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Legal Drama

Television dons its wig and gown

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In 'Henry VI, Part 2', Shakespeare has Dick the Butcher stir up Jack Cade's gang by suggesting that: "...first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers". The legal profession seems always to have provoked cynical and rueful comment, but on television, at least, lawyers have usually been cast in heroic moulds. For decades they, and the Law in general, have been a rich source of fascination for viewers.

The British system divides lawyers into solicitors, who directly liaise with clients, and barristers, who are instructed by the solicitors on how to represent the clients in courtroom hearings. Magistrates decide cases in the Lower Courts, which deal with smaller summary offences; the Higher Courts consider more serious cases and are presided over by judges, who have much greater discretion and sentencing powers. The traditional protagonist of a television legal drama can be seen in such popular series as Boyd QC (ITV, 1956-64), starring the ultra-smooth Michael Denison, and the John Thaw vehicle Kavanagh QC (ITV, 1995-2001). The eponymous advocates are invariably masters at using the system to their best advantage, and remain cool and calculating under pressure, without losing sight of the human dimension to their case. This dichotomy, requiring of lawyers both intellectual passion and emotional detachment, was particularly emphasised in The Main Chance (ITV, 1969-75) in which David Main struggled between his sympathy for the underdog and his desire to become a huge success as a solicitor.

A number of series featuring barristers have presented more radical approaches to the genre. Made at the height of Thatcher's Britain, Blind Justice (BBC, 1988) depicted progressive, left-wing barristers and their unsuccessful attempts to make the state accountable for its activities limiting the freedom of the individual. Black Silk (BBC, 1985) followed the travails of a black lawyer trying to reconcile his social aspirations for a more pluralistic and multicultural society and his political ambitions within his all-white chambers. Although at heart an old-fashioned project tailor-made for the glamorous Margaret Lockwood, Justice (ITV, 1971-73) remains one of the only legal series to have a woman as its main protagonist. More recently, series focusing on young lawyers, such as This Life (BBC, 1997-98; 2006), North Square (Channel 4, 2000), The Brief (ITV, 2005-06) and New Street Law (BBC, 2006- ), have all taken a vaguely oppositional approach to the legal status quo, but the emphasis is more on the characters' frequently tumultuous love lives than the issues raised by their cases. One series that tries to have it both ways is G.F. Newman's Judge John Deed (BBC, 2001- ), in which the libidinous and quixotic hero is simultaneously deeply entrenched in the Establishment and yet seemingly permanently at odds with it.

Although the Law is often seen as arcane and obscure, most people can relate to being a juror, a dynamic emphasised in some shows by having members of the public decide the result of a (fictional) case. An early example was the mock trial staged in British Justice (BBC, tx. 29/9/1947) by Jennifer Wayne and Robert Barr, in which viewers were invited to pass judgement on the legal system itself. While it's not clear that this was a genuine 'interactive' experiment, a degree of 'audience participation' was a feature of later legal dramas, notably The Verdict is Yours (ITV, 1958-59; 1962-63) and the hugely popular daytime series Crown Court (ITV, 1972-84). Conversely, Jury Room (BBC, 1965) recreated genuine trials, but fictionalised the jury's deliberations. The 13-part serial Jury (BBC, 1983) looks outwardly like a standard fictional drama, but while the case was heard in court in linear fashion, the private lives of its jurors were presented in parallel but not necessarily in the same time frame. Magistrates' courts are represented far less often on screen, being more intimate and dealing with smaller scale cases with less obvious dramatic potential; notable exceptions include the fine, semi-improvised drama Six Days of Justice (ITV, 1972-75) and In Court Today (ITV, 1959), which was entirely unscripted.

Many sitcoms include episodes where their protagonists serve on juries, among them Hancock's Half Hour (BBC, 1956-60), Citizen Smith (BBC, 1977-80) and One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000), but only a few have taken the Law as their main subject. Simon Nye's sitcom Is it Legal? (ITV, 1995-96; Channel 4, 1998) was set in a solicitor's office, but most of the rest deal with barristers and judges, for example Brothers in Law (BBC, 1962), taken from Henry Cecil's bestseller. Cecil was a real-life county court judge and contributed to the spin-off series Mr Justice Duncannon (BBC, 1963) and worked on Misleading Cases (BBC, 1967), starring Alastair Sim as the long-suffering Mr Justice Swallow and also featuring an early appearance by lawyer-turned-comedian John Cleese.

Many practising lawyers have written legal dramas, including Helena Kennedy (Blind Justice), Rudy Narayan (Black Silk) and John Batt (The Main Chance and Justice), but the best-known barrister-turned-writer is undoubtedly John Mortimer. His most famous creation is Rumpole of the Bailey (BBC, 1975; ITV, 1978-80; 1983; 1987-92), a glorious mixture of comedy and resignation, starring Leo McKern as the eponymous Old Bailey 'hack'. Mortimer was himself played by Simon Callow in 'The Trials of Oz' (Performance, BBC, tx. 9/11/1991), which artfully pointed up the absurdities in one of the last major British obscenity trials, making even the recent past appear positively alien.

The traditional law template has been varied with some success by combining it with other genres and moving it away from recognisable contemporary surroundings. Dennis Potter's Son of Man (BBC, tx. 16/4/1969) and Jesus of Nazareth (ITV, 1977) feature extended treatments of the judgement of Christ before his crucifixion, while Jean Anouilh's 'The Lark' (Play of the Week, ITV, tx. 28/8/1962) presented the trial of Joan of Ark. There have, however, been few British legal dramas more exotic than Rudolph Cartier's production of Rashomon (BBC, tx. 3/3/1961), set in 12th century Japan, or Judge Dee (ITV, 1969), about a real-life magistrate in China during the Tang dynasty.

Other examples of genre crosspollination include the entire 23rd series of Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 2005- ), entitled 'The Trial of a Time Lord' (tx. 6/9-6/12/1986) which saw Colin Baker's Doctor being charged with transgressing the 'First Law of Time'. The Courtroom (Channel 4, 2004) was Phil Redmond's short-lived attempt to create a legal soap. Many popular Victorian and Edwardian novels have also included courtroom climaxes, as in Anthony Trollope's The Pallisers (BBC, 1974) and E.M. Forster's A Passage To India (Play of the Month, tx. BBC 16/11/1965), while Charles Dickens' Bleak House (BBC, 1959; 1985; 2005) is a mordant satire on the British judiciary, dissecting the fallout from the seemingly endless case of 'Jarndyce v Jarndyce'.

Whether exploring the working of military tribunals in such series as Court Martial (ITV, 1965-66) and The Brief (ITV, 1984), or the relationship between courtroom proceedings and the police's investigations in Lynda La Plante's sombre, split-screen series Trial and Retribution (ITV, 1997- ), or producing such campaigning works as Paul Greengrass's docudrama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (ITV, 18/1/1999), television legal dramas have over the years continued to successfully prove their strength, resilience and relevance as a popular genre.

Sergio Angelini

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Thumbnail image of Black Silk (1985)

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Thumbnail image of Crown Court (1972-84)

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