Roll over, Rumpole: sex, drugs and young lawyers are coming

Ivan Waterman meets Amy Jenkins, author of a provocative new BBC soap opera; 'This is about twentysomethings who go to therapy, don't vote, don't even have a political opinion ... I don't pretend to know about the law'
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The Independent Online
RUMPOLE of the Bailey it is not. In the latest television drama on the lives of barristers, legal gossip has been replaced by conversations about therapy, argument in chambers by sex, and crusty port by Ecstasy.

The five main characters in This Life, a 12-part series which starts on BBC2 next month, are distinctly un-Rumpolean - slim, modern, and above all, young. More to the point, the two barristers with a house in Chelsea, and the three solicitors who share it with them, are interested less in the finer points of the law or politics than in the drugs scene, the sex scene, and the self-discovery scene, in no particular order.

Such a demolition job on the traditional image of the British lawyer will doubtless provoke outrage at the Bar Council and the Law Society, but criticism is unlikely to trouble Michael Jackson, Controller of BBC2, whose idea it was, or the executive producer, the much-admired Tony Garnett, fresh from his successes with Cardiac Arrest and Between the Lines. They are aiming This Life at the young middle-class, the aspirational 18-35s, and they are interested in ratings.

Least of all will it bother the scriptwriter, 29-year-old Amy Jenkins, who trained as a solicitor herself - briefly. "The Law Society? Who cares what they say?" Ms Jenkins proclaims, over hot chocolate in a brasserie close to her rambling rented Victorian house in Chelsea. "The Bar is a very drunken profession. They get absolutely pissed. Go to wine bars near their chambers and see them. I don't see the difference between a 50-year-old barrister getting totally pissed and a young barrister coming home and having a joint."

There is, of course, a difference in law. Ms Jenkins grins and acknowledges it. "I don't know whether I am making a statement," she says, "but I hope we touch people and inspire thought. This is mainly about entertainment. I am not any kind of placard carrier.

"Michael Jackson wanted a twentysomething show. Twentysomethings have changed. It is OK these days to be more introspective. To go to therapy. To not necessarily be that politically involved, not to vote, not even to have an opinion about Mr Major and Europe.

"Twentysomething men cry today and have women to deal with at work. Men are in decline. The women in this are strong. You can be good at your job and feminine. The women are full of feelings and emotions, they bring humanity to their jobs."

And the law? "I know very little about the law. I don't pretend to know about the law. The stories are about the characters and how they react. It is about ... issues ... integrity ... fancying somebody at work."

So here comes Five Go Mad In Chelsea, as the critics may dub it. In the house that Ms Jenkins has built we shall see the lustful Miles, a barrister who revolts against his wealthy background,and beautiful, ambitious Anna, a barrister with a poor backround and an unstable mother.

Then there is thrusting solicitor Millie, a brilliant down-to-earth Anglo- Asian girl, and her lover, the joint-smoking Egg, a Mancunian United fan who has been going steady with Millie for five years but finds being a solicitor "stultifying and boring". Finally there is a homosexual solicitor, Warren, from Wales, whose father was a factory foreman and whose mother works in a department store. He has already partly achieved his dream: he is in London and now able to live openly with his sexuality.

Miles and Anna adore each other but can't seem to get it together, providing a will-they-won't-they sub-plot which could inspire Series Two later this year. Exciting more comment than the love interest, however, is likely to be the depiction of the drugs scene as part of the furniture of the series (as is sex, with one scene set in a court loo).

Ms Jenkins, daughter of the late political commentator Peter Jenkins, stepdaughter of the journalist Polly Toynbee, and educated at Westminster and University College London, is fiercely defensive of it. Only three years ago, she says, she was running rave parties and swallowing Ecstasy herself.

"Millions of kids take drugs." she says. "We should deal with reality. We don't live in paradise. Drugs are for the most part destructive, but taking drugs is fun. The fact is that drugs can be great fun and they can be dangerous. We have to be brave enough to embrace those ideas.

"I had a really great time. It was the best f---ing time of my life. When it was good it was so good, everyone loved each other and I had 200 friends and somewhere to go every night."

In a flash of weakness, as she tells it, she last went on a mind- blowing E trip on New Year's Eve after abstaining for two years from the drug which has generated a string of recent tragedies. "It wasn't a pleasant experience," she admits in a matter-of-fact way. "I get my buzz in other ways these days."

In the principal one, scriptwriting, she has been encouraged by her close friend Danny Boyle, the wunderkind film director of the Scottish successes Shallow Grave and the film of the moment, Trainspotting. Her emergence as a television writing force to be reckoned with at her first attempt has left her euphoric, and about to take off for Paris to research her next screen adventure for the BBC, High Kicks - the modern tale of "a Northern girl who goes to Paris to become a dancer at the Moulin Rouge".

The BBC is unfazed at the thought of This Life upsetting the legal establishment. "This Life is not about the law," says its blurb. "It's about what it is like to be in your 20s in the 90s. The five main characters belong to a generation which doesn't believe in causes ... they are more concerned with knowing who they are and making a life for themselves in a world which has lost its certainties."

At least one soap-opera expert thinks they may be on to a winner. "The public is fascinated by solicitors and barristers," says Julia Smith, the creator of EastEnders. "There is definitely room for something like this."

And at least one lawyer thinks they may not be far off the mark. A QC with more than 30 years' experience, he says: "Barristers are inclined to be outrageous and wayward in their private lives. They do drink a lot and are rather amoral. The bar has always had sexual swingers. Young female barristers do sleep around to get on, usually with solicitors or chief clerks. That used to be blatant.

"It is difficult to generalise but it is more of a business now than a profession. The kind of people coming in need to earn money. There are more from working-class backgrounds. Before, you'd have chaps off to their country homes for the weekend. There is an eclectic mix today.

"The profession is not male-dominated any more either. In one chambers there are 50 per cent women in residence, and there is a newly-formed barristers' gay and lesbian association. That kind of progress is frowned on by the more old-fashioned chambers. They are dismayed by the way things are going."

Not the BBC, though.