Accused, a new series set in the magistrates' court, has just begun on BBC1, where recently we have been treated to Ian McShane as the convict- turned-lawyer Madsen, and the low-budget drama, Crown Prosecutor. BBC2 had a storming success earlier this year with Murder One, and is currently making a further 24 episodes of This Life, its tale of bonking barristers. ITV, meanwhile, is in production on another series of its classy courtroom drama, Kavanagh QC, starring John Thaw. ITV even has a sitcom - Is It Legal? - sited in a solicitors' office.
So why do we so enjoy lawyers on television when in real life they rank somewhere between estate agents and traffic wardens in popularity? Chris Kelly, the Food and Drink presenter who moonlights as producer of Kavanagh QC, thinks there is more to it than the simple "OJ Factor". "There's an enduring appeal about the courtroom because it has such emotional intensity. It may go in and out of fashion, but it remains constantly compelling. People spilling out their passions and being judged by complete strangers is a pretty potent package."
Diana Kyle, the producer of Accused, delivers a similar defence from the witness-box. "There's a beginning, a middle and an end to courtroom dramas. You're also looking at a cross- section of characters who are getting involved in situations they can't get out of. There's an endless supply of stories to tell. It could be any of us.
"The most interesting thing is not the enormity of the crime," she continues, "but the effect it has on all the people involved - not just the defendant and his family and friends, but the victim, too. There's a ripple effect. And viewers can relate to the characters; they are similar to people they know. It's like a soap."
Marlene Sidaway plays the court usher in Accused. She reckons that people are drawn to courtroom drama because it deals with grand themes. "I researched with ushers and you get the impression of people having their futures decided at that very moment."
For the series - as for the law itself - the devil is in the detail, and producers go to great lengths with teams of advisers to ensure accuracy. Even then, Kelly reveals, pedantic lawyers will still write in to complain that the screen judge's "tippet is over the wrong shoulder".
There are fewer problems with the exactness of the courtroom - Kavanagh QC, Madsen and Accused are all shot in a disused courthouse in East London. Wandering around it during the filming of Accused, I began to feel like an accused myself. The imposing oak-panelled court-room is peopled by clerks in black robes and security guards. A tramp in woolly hat and a coat held together with string reads a newspaper in the public gallery.
The only indication that you may possibly be in a fictional universe comes when you examine the names on the list for trial in Court Two; it is headed by one Huckleberry Hound.
Forget the minor inaccuracies, though. Kelly contends "that there is no end in sight for the courtroom drama. It is a perfectly classical, theatrical arena - that won't change." The only thing that will bring Kavanagh QC to an end, he concludes, is when "John Thaw's wig begins to itch".
`Accused' is on BBC1 on Sunday at 11.35pm. `Kavanagh QC' returns on ITV in the New Year.
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