Saturday, 20 March 2010

Garrow's Law

It cannot be that difficult to write a courtroom drama.

The formula of a trial seems to make it easy.

There is the conflict between the parties and between their lawyers, the tension of unpredictable outcomes, the unfolding of events through the introduction of evidence and the testimony of witnesses, and - crucially - a finite process, which one can pad out for 25 or 50 minutes as required.

This ease perhaps explains why many notable legal shows do not stand out with for their plotting (I can hardly remember the plots from any of the hundreds of such dramas I have watched) but with individual or group characterization, from Kavanagh QC and Judge John Deed to Ally McBeal and This Life.

It follows that it must be difficult to write a good courtroom drama: one where the actual trial itself provokes the interest, not the agonies or the antics of the lawyers involved.

And here is where I think Garrow's Law succeeds.

Garrow's Law takes us away form the comfortable clich├ęs of modern courtroom drama to the Old Bailey trials of the late eighteenth century.

As elements of such trials were so different from those with which we are familiar - the prisoner was not able to give evidence on oath, defence representation was rare and limited, the juries conferred in the noisy courtroom and not in a discrete room, and so on - it forces the viewer to pay full attention to the trial itself.

I have never been so engrossed in a legal drama: I watched all four episodes in one sitting last weekend.

However, it does have its faults.

Many of the characters are stock-pieces: the callow and ambitious apprentice and his wise and grumpy mentor is the central relationship.

The production in no way conveys the bustling and noisy London poised between the ages of Hogarth and Dickens.

Indeed, it seems like London was just a park with a courtroom and a prison cell attached, with a small tavern to the side.

Within the Old Bailey there appears to be one busy corridor, where somewhat inevitably the characters keep encountering each other.

And the introduction of modern themes - such as the earnest moral majority (the dour-faced "reformation of manners" brigade), the worthy radicals (the nice sorts in the "corresponding society"), the war on terror, corruption by law-enforcers, political cover-ups - is a little clumsy and superficial.

But the trials themselves are genuinely fascinating.

There is also some extremely good acting, especially Aidan McArdle as Silvester, who can convey with a slight glance what a scriptwriter could waste a page on. Lyndsey Marshall also makes a good fist of playing a near-bluestocking somehow hanging around with the squares.

All this, and you get to see a lawyer being shot at dawn.


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paulathomas said...

I watched Garrows Law when it was on TV about a year ago and agree with a lot of your comments.

However there is one point you haven't mentioned. Garrow was a real historical character and is credited with bringing the adversarial system about, albeit indirectly.

John Collins said...

I agree that Garrow's Law was excellent.

I hope they do some more episodes.

I'm glad they're not bringing back Judge John Deed with its unbelievable plot lines and super-incestuous court scenes.

cuco3 said...

I didn't watch Garrow's Law, although perhaps I should have done. I'll keep an eye out for a repeat.

Most legal dramas I find to be dull or unbelieveable, (if the legal aspect is the core). By the time it reaches court, all the drama is over: it's the investigation which is interesting. Lots of dramas try to overcome this by turning the lawyers into detectives which just doesn't ring true. The worst of them turn the lawyers into showmen and cheats - like "Shark" - which is rather distasteful.

(Of course, I'm sure from the inside it can be fascinating, but not to me as a viewer.)

Mark Jones said...

Garrow's Law was a splendid piece of television; this is my take on it:

I think your criticisms may be valid, but perhaps you overlook the strictures of the film-making process? I am entirely happy with some 'stock-pieces' if the BBC can continue to draw on historical precedent to illuminate the modern day; which they did, with Garrow's Law.

Trinoc said...

How could you do a piece on TV courtroom dramas without mentioning Rumpole?

Jack of Kent said...


I almost did; but I think of them as good adaptations of fine short stories, rather than scripted courtroom dramas per se. Perhaps I am wrong here?


I know there is Garrow the historical figure: interestingly he started as a reformer and then became a rather reactionary old bugger!

C. C said...

I think I missed the first episode and watched the other three. But I was a bit disappointed - I thought they were going to actually show the process by which the real Garrow's activity led to some parliamentary debate and reforming Act. There was instead a lot of personal stuff which may be fascinating for some but was not what it was billed as. Or did I miss the references to how the new procedures are soooo different because of this guy?

Michael said...

Rumpole started as a radio play and most of the stories were written as scripts, whether for radio or TV, then adapted for publication. Later stories were written as such rather than as scripts. I may have to pull down some of my Rumpoles and see if I can spot any signs of the change (1995 according to the all-knowing Wikipedia).