Briefs Encounter

Last year’s criminally overlong Criminal Justice finally convinced me that I’d seen enough of Maxine Peake to last me a lifetime.

“Immerse yourself in silk” ad-libbed the continuity announcer before the pilot episode of BBC1’s new legal drama. It was a phrase that conjured up images of quality, luxury and perhaps even sybaritic fantasy. Unfortunately, Silk, a six-part series set in a fictional London barristers’ chambers, turned out to be as cheap and unappealing as Maxine Peake’s red lipstick.

Silk suffers from two major conceptual problems. The first, is the less-than-compelling plot device that has rival barristers, played by Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones, competing to take silk (become a Queen’s Counsel). Even worse, is the idea that Peake is such a compelling screen presence that she’s worth 60 minutes of your valuable time every week.

Fans of former Spooks action man Penry-Jones will be dismayed by the news that his posh, coke-snorting Clive Reader has to take a back seat to Peake’s grandstanding Martha Costello — at least in this pilot episode. If you’ve been sequestered in a Tibetan monastery recently, you may have missed the inexorable rise of the former Shameless star, who now occupies the enviable role of TV’s “go-to-girl”, previously annexed by the likes of Sarah Lancashire and Sarah Parrish.

It looks as though TV producers are falling over themselves to create vehicles in which Maxine can show off her considerable range of suffering, emoting and generally marginalised women. From playing Moors murderer Myra Hindley, to roles in Red Riding, The Street and The Devil’s Whore, Peake’s capacity for sidestepping the frivolous would be admirable if it wasn’t so boring. It was her abused wife in last year’s criminally overlong Criminal Justice that finally convinced me that I’d seen enough of Maxine Peake to last me a lifetime. That show was written by Peter Moffat, who also wrote Silk, and was a parade of misery stretched over five nights that failed to do justice (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the important issue of domestic violence.

In Criminal Justice, the abusive husband was (needless to say) a top barrister played by another former Spooks star, Matthew Macfadyen. Presumably Moffat, a former barrister himself, feels he should keep writing about the world he knows best. My complaint is that Silk is so obviously inferior to North Square, the legal drama Moffat created a decade ago and which also featured (you guessed it) the lovely Rupert Penry-Jones.

Legally blonde: Rupert Penry-Jones in North Square

Silk got off to a bad start with Peake’s (almost) universally admired Martha getting a not guilty verdict for her latest client, and then returning to chambers to scrawl NG in lipstick on the file. No pens handy, Martha? There was plenty of clunky exposition, with head clerk Billy (Neil Stuke) proclaiming “Fifteen years you’ve been doing this and you still believe ‘innocent until proven guilty'”.

Will someone please call the cliché police and have Moffat arrested for those scenes in which single, workaholic Martha goes home and swigs beer straight from the bottle, before falling asleep over her “two and a half feet” of files. Oh, and let’s not forget the bizarre episode in which Billy hands her a package containing some fancy briefs (ie underwear) that were obviously left behind at the scene of a one-night stand.

It seemed as though the main point of this opening episode was to establish Martha as the brilliant, overworked and slightly unorthodox legal powerhouse of the chambers. One minute she is preaching to her unfeasibly handsome new pupil Nick (Tom Hughes) about the importance of “emotional detachment”. But by the end of the episode she’s all broken up with guilt over the fate of a pregnant drugs mule, whose case she cocked up at an earlier sentencing hearing. Clive’s big scene involves snorting coke at a “touting” party (not as much fun as it sounds) and getting pushed down the stairs by the lovestruck Nick.

I can overlook implausibilities like the scene in which Nick runs out of a legal outfitters without paying for his clobber. (Surely that’s a breach of The Theft Act?) But the big confrontations just aren’t done with any conviction. “No one ever talks to her like that” objects Billy, as a bullying solicitor berates Martha over her handling of his case. Clearly there are serious points to be made here about the continuing under-representation of women in the profession. But lines like “Twelve male QCs for every Doris” don’t sound convincing from Neil Stuke.

The sole redeeming feature here was 87-year-old Peter Vaughan out-acting everyone else as the victim of a nasty aggravated burglary case. He brought dignity to his role as a World War II veteran who’s lost his wife, his medals and (thanks to Martha) his case. Otherwise, my verdict on Silk would be a resounding NVG (ie not very good). I think I’ll stick with Rumpole of the Bailey or the short-lived North Square.

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