Barrister helps TV dramas keep it real

Despite witnessing the real drama of the courtroom, sole practitioner criminal barrister Emily Culverhouse satisfies her love of amateur dramatics by advising on – and even acting in – some top TV dramas.

Judge John Deed, The Bill and Belle du Jour are just a few of the programmes she has been involved with, advising on scripts and scenes, and even playing the part of a solicitor in Holby City.

“It’s a lot of fun doing TV work because it isn’t real – you can play around with it, create evidence and verdicts,” says Culverhouse. “Amid the real drama of the courtroom there are boring bits – there are hours of waiting around. TV legal dramas are nothing like that, but it doesn’t really matter as ­[programmes] show it how people would like it to be.”

As a self-professed “budding actress” Culverhouse often took centre stage with the Bristol Amateur Operatic Society, taking on the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago as well as comedy leads such as Rose in Meet Me In St Louis.

Although she confesses to once having had aspirations to become a professional actress, Culverhouse concedes that her life as a ­performer is now behind her, ­admitting that she tends to fulfil that need in the courtroom.

Culverhouse had a late start to her career in law, returning to ­university as a mature student after training as a secretary, then moving into sales and, later, ­property letting and management.

Her work in TV began soon after being called to the bar, in medical drama series Holby City, where she helped with the script and got the opportunity to show her acting skills in three episodes.

She sees BBC drama Silk as her next challenge.

“It frustrates me when [legal dramas] aren’t done properly,” she admits. “In my opinion it’s easy to keep the dramatic side of it as well as getting it legally and factually correct. I’d love to get involved in Silk and sort it out.

“I’m extremely disappointed with the inaccuracies, given [writer Peter Moffat’s] background, but I’m more disappointed that the show was marketed as the real way barristers behave. It’s quite dreadful. It gives the public a skewed and unclear idea of how we are, and of our professionalism.”

The writer of Silk, former barrister Moffat, previously penned the hit legal series Kavanagh QC and the short-lived North Square. But his controversial new drama has caused heated debate among barristers who eagerly awaited the series, heralded as a real insight into the machinations of the ­criminal justice system chiefly due to its allegations of a drug culture at the criminal bar.

In Culverhouse’s view, errors in legal TV dramas can range from minor, such as a wig worn ­incorrectly or a sash put over the wrong shoulder, to major, such as a defendant having a break during evidence to consult with their legal team. “Inaccuracies such as these can be easily worked around if they take the time to get advice,” she explains.

In recent years the place of lawyers in legal dramas has evolved from being just the star characters in front of the cameras to include real lawyers taking
a big role behind the scenes. ­Culverhouse believes this increased offscreen activity is due to the rise in the use of social media as a conduit for complaints and the fact that TV companies have become more aware of the need to ensure things are correct.

However, Culverhouse’s work as a legal adviser has lessened in recent months, seeing her deal with just a couple of phone calls from programmes such as Silent Witness and allowing artistic departments to join her in court.

She describes life on set as “a real ball”, finding the experience both enjoyable and interesting, and even amusing on occasion. Culverhouse describes a moment while she was working on Judge John Deed when she witnessed lead actor Martin Shaw throw a tantrum after the director told him off for playing video games too loudly on his laptop during filming.

But the barrister has had her own embarrassing moments too.

“Again on the set of Judge John Deed I once sat in on a word read-through in the courtroom set,” she recalls. “The person acting the clerk walked in and said ’All rise’, and I did!”