Martha Costello is a barrister, and like all barristers, she’s pretty busy. Unfortunately, as if working in a busy chambers practicing criminal law wasn’t enough, she is also competing to ‘take silk’ (that’s becoming a QC to you and me) with the ruthless Clive Reader. But Martha has one key asset in her battle with Clive, she cares about the clients she represents. In fact, if anything, she cares too much. Any of this sound familiar? If it does, it’s because it’s the basic premise for almost every legal TV program ever, think Judge John Deed, Shark, or even Rumpole of the Bailey. In fact, it’s so much of a cliché, that you can almost forgive the BBC, because in spite of that they have made a drama that is eminently watchable.
Silk may not break any new ground, but it is absorbing television and by the end of the episode you’re in no doubt as to the roles of the characters. Rupert Penry-Jones’s turn as Clive Reader is particularly enjoyable, mostly because you feel the urge to punch him in the face as soon as he comes on screen. He plays the smug, detached Reader without succumbing to parody and provides an excellent foil for Maxine Peake’s Martha Costello, a protagonist you can’t help but root for.
In the first episode, Martha has to defend a young Colombian woman accused of trafficking drugs and a man accused of robbing and torturing a pensioner. In the first case, she finds herself getting the proverbial rug pulled from under her feet by Reader, who uses her client to take the blame and get a more lenient sentence for his man. The subsequent scene in which Martha catches Clive snorting cocaine at a chambers party perfectly cements the position of the two characters as heroine and villain, and culminates with Martha’s pupil, Nick, stepping in and causing Reader to fall down the stairs in what has to be the most overly-dramatic tumble ever seen on the BBC (not counting live football). Time to lay off the coke perhaps Clive?
In fact, it’s Tom Hughes as Nick the pupil that occasionally lets the story down. Looking like an amalgamation of Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Grant, he can’t seem to decide whether he is playing Nick as precocious or nervous. It culminates with a cringeworthy conversation between Nick and head of chambers Billy (Neil Stuke) where he seems to have decided against either possibility and simply gone with speaking.
Penned by barrister-turned-writer Peter Moffat, Silk has been touted by the BBC as a programme which will show the real life of a female barrister aiming to become a QC, and it definitely paints a different picture to the unhappy, career-obsessed women we’re so used to seeing. But whether it will blaze a new trail remains to be seen, with Martha finishing the episode sitting at home, alone, smoking unhappily.
All told, Silk is an enjoyable if safe drama that makes the life of barristers seem much more exciting than they probably are. It’s fun, engrossing and, at times, amusing. But it won’t change your life.