(The National Post, 29 September 2015)
Peter Moffat became a barrister in England and then resigned from the bar to put his legal experience to work in a new career, television scriptwriting. He wrote for a series called Kavanagh QC, invented North Square, about barristers in Leeds, and then created Criminal Justice, in which each episode follows an individual through the judicial system. After that he invented Silk, an engaging series that has enthralled many Netflix subscribers and many PBS viewers as well.
Silk ran three seasons on the BBC, from 2111 to 2114. It was cancelled before I even glimpsed it but now it looks like one of the highlights of recent TV history. The cases it depicts are fairly standard but its picture of the legal profession feels fresh. It delivers an often funny, frequently tense and maybe realistic (Moffat swears it's realistic) account of life among barristers at the Shoe Lane Chambers in the ancient Inns of Court in London.
It's not overly complex but Canadian viewers have to know in advance that British lawyers do not function like ours. Britain has solicitors and barristers. Solicitors can solve many legal problems but going to court requires a barrister. As the public face of law, a barrister appears wigged and gowned before a judge and jury while the solicitor wears a business suit and sits in silence. If the barrister's gown is silk, the barrister wearing it is a QC, or Queen's Counsel, also called "a silk," in theory a superior form of barrister. You hire a silk, as in, "This is an important case. We should brief a silk." While remaining independent they may play the role of prosecutor or defence counsel. (That was the Canadian practice long ago but remains now mainly in theory.)
At the centre of the story stands Martha Costel lo (Maxine Peake), a bright, ambitious and good-looking barrister whose struggles and self-questioning we follow in detail. She's unusual in just about every way. When she's upset she puts on her headphones and listens briefly to the punk sounds of the Clash. That seems to calm her down.
In court Martha displays a delicate ferocity. She identifies emotionally with clients, including those accused of murder. She has a habit of squeezing their hands while saying she can help only if they're truthful. She loves to say that the four vital words in law are "innocent until proven guilty" but experience has taught her that the word "innocent" applies to only a few clients. Others may not have done what the police charge them with but have probably done something else quite wrong.
She stays with them to the last anyway, and usually on the winning side. Poised and articulate, she evokes comparison with Marie Henein, the stylish queen of criminal lawyers in real-life Toronto. But Martha, being in the alternate universe of television, becomes a figure of high drama. In court she sometimes yells at a witness, revealing her emotions. That's the kind of thing Henein dismisses as "bush-league."
When Silk first appeared on PBS as a Masterpiece Mystery! two years ago, the Los Angeles Times critic classified it as "The Good Wife meets Law and Order: UK." Not quite. The Good Wife takes us into many corners of its heroine's life, introducing us to Alicia Florrick's troubled kids, her annoying alcoholic mother, her heart-warming gay brother and her ex-husband (she has a shaky divorce).
Silk ignores all such possibilities and narrows its focus to the office and the court. Law and Order: UK begins with policemen at work, whereas Silk prefers to show us policemen only when they appear in the witness box, where Martha's merciless cross-examination rips apart their bogus evidence. A key phrase in the series is "fitted up," which has the same meaning as "framed." Corrupt cops "fit up" someone with false evidence to get a conviction.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a TV series about the law must contain a robust sexual element. The long-ago American series, LA Law, had many lecherous characters, including a divorce lawyer who routinely seduced his clients. The characters in the firm of Barr, Robinovitch and Tchobanian on Street Legal (it ran on the CBC for eight seasons in the 1980s and 1990s) fought for many noble causes but seemed equally interested in their vivid private lives. Sometimes they also fought battles for sexual freedom. At one point a workman harassed the lawyer Olivia Novak (Cynthia Dale) as she passed his job site. Olivia felled him with her briefcase.
In Silk, sex is limited to professional connections. Working late, obsessed with their careers, the barristers on Silk and their underlings never manage to meet anyone else. Even an unwanted pregnancy turns out to be the result of intra-office love.
Martha Costello's closest associate in the Chambers is Clive Reader, played by the dashing actor Rupert Penry-Jones. A handsome chap from a good family, Clive can't figure out what to do with himself. He and Martha have a shortterm sexual history. He knows his background fits him to do something distinguished but his earnestness can't hide the truth that he's a rather dim twit mainly interested in seducing younger barristers. He may find a niche as a prosecutor.
In the British system the senior clerk (pronounced clark) of Chambers is a figure of importance, expected to keep track of the barristers, find work for them through the solicitors, work out the fees and keep the chambers solvent. Shoe Lane's senior clerk, Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke), perhaps Silk's most interesting character, believes he's smarter than the barristers and thinks he controls them. There's a rumour that he's corrupt, which might mean he's taking bribes from solicitors. Billy is forever jumping around the Chambers, anxious to impress everyone, keeping alive the warfare between barristers and never quite hiding his forlorn dreams of love with Martha. Micky Joy, a solicitor from outside who works for a crime family, is Silk's most obviously evil character, played with reptilian satisfaction by Philip Davis.
Nowadays the BBC has many competitors but its surprising scripts and talented actors keep reminding us that it still provides rewarding television.