Boxing Day, 10pm BBC2
As that half of the population that swooned over him in Pride and Prejudice already knows, Colin "Darcy" Firth looks drop-dead gorgeous in a period costume. The period he is dressing up for in is the Middle Ages in France. In this Screen Two, he plays Richard Courtois, a principled young lawyer whose ideals are sorely tested when he embarks on a practice in the backward rural community of Abbeville. Soon after arriving, he is required to defend a pig, owned by an alluring gypsy, Samira (Amina Annabi), against the accusation that it murdered a child. In court, his adversary is the wily Pincheon (the late Donald Pleasence), advocate to the ruthless Seigneur (Nicol Williamson). Writer/director Leslie Megahey, a former series editor of Omnibus and head of music and arts at BBC Television, conceived the film after a friend gave him a book about the medieval French practice of subjecting animals to the same judicial processes as human beings. At first he thought it was an elaborate academic joke.
"They used to try animals for a variety of offences," the director says. "Often for murder, because animals were running loose all the time and occasionally injured or killed people; but also for minor offences, like taking mice to court for destroying the harvest. In one famous case, a swarm of locusts were tried in absentia, as they obviously couldn't be got there in person." From this bizarre source material, Megahey has managed to conjure a compellingly strange world of "witches", spineless clergymen and corrupt barons who rule through perpetuating superstition among their cowed subjects. Any film which opens with a donkey being reprieved from the gallows to widespread applause on the strength of local testimony to its previous good character is clearly out-of-the-ordinary.