For many of you, the idea of kicking back over the holidays with “lawyer shows” might seem a busman’s (airline pilot’s?) vacation. But I’d submit that what follows – my picks for the best English-language TV shows about lawyers and law practice – transcend the genre: they’re excellent dramas (mostly comedy-dramas) simpliciter. Besides, even when they’re about barristers behaving badly, they remind us that the law can be a profession of champions. They’re all about bridging the gap between law and justice.
Such a ranking is of course a matter of personal taste. So here’s my “qualification of ‘experts’” submission as a
preliminary to my boob-tube advocacy: I offer up these suggestions as a lawyer who has practised at firms small and large, and who has spent most of his career writing about law and society and law and culture, teaching law and culture in law faculties, and laying out a whack of his savings as an unusually avid consumer-collector of these shows. (I even own DVDs of the obscure and fluffy “Law and Disorder,” starring Penelope Keith (of “To the Manor Born”), which never made it beyond its first season (despite an auspicious if fluffy beginning), “Garrow’s Law” (a slow-moving, often awkward dramatization of William Garrow’s practice at the Old Bailey in the late eighteenth century), and the pre-Rumpole Rumpoles, from the origins of the “Old Bailey hack” in John Mortimer’s play, The Dock Brief.)
Four of my five picks are from the U.K. (three from England, one from Ireland), with an Australian production tied for first. Certainly Canada and the U.S. produce entertaining shows in this crowded genre – “Street Legal,” “This Is
Wonderland,” “Boston Legal,” “Allie McBeal,” “L.A. Law,” “The Practice”), but they are self-consciously quirky, extravagantly BIG and bizarre, never mind that the producers have selected litigation as a natural theatrical setting that in itself focuses our most challenging experiences down into dramatic tension and catharsis. Really the North American shows don’t achieve the aesthetic quality of even the British and Australian second tier – “Silk,” “The Accused,” “Criminal Justice,” “The Jury,” “Janet King,” and so on. (To my mind, these latter stand up to repeated viewing but are a little too anxious for pop appeal.)
One further bias I should specify: I can’t watch the “Law and Order” shows; for me, they’re too Hollywood and stodgy-stagey. The top (in my view) British producers show us law practice pretty well as it is, with modest allowances for the greater, more focused truth of fiction. Of course in their heroism or tragicomedy the protagonists are bigger than we are, but close enough to us that the narratives really resonate. That’s what good drama is.
My top five, in reverse order:
5: “North Square” This engaging show, set in a Leeds barristers’ chambers, ran for only one season, in 2000. But it features Phil Davis, riveting in everything he does, usually with his id barely under control (as here), which quality makes him a favourite of the film director Mike Leigh. Davis plays the clerk to this group of young lawyers (the administrator who in Britain runs the law office and curries favour with solicitors to get his bosses work), running their chambers as though it were a Mafia family. He is desperately loyal, and expects the same from his barristers and staff. In this respect, he is a bit of an archetype in law practice drama, the “support staff” who’s often the real force behind the enterprise. But this iteration of the archetype has added depth insofar as the lonely, manipulative clerk tries to compensate for his shambolic personal life by inserting himself into the private doings of his barristers and underlings. The writer is Peter Moffatt, who also created “Silk” and “Kavanagh, Q.C.” Expect franker representations of sex and street language than we get in North America. At this writing, Amazon.co.uk has boxed sets at competitive prices.
4: “The Irish R.M.” And now for something completely different. Although the cast features many fine Irish actors, the scripts, based as they are on the Somerville and Ross stories of the early 20th century, do not cater to 2016 notions of social correctness. They depend heavily on stereotypes – horse-trading, drunkenness, laziness, poetry – all in the service of setting the rural Irish off the toffy-nosed, “colonial” magistrate from London, played by Peter Boyle (Guthrie Featherstone, Q.C. on the “Rumpole of the Bailey” series; he is even more benign and sympathetic here). While embodying every one of the stereotypes as co-starring drunken roustabout, Niall Tobin – whom you might recall as the bishop in “Ballykissangel,” – implies in the DVD extras that they put even him off a bit. Then again, while playing the magistrate’s crafty landlord, Bryan Murray manages archetypally (if not stereotypically? – think “Ballykissangel” again) to work both sides of the undeclared war, usually to the benefit of the locals, and especially of himself. In other words, the locals generally get the best of things, and the real archetype is the overlord as arrogant dupe. The adaptation is faithful to its cozy literary source, the stories are unfailingly funny and entertaining, and the acting, direction, and photography are first-rate. Even the theme music is appropriately artful, setting the jig “Haste to the Wedding” against a military-style fanfare, complementing the archetypal folk versus overlord narrative. One episode includes a great Irish traditional band featuring Jackie Daly on button accordion. Adapted for television by Rosemary Anne Sisson.
