Clash of legality and morality

`Realistic' legal dramas have proved very popular. As the BBC prepares to launch a new series, Robert Verkaik looks at how true to life they are

The recent spate of legal dramas on television has perhaps offered a fairer than usual representation of a profession not renowned for its entertainment value.

Just before Christmas, Mel Smith played Milner, a scruffy, low-ranking solicitor with a highly tuned sense of justice. Then there was John Thaw as a barrister in Kavanagh QC. And at the end of February, Michael Praed, of Robin of Sherwood and Dynasty fame, will take on the role of a Crown prosecutor in a 10-part BBC serial.

Both Kavanagh QC and Milner have been acclaimed for their sense of realism. Milner's writer, Trevor Bowen, says the filming was preceded by extensive research, including meetings with the cast at solicitors' firms in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Matters were helped by family connections: Peter Fincham, the executive producer and creator of Milner, has two brothers in the profession and the brother of the producer, Colin Ludlow, runs a practice in Harrow. The team also had a legal adviser who "vetted it for plausibility".

The "filing system" covering Milner's floor was based on a real solicitor's office seen by the team, and the senior partner's old leather chair was also a borrowed idea.

"There's a lot to be mined from the legal profession," says Colin Ludlow. "What we found interesting was that legality and morality don't necessarily co-incide. While not being disrespectful, lawyers are really people who sell you law."

Kavanagh QC was produced by Chris Kelly, the presenter of the BBC's Food and Drink, and the producer of the first two series of Soldier Soldier. He says that Kavanagh QC was one of five legal series up for consideration by the ITV Network Centre. It was the one "they felt most positive about", he says.

The Central Television team visited chambers at Queen Elizabeth Buildings and King's Bench Walk, talking to silks, pupils and clerks.

The chairman of the Bar, Peter Goldsmith QC, believes that the preparation paid off. Kavanagh QC made compelling viewing, he says. "The abilities of the barrister are shown to good advantage by John Thaw's charismatic portrayal of a skilled advocate."

Christopher Sallon QC agrees. "I think it's terrific," he says. "In terms of drama it is very well crafted. From a barrister's point of view it makes a refreshing change to break away from the stereotype to which barristers are usually reduced."

But does the viewing public get a true insight into life at the Bar? "Although it [working at the Bar] has a certain amount of drama, in reality it is ex-tremely boring," Mr Sallon says.

Neil Addison, a barrister who resigned from the Crown Prosecution Service last year, was "intrigued that in legal dramas all barristers' clerks are played by cockney barrow-boys with questionable honesty".

He has met several female barristers of the type played by Anna Chancellor. "They are no-nonsense, formidable, get-on-with-the-job types, but with a social awareness," he says.

Mr Sallon can identify with Kavanagh. "I feel anxious about cases, like he does," he says. "And I go home and talk about them to my wife."

A successful silk, like Kavanagh, will inevitably have to sacrifice family time. Mr Sallon acknowledges that he does not always have the time to go to his two sons' sports days.

He adds: "It is a job that wraps you up and it takes you out of your home town. You enter the reality of your work and for the period that you are doing it you live and breathe it."

The more observant lawyers may have noticed some technical inaccuracies in Kavanagh QC. Mr Sallon points out that a QC would not carry a robe in a red bag, for example.

Steven Kay, secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, says: "It's done in the form of entertainment and of course our lives are not entertainment. Kav-anagh is made up of different types of barristers and I recognise certain aspects in him."

But in the first episode, about a trial for rape, Kavanagh calls the defendant as his last witness, a reversal of what happens in court. "And you wouldn't bully the witness in the way the female prosecutor did," Mr Kay adds, "because a wrong answer is nouse to anyone." The producer, Chris Kelly, admits that the sequence of evidence was changed for dramatic effect. "Otherwise," he says, "we have been extremely rigorous."

He spent many weeks in the company of barristers and was left "impressed by their intelligence and ability to grasp so much detail". He did meet some who were "disillusioned by not having enough time to spend with clients or to master briefs".

He sees similarities between barristers and the officers he researched for Soldier Soldier. "The majority are from the same backgrounds. There are many `isms' at the Bar, including sexism."

Some of these "isms" were portrayed in Kavanagh QC. The pupil barrister played by Jenny Jules is seen to suffer racial discrimination, for example.

The chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, Makbool Javaid, says he is pleased to see black lawyers portrayed on television. "It is beneficial," he says. "But the punchline to the episode in which she was chosen as the pupil was that she was a Cambridge double first - that is not typical."

The next TV look at the law is the BBC's Crown Prosecutor, set in a CPS office "desperately under-staffed and cracking under the strain". But, Mr Addison, says: "If it is true to life it will be all about form-filling and cursing CPS headquarters."

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