I used to be mad keen on John Mortimer‘s Rumpole, who was, you will recall, a very much loved and fictional ageing “junior barrister” typically engaged to defend in criminal cases, and when not doing so would smoke small cigars, drink “Chateau Thames Embankment” and occasionally go home to his mansion flat off the Gloucester Road to spend time with “she who must be obeyed” (which phrase you will immediately recognise as coming from H Rider Haggard.)
Rumpole, on the written page and in the persona of the late and much lamented Leo McKern, was highly sceptical about QCs (Queens Counsel, essentially the top brass of the bar), to whom he generally referred as “Queer Customers,” which description serves well to describe many at the bar. Rumpole describes himself in books and TV series as a taxi to take clients wherever they wish to go – though his modus operandi was to find the truth and often defend against the wishes of his clients.
Silk is Rumpole on speed, filled with Darwinistic urges to win the race for survival, short and long-term. Its protagonists need to get each verdict win the ultimate prize of achieving and then flourishing. That is, it features tales of barristers and their cases in a fictional chambers, competing for the golden pot in the form of silk, being a metaphor for those awarded the suffix QC, notably Maxine Peake‘s gritty 30-something northern lass, Martha Costello, and her Harrow and Oxford educated colleague, sometime lover and rival for the top prize, Clive Reader (aka Rupert Penry-Jones.)
Costello may be ambitious, but as a barrister there is more than a touch of the Rumpoles about her, in that she does not do her job quite in the way that her clients want or expect, though most of her outcomes seem satisfactory. Fact is, our Martha is both driven and pugnacious, which qualities achieve success yet get her into trouble in equal measure, where Reader reminds one of other characters in the Rumpole oeuvre, being smooth (as silk?), lascivious, competent but ultimately held back by his own vanity.
Other characters in chambers remind one of their Rumpole counterparts too, notably Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke), misogynistic head clerk (he refers to all females in the profession as “Dorises”) and besuited barrow boy, with more than a touch of cockney villain about him behind the cheeky chappie mask, and Alan “Mr Mellifluous” Cowdrey, head of chambers, who is away on a long complex fraud (or some such adventure) for the whole of series 1.
We meet the beautiful new pupils (series 1: Tom Hughes and Natalie Dormer, the latter going on to greater fame in Game of Thrones), clients (frequently perverse and reluctant to be helped), their solicitors (a full spectrum), the prosecutors (ditto), the judges (ditto with gravitas), the witnesses (each with their own motivations), the junior clerks and various other exponents of the legal black arts.
We learn of the often inappropriate but apparently prolific love lives of the advocates (eg. Costello is, for most of series 1, pregnant, apparently from a single assignation with Reader), but remarkably little about their domestic lives or opinions beyond the legal world. Doubtless some have their own “(s)he who must be obeyed” and families to boot, but their lives are dominated by their careers, so that is where we observe them.
As for the cases, they include both juicy and apparently mundane, though each has a dramatic finesse, a turning point that allows Costello to demonstrate her insight and contrary nature. Each, and sometimes there are two or more running concurrently in each episode, is like a theatrical production (make ’em laugh, make ’em cry), and some more like a magic show with rabbits pulled from hats. Some contain phyrric victories, others defeats that look like victories in the greater scheme of things. In short, while Silk is not, nor is intended to be as funny as Rumpole, it provides for the full range of emotional responses among its audience.
Not difficult to discern, therefore, that it is written, as was Rumpole, with a good deal of knowledge about the legal system and real life cases and protocols, such that the twists are credible and the plot lines gripping. No surprise then that creator and head of the writing team, Peter Moffat, is a former barrister and creator of legal dramas Kavanagh QC, North Square (also starring Penry-Jones and Phil Davis) and Criminal Justice (starring Peake), supported by a raft of legal advisors.
Moffat’s feisty drama has also attracted a fine cast, apart from Peake and Penry-Jones, including, for example, Alex Jennings as Cowdrey, Frances Barber as the wickedly effective prosecutor Caroline Warwick, and the estimable Davis as the sparky but viciously-tongued and perversely named Micky Joy. Joy is, apart from being a prolific source of briefs and therefore a man worthy of being schmoozed by Billy the clerk, solicitor in chief to the Farrs in series 2, the Farrs being a family of nasty and hardened criminals, who deserve a greater mention (ie. a step up the criminal ladder from the Timsons, to whom Rumpole is regular counsel.)
Granted you’ll find cliches and stereotypes abounding, but Silk is undeniably engaging and effective and the leads complex and well-rounded – even if minor characters at times appear to be cardboard cutouts and the odd moment veers towards soapish melodrama. For the most part, the series makes rounded points about injustices but as a gentle poke in the ribs rather beating you over the head with a baseball bat, much as if we were members of the jury and Moffat and co were advocates appealing for a guilty verdict.
It’s quite possible to point to absurdities, such as the fact that members of the same chambers seem to be prosecuting and defending every case, something that in real life would surely be nigh on impossible; oh, and the tendency for all players to speak in bizarrely expansive floral language, as if the lawyers and clerks were paid by the word, but that’s a minor consideration in the scheme of things.
Alas, it all ends with series 3, which means a total of just 18 episodes, a meagre output compared to the hundreds you get with American series but perhaps ample demonstration that less can indeed be more. From Wikipedia:
Silk ended with series 3 because creator Moffat and lead actress, Maxine Peake, were keen to end at a high point. Rupert Penry-Jones commented that: “It’s a courtroom drama so it could go on and on and there is a whole echelon of stuff we could go into but it will be interesting to see what people make of this series because the way it is left, we as a cast aren’t sure whether it’s been written as, ‘This is it’, or whether it’s got more to come because it feels like everyone gets blasted in different directions at the end of this series, so maybe the writer has thrown a grenade in and blown the whole show up. But it will very much depend on how people react to it”
This is not a series that will live long in the memory and stand repeats like the cherished Rumpole, but if you haven’t seen it and do have an interest in the justice system, I’d warmly recommend you dip a toe or two.