3. “Rumpole of the Bailey”This long-running series (1975-1992) of hour-long episodes shows us the eternal junior barrister as champion of the little guy, convinced that crime is largely a creation of the class system, albeit while Horace Rumpole more or less comfortably (and often ruthlessly) exploits that system himself, never mind that it constantly turns on him. Can there ever be another Rumpole after Leo McKern, who inhabits the character as an alter ego? I have it directly from creator Sir John Mortimer that McKern was for some time afraid of the role’s ruining his career by typecasting him. In any event, I, for one, awaited every new Rumpole book and series with the highest anticipation, no matter that they’d become clichéd and predictable, and no matter that at trial Rumpole was (unrealistically) too often opposed by members of his own chambers. The stories remain comfortable and comforting – a reminder that though life is largely frustrating and disappointing for the (self-declared) idealist, when he sticks to his principles he can do some good, if rarely getting credit for it. (Interestingly, every barrister in my top three views himself, and is viewed in his legal community, as a rebel.) Rumpole’s conservatism, despite his pretensions to being a revolutionary, in some ways dates him; but if that troubles you, you won’t enjoy anything on this list except probably the next entry. (None of the others is for historical revisionists, although the next two picks are very modern indeed.) Amazon generally has boxed sets available at a good price.
2. – tied for first (more or less) “Rake”If you haven’t seen the original Australian version of this show, set in Sydney, you’re in for a rare treat, with enough vulgarity and brashness that you know it would not get made in North America or even Britain (probably not even on cable or by the new digital producers). Richard Roxburgh is superb as the coke-snorting, whore-mongering, gambling, bad-lot-associating, tax-dodging, contemptuous (but not really contemptible: he’s the original charming rogue) barrister. “Rake” has been through four series now, with a hint that another is on the way, in which Roxburgh’s character, Cleaver Green, will (unavoidably) take on a new line of work, one step nearer the Law writ large. (It looked as if it were all going to end with the spectacular accident that concludes the third series, but no one would have that. Mind you, the fourth series is probably the weakest of the lot, although still very well crafted.) As with the other series on this list, the brilliant scripts and the wonderful ensemble cast help make it all possible. Written by Andrew Knight and Peter Duncan (and created by them with Roxburgh). And yes, talk about sex and foul mouths. You’ll be shocked, but laughing. (At this point, you can get boxed sets of seasons one through three, with season four available separately.)
1. “Kavanagh Q.C.”John Thaw (who died at sixty in 2002) is probably best known for his TV interpretation of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, but to my mind he’s just as good, if not better, as the successful barrister James Kavanagh. The show is notable for many strengths, most remarkably for how it manages to be first-rate drama (each episode feels as if it’s an intelligent film) never mind its fidelity to the law of evidence and Anglo-American trial procedure. As with the other series in this ranking, the compelling, timely stories (by Peter Moffatt) intermingle the characters’ personal and professional lives, making graphic the sometimes stressful interplay, including the resulting tensions in chambers. Nicholas Jones is wonderful as the infrequently sympathetic Jeremy Aldermarten, an upper-class twit-barrister who, in one memorable episode, plays the judge in a bar-and-bench production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury” while juggling a deeply compromising relationship with a former client. Several episodes include skirmishes over “workplace diversity.”
This program ran for six series of movie-length productions (1995-2001), with not a clanger in the bunch. Again, it features a top-notch ensemble cast, many of whom you’ll recognize from other series (e.g., “The Jewel in the Crown’s” Geraldine James), and, sure enough, with Cliff Parisi playing that archetypal front-line clerk (as in “Rumpole” and “North Square”) who keeps the firm on the straight and narrow while quietly struggling with personal life-crises. Several boxed sets are available.
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