As seen on TV
1 March 2003
Over the years, millions have flocked to their sofas to watch the latest antics of legal heroes such as Rumpole of the Bailey, Kavanagh QC or the hotshots in LA Law. So what is it about the legal profession that makes such good TV? Is it a burning desire to see justice in action or simply a national obsession with wigs? And just how accurate are legal dramas anyway? Lawyer 2B goes behind the scenes of the UK's favourite legal programmes and meets the lawyers who make them happen.
|The Early Years - The Main Chance/Justice/Crown Court|
|Yorkshire TV, 1969-1975/Thames Television 1972-1984|
Retired solicitor John Batt has been in the headlines recently because of his major role in Sally Clark's defence team (see page 27). But Batt is also recognisable as the man behind some of the UK's first legal dramas. The Main Chance, which he wrote and legally advised on in the early 1970s, centred around solicitor David Main. A ratings winner, The Main Chance was the "first time that a solicitor was not shown sitting on a high stool in a wing collar, writing with a quillpen," says Batt. "It was also the first time a solicitor was shown swearing or kissing. David Main had an affair with his secretary, which shocked the living hell out of the legal establishment. They thought it an absolute disgrace that a senior officer of the court should be seen to possess and use a penis. But the 60s had happened and I was doing no more than holding up a mirror to real life." At the same time, Batt was writing and advising on another legal TV series called Justice, featuring Margaret Lockwood, a circuit barrister.
Justice also broke TV conventions by addressing controversial social problems, such as the Government's real-life failure to ban a painkiller that was killing up to 400 people a year. Batt feels lucky to have been involved in both programmes. "I was able to turn away from commercial conveyancing and practise law in a completely different and imaginary way. There is no more absorbing theatre than in a courtroom. The viewer hopes that justice will prevail, but it does not always happen."
Fictitious Fulchester Crown Court was the setting for the long-running courtroom drama called - imaginatively - Crown Court which kept viewers amused for half an hour on weekday afternoons. Tackling issues such as drug smuggling, murder and the unlawful transfer of Official Secrets, the series featured stars such as Connie Booth and Michael Elphick. Crown Court's jury consisted of real-life viewers who voted how the programme would end.
Michael Grieve QC of Doughty Street Chambers advised the final three series of the programme. "It was one of the first successful attempts to put criminal trials on TV," he recalls. "The drama at a real criminal trial is intense and you know that whatever the [jury's] decision is, it will have an effect for years. The criminal trial process and adversarial system lend themselves to TV very well."
Lawyer 2B verdict
Unfortunately, these groundbreaking dramas were before our time. We did, however, spot that the The Main Chance's David Main shares his name with the recently-departed chief executive of Morgan Cole. But that is where the similarity ends. Morgan Cole's Main is not even a lawyer and certainly did not have an affair with his secretary.
Though not bad for a court drama, Crown Court provides less-than-fond memories for at least one Lawyer 2B crew member. "It was a nightmare when you were off school sick and your mum made you watch it when all you wanted to do was watch cartoons."
|Rumpole of the Bailey|
|Thames Television, 1978-1992|
Possibly the most famous TV lawyer of them all, Rumpole of the Bailey first appeared on our screens in 1975 in a one-off BBC television play. The BBC decided not to commission a series, so Thames Television did instead in 1978. Larger than life, fiercely independent and often politically incorrect, Rumpole had a love for claret, English poetry and above all justice. Written by barrister-turned-writer John Mortimer, the plots often dealt with general social issues, such as gay rights and censorship.
Doughty Street barrister Michael Grieve QC was a junior in the same chambers as John Mortimer at 1 Dr Johnson's Buildings when he was first asked to act as a technical legal adviser to the programme.
"I was usually sent the scripts pre-production and was expected to read and comment on them where necessary," he says. "Once on set, I had to look out for things that could not happen for one reason or another, or looked out of place. If the judge was wearing the wrong wig, for example, or inadmissible evidence. A lot of people think that our judges bang gavels in court, but they don't. I would never let a gavel through."
