Prime crime TV

Lawyers sit somewhere between accountants and IT technicians in the glamour stakes. Yet, in the world of TV drama they somehow loom large. By Jon Parker

From re-runs of 1970s classic series and imports from America to the most recent newcomers on the criminal block, legal dramas are everywhere on the TV.

The latest unrealistically clear-skinned, bright-eyed and well-nourished additions to the on-screen legal world are those of The Innocence Project, set to hit primetime BBC1 early next month.

Dispensing with the usual subjects of legal dramas solicitors, barristers and the occasional judge The Innocence Project covers instead the world of law school pro bono work.

Loosely based on the real-life Innocence Project, a pro bono enterprise started at New York’s Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law, the eight-part drama tells the story of a group of undergraduate law students working to overturn the sentences of people who have been wrongly convicted of murder.

The show was written by Oliver Brown, a former law student himself, and is a cheesy portrayal of the world of law school pro bono work: think Hollyoaks lookalikes pouting their way through the law books, overseen by lavender-rinse heart-throb and Monarch of the Glen star Lloyd Owen as their brooding professor.

The show was written by Oliver Brown, a former law student himself, and is a cheesy portrayal of the world of law school pro bono work: think Hollyoaks watch the show you’ll see how different it is,” he says, slightly defensively.

“And it is realistic, in the sense that there are real-life Innocence Projects out there, with students spending a lot of time going through the law books to get mpeople off death row or out of jail.”

New series of New Street Law
Also new to our screens this season is the latest series of New Street Law. More conventional than The Innocence Project but mnot one iota less corny, the drama follows the exploits of two rival Manchesterbased mbarristers’ chambers.

Like The Innocence Project, the show runs along familiar single-mindedpursuit- of-justice lines, with barrister Jack Roper’s quest for the truth leading him to be accused of fabricating a defence for his client.

Heading Roper’s prosecution is onetime mentor Laurence Scammel, who is intent on teaching his former pupil a lesson for spurning his offer of a job in favour of setting up a rival set. Providing the love interest/eye-candy, meanwhile, is Scammel ‘s daughter Laura, who’s torn between a love for her father and a love for Roper and justice

Golden oldies
Corny and predictable they may be, but these two shows are just the latest in a long line of legal dramas. Here is Lawyer 2B‘s round-up of a few of the most significant mprogrammes in recent years.

Rumpole of the Bailey
Thames Television, 1978-1992

Rumpole was feel-good Sunday night stuff, playing up to the stereotype of the barrister as a portly, kind-hearted former public schoolboy with a fondness for literature and fine dining.

Written by former barrister John Mortimer, Rumpole first appeared on TV screens in a one-off BBC play in the 1970s and when the BBC failed to commission a series, ITV took the opportunity instead.

Doughty Street Chambers barrister Michael Grieve QC was a junior in the same chambers, 1 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, as John Mortimer when he was first asked to act as a technical legal adviser to the programme. He tells the story of when a scene was filmed in his absence. “It wasn’t a court scene, so there was no need for me to be there,” he explains. “Rumpole and his instructing solicitor were having a client conference in a prison. But that simply couldn’t happen: a prison guard would have to have been outside the room, well out of earshot.

“I asked if we could re-do the scene, but was told it would cost 50,000. So instead, our producer planted a competition in one of the daily newspapers, asking viewers to spot the deliberate mistake”

Lawyer 2B verdict:
A little cosy, but a classic. A well-written show whose hero is the perfect opposite of the US attorney shouting ‘objection!’.

Kavanagh QC
ITV, 1995-1999

A slightly posher version of Inspector Morse, Kavanagh QC was a gruff northern barrister played by InspectorMorse star John Thaw. Like Morse, Kavanagh is a hero determined to fight for justice, but his moodiness and dedication to his job cause problems in his private life.

David Etherington QC, a tenant of 18 Red Lion Court, advised the legal series as a junior barrister, and also gave advice on scripts and plots.

“Sometimes I had a horror that I’ll be in a case and, by pure coincidence, it will resemble a [TV] case I’ve advised on,” he confesses. “Though this would never happen, of course, because planning and filming take place a long time before the mprogramme appears.”

