"I love you Martha Costello"
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Justinian in Critics' Corner, Silk

Silk, the latest barrister TV drama from the Beeb ... Barristers' ethical dilemmas, chamber's politics, sexual tension, and getting the clients "off" ...  What's not to love about this wonderfully crafted series ... "I love you [Martha Costello]" ... From our TV writer I. Box 

Billy Lamb, Martha Costello & Clive Reader

THE last words in episode six of the first series of the BBC's delicious legal drama Silk say it all.

Why? Because it's all about Martha and a bit less about the law. So if you don't take to Martha, you probably won't have a bar of Silk.

Taking to Martha (the perfectly pitched Mancunian, Maxine Peake) means a number of rather enjoyable things, chief among them having to embrace her high ideals and lowly roots.

The latter includes her rival for silk, the wonderfully described "spoonie" (as in silver) Clive Reader, superbly and somewhat sleazily realised by Rupert Penry-Jones.

This is not as off-putting as it sounds. A touch of gelatinous charm is the least of it; your reviewer could happily watch Penry-Jones sleep.

Luckily, the ambitious old Harrovian has better things to do, thanks to a script that gives characters depth and plots a decent dose of reality.

The series was obviously created by someone in, of, and possibly beyond the law.

In fact, it was conceived and written by barrister Peter Moffat, based on his experiences.

Last year he told The Guardian:

"I want to tell it as it really is. The extreme pressure, the hard choices, the ethical dilemmas, the overlap between the personal and the professional, principles fought for and principles sacrificed, the Machiavellian politics, the sex, the drinking, the whole story - life at the bar is the richest possible drama territory."

Moffat does well detailing the intricacies, politics and absurdities in a kind of shorthand that doesn't insult the intelligence too much.

He's so good at courtroom action, we even get drama directly from the legal process, which as most lawyers know, is highly unlikely.

In this case - and there's a different case every week, with some continuous plot threads - the setting is all-important.

Wood-panelled Shoe Lane Chambers is such a hotbed of vaulting ambition and intrigue; it seems at first that Martha is the only one without feet of clay.

We discover half way through the first series, she's as culpable as the rest of them when it comes to moral compromise.

But Martha pales in comparison with senior clerk Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke) who presides over the fortunes of chambers like Puck on a rock.

His machinations may be Dickensian in their pettiness, yet this wide boy with the narrow smile and the Savile Row suits appears to have a heart, if only for Martha.

Billy recognises in her one of the great fantasies of the law - an attractive female criminal barrister with a brilliant mind, an ethical soul and an Alfa Spider.

(Martha also smokes and is not averse to the odd one-night stand.)

Nick Slade (Tom Hughes - no, not that one) and Niamh Cranitch (Natalie Dormer) serve as younger Costello/Reader doppelgangers.

He's from the working class and she's the daughter of a judge. They're odd allies competing for a place in chambers, which creates its own subterranean tensions.

A cast of minor meanies, crooks and social workers drawn from Britain's seemingly endless pool of acting talent, fill in the folds of every episode.

The verdict?

Silk is so smart, sexy and meaningful it makes Rake look like a shovel.

I. Box ©

* The second series, with Martha having made Queens Counsel, starts this Thursday (June 14) @ 8.30pm on Your ABC. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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