One occasion that sticks in Grieve's mind is a scene that was filmed when he was absent. "It was not a court scene so there was no need for me to be present. But in this scene, Rumpole and his instructing solicitor were having a client conference in a prison. There was a shot of a prison guard looking down on the table they were sitting at, but that simply could not happen. A prison guard would be outside the room, well out of earshot. I asked if we could redo the scene but was told it would cost 50,000. So our producer planted a competition in one of the daily newspapers, which asked viewers to spot the deliberate mistake. I even think we offered some kind of prize."
Grieve, who carried a full caseload while he was advising on both Rumpole and Crown Court, says a technical legal adviser's job can be tricky because it involves balancing attention to detail with the creative aims of the production team and the dramatic flow of a good story. "Mistakes in a legal drama rather denigrate the programme and its plausibility," he adds.
Lawyer 2B verdict
A TV classic. Helped mould the public's perception of a lawyer as a barrister rather than a solicitor.
James Kavanagh QC, played by the late John Thaw, was a gruff yet charismatic Northern barrister who championed the underdog. Like Judge John Deed, Kavanagh's personal life was rarely straightforward and he regularly struggled to balance his homelife with his quest for truth.
David Etherington QC, a tenant of 18 Red Lion Court, started to advise the legal series as a junior barrister. "I went on set at Kavanagh, confidently thinking I was coming in as the professional. But one of the first things I was asked was where the usher sits in court and I could not think of the answer. So although I started out feeling rather self-important, I ended up in a terror sweat for an hour and a half. I look at things rather differently when I am in court now."
Etherington was also involved in the scripting and ideas stage. "I often feel like an incredible spoilsport. So I try to find a way around it for the author if I can. Sometimes I have a horror that I will be in a case, and by pure coincidence, it will resemble a [television] case that I have advised," he says with a grimace. "Although of course, it could never happen, because planning and filming take place a long time before the programme appears."
Little known 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 legal adviser must look out for.
"Another thing that struck me the first time I went on set was that the courtroom was too tidy. Male barristers in particular are very messy people. As soon as I mentioned this, an army of people were straight on set to mess it up. The key word in these programmes is authenticity."
All the attention to detail pays off in the end, he adds. "I used to get High Court judges ringing me up minutes after an episode had finished saying, 'Well done, vintage Kavanagh'," Ethe-rington says.
What made Kavanagh different was that it exposed the "mechanism of being a barrister", claims Etherington. "Another brave thing was that it set an episode in the Court of Appeal, which was not easy to present because they are essentially legal tribunals.
"I think there is a great future for courtroom dramas because they deal with someone at a crossroads and whatever happens to them will change their life forever."
Lawyer 2B verdict
A bit worthy, but that's sometimes the price of a little dose of reality. A solid show largely down to the excellent performance of John Thaw.
Featuring five twenty-something lawyers who lived in a shared London house, This Life is a brassy, bold show which was co-written by Amy Jenkins, a solicitor who quit the law to become a full-time writer. Although the programme featured solicitors, it focused on the characters' personal lives rather than their working habits - we heard about the deals they were involved in but rarely entered the courtroom. An instant ratings hit, the BBC was constantly deluged with complaints about the show's bad language, sex scenes and complacent attitude towards drug use. So after two successful series, the Beeb decided not to commission another, leaving devoted viewers in the dark as to the fate of the cult heroes.
Lawyer 2B verdict
Many actually seem to have forgotten that this show centred on the legal profession.
|Channel 4, 2000|
Set in a criminal chambers in Leeds, North Square was a 10-part series about ruthless young barristers and their wheeler-dealer chief clerk.
Written by ex-barrister Peter Moffat, North Square was described by one critic as "Rumpole on steroids". Despite winning awards for best series and best writer in 2000, the programme was axed after only one series.