Conventions such as the fact that barristers don’t shake hands in court or don’t wander the streets in their robes are all details that a technical legal adviser must look out for.

“A thing that struck me the first time I went on set was that the courtroom was too tidy,” Etherington adds. “Male barristers in particular are very messy people. As soon as I mentioned this, an army of people were sent on set to mess it up. The key word in these programmes is authenticity.”

Lawyer 2B verdict:
A bit worthy, but perhaps that’s the price of authenticity. And a lot more interesting than a feature-length edition of Morse.

This Life
BBC, 1996-1997

Though This Life technically concerned the lives of five twenty-something lawyers in a London houseshare, viewers could be forgiven for forgetting that the show concerned lawyers at all, given its tendency to drift into sub-plots involving drug use, gay prostitutes and unplanned pregnancies. Despite, or possibly because of, that the show was an instant hit with viewers. Yet, it was axed after its second successful series due to the number of complaints it received for its controversial plotlines, foul language and complacent attitude towards drugs.

Lawyer 2B verdict:
Written by former solicitor Amy Jenkins, This Life was hardly a legal drama at all, but is still fondly remembered by viewers 10 years on.

North Square
Channel 4, 2000

A world away from cosy old Rumpole, North Square was a show about ruthless young barristers in a criminal chambers in Leeds. It was written by Peter Moffat, a former barrister, who left criminal set 3 Gray’s Inn Square after eight years to start writing. “I always liked programmes such as Rumpole and Kavanagh, but mthought they were too solid and respectable,” Moffat says.

“My experience of the bar was of being young, helpless and scared, meeting lots of vicious f***ers and finding it was much more frantic, fun and bizarre than any of those programmes ever showed.”

Lawyer 2B verdict:
If Rumpole was too sweet, these guys were way too sour.

Judge John Deed
BBC, 2001

The writer of Judge John Deed sought to counter our stereotypes of judges as stuffy, staid old men by making a show about a racy judge, played by Martin mShaw, with a weakness for loose women and fast cars.

David Etherington QC has been the show’s technical legal adviser since the first series. “I think the programme was a projection of what a judge could be,” he says. “Sometimes the profession gets worried that some of the things that Deed gets up to appear to be attributed to them, but he’s only a ‘what if?’ judge.”

Lawyer 2B verdict:
Nonsense, but not un-entertaining for it.

BBC, 2003

Pitched as ‘quirky and sexy’, Trust cast Soldier Soldier star Robson Green in the improbable role of a high-flying City msolicitor. If that didn’t tell you all you needed to know, TV critics certainly weren’t slow to put the boot in. Even Marcel Berlins, the BBC and The Guardian’s legal pundit, took time to slam the show as “pathetically pass砠and bearing “no resemblance between the law firm and its lawyers on screen and those [he has] come across in real life.”

Lawyer 2B verdict:
Marcel says it all Lawyer 2B’s favourite line was when Green’s character Stephen Bradley, said proudly: “I’m a corporate lawyer. I do corporate law.”

American shows
But, let us not forget American legal dramas. Given that practically every second person in the US is a lawyer or married to one, it’s no surprise that some of the most iconic shows have originated from the other side of the pond.

LA Law

With egos matched only by the size of their hair and shoulder pads, the toughtalking lawyers of fictional firm McKenzie Brackman Chaney & Kuzak took on both criminal and civil cases.

Changes to the creative team behind the show and an escalating budget meant that an eighth season of the hit series was cancelled to make way for a fledgling ER in 1994, but a standing testament to the show’s influence, even in the UK, is South Coast law firm Lester Aldridge, which changed its email address format to earlier this year.

Lawyer 2B verdict:
LA Law did for lawyers what Top Gun did for pilots. It was also (privately) one of the most commonly cited reasons for people wanting to become a lawyer. Corny but iconic.

Ally McBeal

This bizarre but highly original hit series dazzled viewers with its surreal mix of thoughtful insights, fantasy sequences and guest appearances from the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Barry White and Dame Edna Everage. Though written by the same former Boston lawyer behind LA Law, it could scarcely be more different and proved every bit as popular.

Lawyer 2B verdict:
Ally McBeal was to the 1990s what LA Law was to the 1980s. Although it wasn’t for all tastes, the show was both a commercial hit and a cult classic.