Finely cut legal drama guilty of a few jarring moments


TV REVIEW:NOTHING QUITE like a good courtroom drama for a bit of glossy escapism (from lugubrious Rumpoleto gritty North Square, Channel 4’s short-lived offering, it’s all good), which is why the timer was set for Silk(BBC1, Tuesday). Set in a legal chambers in London, it pitches two mid-career barristers, Martha Costello (Maxine Peake) and Clive Reader (Rupert Penry Jones) against each other as they vie to “take silk” or become QCs, which is, I gather, basically a huge promotion. Part of the process is getting recommendations from judges – a solid thread to link the six episodes.

She’s northern and a woman – not great in terms of odds: there are 12 male QCs for every one female QC in Britain – and yes, that nugget of narrative business was dropped like a ton of coal, as were so many others in this opening episode. He’s posh, square-jawed and his name is Clive, which pretty much suggests that the writer Peter Moffat thinks he’s a bit of a twit. Clive? In this day and age?

Moffat is a former barrister, so the legals are presumably spot-on and the cases fought in episode one involved the age-old moral dilemma of whether you should defend a person if you know he’s guilty. There were a few too many moments that jarred, though, with wayward nods towards Legally Blonde. Martha (now there’s a sympathetic name) returns to chambers having won a murder trial and, before filing away the documents, scrawls “NG”(not guilty) on the cover – in lipstick. Quite apart from the 25 quid lippy versus a 50p Bic shocker, it was out of character, and it took some playing on Peake’s part to pull Costello back onto a serious track.

Most of the men, from the judge and the solicitor to even her crim client, were openly sneering at her – though in each case she triumphs in the end, which was more legally blondish or just plain clichéd carry-on. Her pupil or apprentice Nick (Tom Hughes) appears to have never been inside a courtroom before and wore a ski hat for the most of the time, which may have been to emphasise his outsider status (he’s, gasp, working class) but just made him look silly. Still, though, if anyone can pull this off, it’s TV drama stars Peake and Penry-Jones. Maybe now that all groundwork has been laid, the plots will take off.

IF MOFFAT THINKS women have it bad in the upper echelons of the legal system in the UK, it pales when compared to being a poor black teenager from South Africa who just happens to be the fastest woman in the world over 800 metres. The problem for Caster Semenya is that the South African athletics governing body and the world body for athletics (IAAF) don’t appear to believe she’s a woman, but can’t prove otherwise – despite a barrage of very public gender tests. Too Fast to Be a Woman?(BBC 2, Tuesday) was a fascinating and intimate documentary following the shy young athlete from the Berlin games in August 2009 to July 2010, during which time she was barred from competition while sports officialdom decided on her gender. It showed her frustration as she hung around her university in Pretoria with no races to run, becoming depressed and demotivated despite support from friends and her coach. It followed her back home to her impoverished family, who were mystified as to why the controversy happened in the first place to their daughter and sister. It highlighted but found no answers to why the IAAF didn’t protect the 18-year-old girl from public humiliation at the Berlin games and why, if it had issues with Semenya before the games (which it did: her sudden and phenomenally successful appearance on the international athletics circuit just months before the games was enough to raise the red flag), they weren’t able to sort it out before she was thrust into world’s spotlight.

An endocrinologist explained that no one is 100 per cent male or female and that gender is complicated. Semenya herself referred to her deep voice, saying it’s just the way she was born, while a straight-talking sports psychologist pointed out “that’s the whole point of sport – the best are genetic freaks” and asked, “What do you call a male with a biological advantage? Usain Bolt.”

PAT COLLINS’ DREAMY and beautifully shot filmic essay What We Leave in Our Wake(RTÉ1, Monday) was difficult to pigeonhole. Through a fascinating selection of archive footage, street shots of contemporary Ireland and interviews with an eclectic range of people, from writers to academics, it explored the complex, often interwoven themes that dominate our history including emigration, mythology, the Church, land ownership, the differences in urban and rural Ireland and the relationship between community, society and the State.

Its lack of polemic was its strength – there was no one message here – and also perhaps its weakness; some speakers went on too long and sometimes the jumping from theme to theme appeared irritatingly random. The archive footage was a joy, though. James Connolly’s daughter in her best hat in what looked like the Shelbourne Hotel was interviewed by a serious man from the BBC in 1956 about her father’s legacy. What would he think if he came back now, she was asked. Among the things he’d be happy with is that workers have free access to healthcare, she said, as if that was just the start of the ideals of the Proclamation being achieved and that the next 40 years could bring so much more.

HAPPILY FOR THE squeamish, Edel O’Brien’s From Here To Maternity(RTÉ1, Tuesday) isn’t one of those access-all-areas, women-giving-birth series; the camera stayed away from the business end. The babies were adorable, the mammies heroic, but, as ever in these programmes, the midwives – especially calm, wise Gertie – came out as the real stars. Curiously, given the title, which is far too cute for its own good, it mostly ignored the mother in the birth that was shown, concentrating on the father’s experience. This meant leaving Cork University Maternity Hospital for a lengthy scene where expectant first-time father Eamon discussed fatherhood with his workmates. Surely actually getting into a maternity hospital and finding women to go on camera (what possesses them?) is so special that it would have made for better TV to stay in the hospital picking up stories and delving deeper into the general experience of giving birth in Ireland.

When it did, it was great; even the hospital’s night receptionist was an expert and a TV natural, advising a woman in the early stages of labour, “walking is great, it lends itself to relaxation down there” (and he wasn’t talking about the basement). But when it went outside the cocoon of the wards and the examination rooms, it became ordinary.

Lovely to see, though, how innocent and naive expectant fathers can be. Anticipating what it will be like to have a child, wide-eyed Eamon looked forward to having someone who would “listen to your every word, who you’re going to be the boss of”.

Good luck with that.

My choice: A gardener's tale

Dermot’s Secret Garden

(RTÉ1, Thursday)

He should have a gardening programme of his own, but this documentary series following Dermot O’Neill as he fights cance at the same time as he restores a garden in Co Laois will have to do.