevertheless, he is still able to see somewhat and is puzzled by Julia's actions as she picks up a hammer and nail. She mentions Sisera and Jael and Sir Luke is reminded where the phrase "Butter in a Lordly Dish" comes from.
As his condition further deteriorates Julia confesses three things: That she has drugged his coffee; that she is not Julia Keene but Julia Garfield; and that she and not her husband killed all the women who Henry Garfield was having affairs with. Unlike Lady Enderby, she was not prepared to put up with her husband's infidelities but nevertheless she still loved him. As Sir Luke struggles to move, Julia completes the biblical allusion by hammering a nail into his head...
1948 Radio production
Director/Producer: Martyn C. Webster
- Richard Williams played Sir Luke Enderby, KC
- Lydia Sherwood played Lady Enderby
- Rita Vale played Julia Keene
- Thea Wells played Susan Warren
- Dora Gregory played Mrs Petter
- Jill Nyasa played Florrie
- Janet Morrison played Hayward
- David Kossoff played Porter
1956 Radio Production
Director/Producer: Martyn C. Webster