Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If the script was anything to go by, then Trial by Jury (BBC2) has an edge of authenticity over more conventional courtroom dramas. Purple prose, cliched hyperbole, ponderous sarcasm and hammy thespian upstaging - yes, this is how real barristers act all right. Except they aren't acting, or, at least, no more than they do when conducting the elaborate theatre of the law - since the whole point of feeding a fictional case through a real machine is to allow us to see how the gears operate. In this three-part story, a detective inspector is up on charges of blackmailing a prostitute, having graduated from fornicatory freebies to extorting a cut of her monthly earnings. The prostitute has sold her story to a tabloid paper, whose covert recordings and video footage now form an important part of the prosecution's case. Only the witnesses and the accused are played by actors, but even they must be performing from a detailed briefing rather than a line-by-line script, since the barristers must be allowed to pursue whatever line of questioning they wish to, otherwise the exercise would be entirely pointless.

I'm not sure I could see the point anyway -- apart from filling the late hours for Newsnight viewers suffering from paralysis lethargica, the chief symptom of which is an inability to heave yourself off the sofa and stagger to your bed. But the effect is broadly lifelike - from the formidable lady judge who occasionally wings in a withering question to the insinuating melodrama of the defence QC's cross-examination: "Silver!," he said at one point when discussing the tart's pounds 10,000 refresher from the tabloid paper. "Silver for this man's guilt." I'm not convinced that the biblical allusion would work for a modern jury, but the one in this programme (also composed of ordinary people) watched with an unnatural solemnity that probably had as much to do with the novelty of being on telly as with the imagined majesty of the law in action. In court, someone might have sniggered or yawned, but on screen they all adopted expressions of impeccable gravity.

The case itself cannot be averagely representative, either, because it must be carefully crafted to teeter between guilt and innocence. In this case, for example, the incriminatory recording of the detective getting heavy with the tart sounded damning, but contained no specific mention of the money she claimed he was demanding. Perhaps he was just pressing her for information about her criminal associates? Perhaps he assumed that the Jiffy bag he took from her in a cafe merely contained a dossier of incriminating details, rather than the monthly pounds 2,000 pay off? The episode ended with the barrister ticking the judge off for making prejudicial remarks to one of her witnesses and asking for a retrial - which raises the nice possibility of a real QC infuriating a real judge by showing her up on national television, a rather more public forum than the average courtroom. You'll just have to prey that you don't appear in front of the latter, being defended by the former, at least until the sting has eased.

Heartburn Hotel (BBC1) has now reached its third episode and is thus open for critical guests. I'm not sure that John Sullivan and Steve Glover's comedy is quite a five-star operation yet, but the structure is promisingly solid - a central odd-couple relationship between Tim Healy's low-rent hotelier and Clive Russell's exasperated teacher, and a solid supporting cast of eccentrics and losers, all refreshed by the occasional paying guest. The script has its moments too - injecting a strong flavour of Northern club sardonic into the rather blander forms of the British sitcom ("Trees are life giving," says one character, beginning an environmental spiel. "Yeah, you tell Marc Bolan that," replies another). There are occasional lapses of taste - such as those rhyming cover-ups so popular in sitcom ("I know where they'd look better," says a man staring lasciviously at a woman's legs. "Pardon?", "I said `You should have let her'"), but enough funny lapses of taste to excuse them (this being a hotel used by refugees and Social Security cases, it is quite hard to make it through an episode without encountering some offence against political correctness). It isn't really my cup of tea, to be honest, but it is properly brewed and served in a real mug, and should go down a treat with many viewers.