The ordinariness of life inside Britain's busiest criminal law firm was as startling as the dedication to wrongdoing shared by so many of its clients. In one scene a brief calmly talked to a 21-year-old as a financial adviser might a customer thinking about opening an ISA: "If you brandish an axe in a public place, that would contravene conditions of your Asbo."
James Blakeborough, the alleged axeman, was charged with robbing a hairdressers for cash and mobile phones. It was his 36th "matter" with Manchester-based Tuckers Solicitors, a legal-aid-funded practice followed by The Briefs over two years. Another solicitor recalled fondly her first meeting with 11-year-old James and his brother: "They looked like little angels!"
But even they seemed benign compared to Kyle Blackhouse, a 23-year-old with a Blofeld scar and 37 convictions, including, during filming, one that earned him a four-and-a-half-year sentence for pointing a knife at a cop after a burglary. He may not be on Christmas card terms with Greater Manchester Police, but for his brief at Tuckers, "he's repeat business, but more importantly, he's good as gold. For us he's the perfect client."
The Briefs succeeded in illuminating a world of poorly paid professionals drawing heavily on cigarettes beneath yellowing wigs outside drab courthouses. It showed that all jobs are basically the same, regardless of circumstances that seem extraordinary to outsiders: dull, repetitive, often seemingly futile. But given the considerable gift of the documentary's access, I wanted to learn a lot more. Did Kyle and James have ambitions to break the cycle of crime they seemed to be following so casually? Why did they think they were in it in the first place? And the briefs: when they were welcoming back these men like relatives at a summer barbecue, did they ever wish they'd stay away, or is it really purely business?
Given the huge threats to legal aid posed by the Government's controversial cost-cutting reforms, why not also remind us just why this work is so vital, however unsympathetic some of its recipients might seem. Perhaps this was implicit, or not the job of a fly on the wall to get mixed up in. But I can imagine a certain demographic watching The Briefs and wishing none of their taxes were going into defending men like Kyle (rather than supporting a fundamental pillar of justice and healthy society).
There were jarring moments, too, including a diversion to the wedding of Blakeborough's brief. "It's not all axes, hammers and street fights for Katy Calderbank!" the narrator said. But we didn't learn much about Katy's life or motivations, either, as much as we did her susceptibility to giggles in formal settings. One hoped she held it together in court, but then of course we were never allowed in to see how these cases concluded. It was one flaw the programme makers could do little about.
A post-horse food industry will have devoured Cherry Healey's exploration of the health benefits hidden inside the cheap stuff we shove into our mouths without much thought. "We're used to hearing the bad news," the presenter said at the top of Britain's Favourite Supermarket Foods. "I'd like to hear the good news." There followed a series of unscientific experiments that showed porridge is good for you and ice cream is not. But at least 20 minutes of enlightenment lay hidden in an hour-long programme bulked up with alliterative presenter-speak from the Gok Wan school (at one point, a scientist prepared to "unpack the positive properties of porridge").
I did not know, for example, how effective protein in a lunchtime sandwich can be in reducing the urge to snack come teatime. Nor did I know that almonds are healthy because their high fat volume is not broken down by chewing. If the verbal gymnastics and silly experiments were the sugar coating a public-service pill, it was one worth swallowing.
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