From the Bar to the small screen

Mark Pallis, Legal and Historical Consultant to “Garrow’s Law”, on how he has used his legal background to good effect

The origins for “Garrow’s Law: Tales from the Old Bailey”, shown on BBC One in November 2009, date back to April 2008. Having tried for several months to get some human rights type programmes off the ground (the feedback from channels was “Great and worthwhile idea, but I think I’ll pass on it”), I was asked to come up with ideas for a legal drama based on real people, real events and real cases. The time period I was given was broadly 1600 to 1900. I was drawn to the late 1700s because they were a time of change: the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, the beginning of the campaigns for the rights of man, to end slavery and to reform Parliament. Legally, it was it was a time of great change too. On the very front lines of this, dealing with the cut and thrust, and dirt and grime of the Old Bailey, I found the barrister William Garrow. There was very little information about his personal life. In his professional life, Garrow fought to give a bigger role for defence counsel in criminal cases. He had an incredible number of credits to his name, but somehow he missed out on his place in history. This seemed crazy given that he was the first person recorded as saying “Every man shall be innocent until proven guilty” in an English court, and because, by virtue of the sheer force of his personality, he practically singlehandedly invented the modern form of harsh and penetrating cross-examination. Coupled with the fact that he had a “somewhat irregular”’ relationship with the wife of an MP I thought I’d struck drama gold.

The route from law to TV

I have always been interested in the law and in the idea of being a barrister, but also in film and TV. I set up a TV production company whilst at university, but that was always more of a hobby. Law was my metier.  During my degree, I developed an interest in international law. After graduating, I travelled to Egypt to work on a legal aid programme for refugees. It was a highly instructive, if daunting experience. I arrived fresh faced on the first morning at the office of Professor Barbara Harrell Bond, a retired Oxford academic and the doyenne of refugee studies. I asked her to tell me about the legal aid project. She gave me a quizzical look and said “You are the Legal Aid Project!” I spent the next six months doing cases and setting up the organisation. I stayed closely involved, travelling back and forth to Cairo on a number of occasions, and becoming a Board Member, until stepping back in 2008 to be a Patron.

My appetite for social justice work was not yet sated. One of my frustrations was how policy, rather than law, was at the heart of many of the problems facing the refugees. I studied for an LLM and—thanks to the support of Lincoln’s Inn— the Bar Vocational Course, and then built on my work as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for International Law and Justice at New York University, where I wrote on the accountability of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

I was then offered a job in the House of Commons running the All Party Parliamentary Group (“APPG”) on the Great Lakes Region of Africa and Genocide Prevention with Oona King MP. I loved being involved with law in action. For example, I hired a team of arms tracing experts to travel to Eastern DR Congo. I used the evidence gathered to write a report on sanctions busting that the APPG submitted to the UN Security Council.

When Oona King lost her seat in 2005, I embarked on my pupillage, which I completed. During the pupillage, I had become involved with the UK’s cross-party Parliamentary investigation into Extraordinary Rendition, and when I was asked to run the investigation, I felt it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I was asked to participate in a TV documentary about rendition, which regrettably was never made. My passion though for the small screen had been re-ignited and I started work at TwentyTwenty television, the company behind shows like Brat Camp and The Choir. 


Staying true to the period

With all the historical and biographical detail in place, the show, now known as “Garrow’s Law” was pitched to the BBC, and they commissioned four episodes. I was very excited when writer Tony Marchant came on board. Tony was once described by the Daily Telegraph as the “conscience of British TV drama”. He won a BAFTA for his drama Mark Of Cain (about Iraqi prisoner abuse). “Garrow’s Law” was something of a departure for him, but he was drawn to the justice angle. He said: “This is probably a first as I do feel that I’m trying to present historical developments in a way that is engaging and entertaining. There are obvious contemporary resonances. When Garrow started to defend prisoners there were all sorts of restrictions – you weren’t allowed to see the indictment against your client or copies of the depositions; you weren’t allowed to visit your client in Newgate Prison; you weren’t allowed to address the jury or make an opening or closing address. You could call character witnesses, but they weren’t compelled to turn up and most of the time they didn’t. It was very hard for a defence counsel. On top of that, there was no presumption of innocence. In ‘Garrow’s Law’, I’m saying, look at what he had to contend with and what he was fighting for and ask whether those rights are in danger of being eroded 300 years later.”
Working with Tony, and the other writers (Damian Wayling and Stephen Russell) was a fantastic experience. I provided the details of cases and events and it was great to see them fleshed out and woven together to make a compelling story. There was certainly plenty of material to draw on. Garrow appeared in almost 1,000 cases at the Old Bailey. Contemporary reports of his cross-examination style show that he had a flair for the dramatic. An 1832 biography described his style. “He seemed every now and then to destroy, almost to annihilate, an adverse witness; and often he would, without effort and unperceived, be winding about him, throwing a net round, gradually contracting it into a noose … and then he would on a sudden pounce forth upon him and tear him to pieces.”

In many ways, the central challenge was how to make a drama that stays true to the period. I asked the producer of the series, Dominic Barlow, how he approached this. He said: “For me, the number one challenge was to get the feel of the courtroom right on the limited information we had – a few old etchings and court records. My aim was to make it accurate, but also dramatic. This was a challenge. For example, it was pointed out that barristers wouldn’t have necessarily paced about so much. My answer to that is that if we simply had a man standing behind the desk it would have been too dull. We needed it from a dramatic point of view and I am really satisfied that we struck the right balance.”


Life after Garrow

When I finished work on “Garrow’s Law”, I travelled to Rome to work as an anti-corruption investigator at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, from which I have just returned. I would get regular telephone calls from the set, asking me for information about tiny details of procedure: what happens if the judge wants to go to the loo or who puts the black cloth on his head when he pronounces the sentence of death? For some of these, there was information, for others I had to make an educated guess. 
“Garrow’s Law” was a first step for me into legal drama. I couldn’t have done it without my legal background. It was immensely enjoyable experience and I am really proud that we have been able to bring Garrow’s story to the public and give a tangible impression of what courts would be like without the rights that we take for granted today. I am now working on a number of TV and film projects, some legal, some not, which I hope will be hitting screens in the not too distant future.

Mark Pallis, barrister, is the Legal and Historical Consultant to “Garrow’s Law”

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