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Black Silk (1985)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Black Silk (1985)
BBC2, tx. 7/11-26/12/1985
8 x 50 min episodes, colour
DirectorsTim King
 Nicholas Mallett
 Jan Sargent
ProducerRuth Boswell
CreatorsMustapha Matura
 Rudy Narayan

Cast: Rudolph Walker (Larry Scott), Kika Markham (Julie Smythe), Suzette Llewellyn (Jasmine Scott), Mona Hammond (Marjorie Scott), Allister Bain (Pedro Ojo)

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The cases of a black barrister with political ambitions and strong links to his local community who takes on cases involving minorities.

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Black Silk remains the only British television series to focus on the experiences of black lawyers. It was based partly on the cases of black barrister Rudy Narayan, who in 1977 had published Black Community on Trial. He acted as technical consultant on the series, which he co-created with the celebrated Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura. Half of the episodes are by black or Asian writers, including Feroza Syal's 'Undesirable Activities' (tx. 28/11/1985) in which Syal also co-stars as a Pakistani who falls foul of the British Immigration Act.

Rudolph Walker stars as the charismatic, ambitious and sometimes arrogant barrister who divides his time between his otherwise all-white chambers and a Community Law Centre. The focus is on the human dimension of the stories, and many episodes feature only token sequences in court. The series avoids simplistic representations of race in favour of a more complex and multicultural depiction of life in London, with the Afro-Caribbean, Irish and Asian communities all given prominence. Larry himself is separated from his Jamaican wife and now has a relationship with a white barrister.

The opening episode, 'A Long Way Away' (tx. 7/11/1985), reworks the premise of the first 'Rumpole of the Bailey' story (Play For Today, BBC1, tx. 16/12/1975): an illiterate black youth, arrested for knifing a white man after a sporting event, protests his innocence but won't give the names of his gang. As scripted by Tunde Ikoli, this is given a new dimension here as the boy is of mixed parentage. After years in foster homes and fending for himself he has been left with a confused sense of his own racial identity, his only definite affiliation being to Chelsea football team. In 'The Cause of Liberty' (tx. 14/11/1985), that boy's father, Pedro, tries to help his Irish neighbours, arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Earlier we have seen Pedro and Paddy mingle in each other's pubs, with Pedro singing 'Oh Danny Boy' on the stage. Paddy (who is married to an English woman) is eventually destroyed by his ordeal. While this might seem overly didactic, it is nevertheless smoothly and convincingly handled on screen.

In some ways Black Silk is more effective now than when first shown. The casual racism and the frequent use of repellent racial slurs it shows are now virtually unthinkable in a television show, a sign of how much broadcast drama has changed.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Police custody (2:09)
2. Politics (2:51)
3. The Law Center (3:22)
4. Personal history (1:57)
Complete episode: 'A Long Way Away' (49:07)
Hammond, Mona
Matura, Mustapha (1939-)
Skinner-Carter, Corinne (1931-)
Walker, Rudolph (1939-)
Black TV Writers
Legal Drama