The Weekend's TV: Garrow's Law, Sun, BBC1
Undercover Boss USA, Sun, Channel 4
Legal eagle's still a guilty pleasure
Monday 15 November 2010
Break out the tricorne hats! Start up the smoke machines! Rally the street traders and the rhubarbing extras! Garrow's Law is back, pitting that paragon of jurisprudence William Garrow against the Georgian powers-that-be, men with spaniels on their heads and a chip of ice in their hearts.
Also back is Lady Sarah, gliding around the place in a hat big enough to go to sea in, and giving Mr Garrow speaking looks every time she bumps into him. For those of you not up to speed with Garrow's Law there's old history between William and Lady Sarah, a poignant might-have-been that adds a considerable amount of emotional grit to his on-going friction with Lady Sarah's husband, Arthur, a loyal servant of the establishment, and a man never happier than when lurking in a backlit corridor somewhere plotting Mr Garrow's downfall.
William Garrow was real incidentally, an early pioneer of the adversarial cross examination. And in Tony Marchant's series many of the cases are real too, even if, as here, they weren't originally conducted by Garrow himself. For the opening of the second series Marchant had selected a chillingly significant one in the action brought by a Liverpool insurance company against the owners of a cargo vessel called the Zong, after a claim had been made for expensive goods jettisoned when the ship was in trouble. The catch was that the cargo was human – 133 slaves who had been thrown overboard because disease and malnutrition had lowered their likely asking price below the insurance payout. The ship's captain pleaded necessity, because water was running low. The insurers were convinced that he'd made a simple economic calculation to protect his employer's profit.
Part of the point here was that nobody in court was interested in the moral atrocity at the heart of the case, at least officially. Before he takes on the case Garrow – in this version – is visited by Gustavus Vassa, an emancipated slave (also real, and also involved in the Zong trial) who wants to use the incident to put the institution of slavery itself on trial. Garrow, though, insists on prosecuting it as a mere business fraud, confident that sufficient moral outrage can be smuggled in around the edges to make the larger point. "You will inch towards justice and not demand it?" asks the outraged Vassa. "If we go in its direction, then yes," replies Garrow, whose wily negotiation of the gap between what's desirable and what's achievable is a core part of his heroic caricature. It'll be intriguing to see – if the series continues for long enough – whether Marchant will also let audiences in on the fact that when Garrow entered government he turned out to be a stubborn opponent of proposed reforms of the criminal law and its manic dependence on capital punishment. Inside that noble champion there was a power-that-be just waiting to get out.
Undercover Boss USA – in which chief executives head back to the shop floor in disguise to see what it's like to be a small cog in the machine – comes across like a Tea Partier's version of an agit-prop movie. Or at least this week's episode did, in which Michael Rubin, youthful CEO of a company that supplies online retailing services, cast off his tailored suit for a baseball cap and sneakers, to go and pack boxes in one of the firm's ironically named "fulfilment centers". Michael, who opened his first serious business when he was 15 and now travels to the outlying parts of his kingdom in an executive jet, is something of a poster-boy for the American Dream, proof that if you sacrifice pretty much everything else (such as leisure time and a normal family life) you can make it to the top. So it wasn't exactly startling to find that he was something of a booster for a can-do, free-market credo of hard work and reward.
What was surprising, though, was how upbeat most of his employees were, given that they worked in the kind of places (dispatch warehouses and call centres) that are a byword for wage-slavery and soul-erosion. You'd think that Michael might have stumbled across the odd whiny slacker if his return to the bottom rung was just a shake of the dice. But virtually everyone he encountered – barring one slightly snippy call-centre operator – looked as if they were auditioning for a company recruitment video. This may have had something to do with Michael's cover story (that he was the guinea pig for a documentary about seasonal work). They knew they were being filmed, after all, and were likely to put their best face forward. But they also seemed to be in earnest in their glass-half-full bravado -- maintained even when the glass had far less in it than that. Michael, it has to be said, behaved reasonably well, not complaining when he was sacked for incompetence from the packing line and showing what seemed to be a genuine interest in his employees' lives. The programme ended with a hug, learning and rewards for the faithful: Rashelle got a full-time job, Cameron got a promotion and leadership training and Dave got $10,000 towards his wedding. Danielle, the snippy one, got customer service training and – a final title revealed – "is no longer with the company". Did she jump or was she pushed? And how come they didn't reunite Michael with the foreman who gave him the boot? Let's hope he wasn't bobbing in the wake too.
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