Moffat, who practised at criminal set 3 Gray's Inn Square for eight years, left the Bar to start writing. "I always liked programmes like Kavanagh and Rumpole but thought they were too solid and respectable. My experience of the Bar was of being young, helpless and scared, meeting lots of vicious f@?kers, and finding it was much more frantic, fun and bizarre than any of those programmes ever showed."
A Northern silk was asked to read the script before filming started. "He told me to write about the restructuring of barrister's fees," Moffat laughs.
"Having been a barrister is great for writing because you get used to working to incredibly tight deadlines," Moffat adds. "Your clerk can give you a brief one afternoon, expect you to have read and understood it by the next morning, when you meet your client, who wants you to succeed. You're under huge pressure all of the time so writing lots and lots of scripts really quickly is a huge piece of cake for me. But I do miss cross-examining policemen."
Lawyer 2B verdict
Gritty and raw. A cracking drama that should not have been dropped after only one series.
|Judge John Deed|
Famous for his fast cars and even faster lifestyle, Judge John Deed is an example of a 'what if' judge, says David Etherington QC, a tenant of 18 Red Lion Court, who has been the programme's legal adviser since the first series.
"I think the programme is a projection of what a judge could be," says Etherington. "Sometimes the profession worries that some of the things Deed gets up to appear to be attributed to them," he adds. "But he is a 'what if' judge. There is a lot of fun in it."
Etherington, who has also advised The Bill and even Crossroads on occasion, says a good legal adviser is someone who can spot problems but can also offer a solution immediately. "The production team don't want to hear that they need to rework the entire script because they have to work to such tight deadlines. They want you to tell them what they should cut out and what it should be replaced with."
Because a legal drama will attract a higher proportion of legally-minded viewers than other programmes, Etherington stresses the importance of accuracy and attention to detail. "On one hand, you are not presenting a documentary so you have to make sure it is interesting. But on the other hand, if you make a mistake you will look silly."
Lawyer 2B verdict
Fast cars, fast women, fast justice. The oh-so-maverick judge simply cannot be taken seriously. According to one High Court source he "wouldn't last five minutes in the robing room at the Royal Courts of Justice".
Pitched as a "quirky and sexy" drama about the lives and loves of a group of City lawyers, Trust sees housewives' favourite Robson Green casting off his Soldier Soldier army gear in favour of a sharp suit and the Square Mile. Sadly, Trust has not met with many favourable reviews, even though it is rumoured to have been written by a former trainee at City firm Denton Wilde Sapte and should therefore have at least a tinge of accuracy. Yet legal pundit Marcel Berlins denounced it as "pathetically pass砠and claimed not to see "any resemblance between the law firms and its lawyers on screen and those I have come across in real life".
Lawyer 2B verdict
Compelling nonsense. It bears very little resemblance to real life lawyering - after all, in real life lawyers just aren't that good looking. But despite the catalogue of inaccuracies - one even committed the heinous crime of calling her own firm a company - it is a very watchable drama. Lawyer 2B's favourite line so far has got to be when Green's character, Steven Bradley, said proudly: "I'm a corporate lawyer, I do corporate law."
Big hair and shoulder pads were cool when LA Law was in its prime. Created by the makers of Hill Street Blues, the show featured the fictional firm McKenzie Brackman Chaney and Kuzak, which took on both criminal and civil cases. After many dramatic twists - including a $2.1m law suit that almost destroyed the firm - Kuzak left and McKenzie retired. Changes to the creative team and an increasingly expensive budget meant that an eighth season was cancelled in 1994 to make way for a fledgling ER.
Lawyer 2B verdict
One of the most commonly-cited reasons for becoming a lawyer. Sad but true.
Written by the former Boston lawyer who was also behind LA Law and The Practice, Ally McBeal was only recently axed. Until then, the show dazzled viewers with its surreal mix of thoughtful insights, fantasy sequences, dancing babies and random guest appearances from celebrities such as Barry White, Jon Bon Jovi and Dame Edna Everage.
Lawyer 2B verdict
One of the best programmes on TV, although it lost the plot a bit towards the end. What LA Law was to the 1980s, Ally McBeal was to the 1990s.