TV review: Defending the Guilty

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Defending the Guilty, BBC 2
Pilot: 19 September 2018
Creators: Alex McBride and Kieron Quirke
Director: Jim Field Smith


Will Packham is an idealistic pupil barrister – or idealistic for now. His clients are at least as guilty as sin. His pupil master, Caroline, thinks he is a gutless snowflake. His fellow pupils want the same job as him and would stab each other to get it. Over the course of two days, Will has to defend a would-be murderer, keep a young slam-poet out of custody and fetch Caroline a range of pastries. Can Will hold onto his principles and prove he has what it takes?

The latest legal-centred offering from BBC 2, Defending the Guilty, certainly makes for an interesting addition to the plethora of barrister-based shows that television has unleashed in recent years. One would perhaps think that the twin concepts of comedic television and old fogies in archaic wigs and gowns would be a naturally winsome combination, but having closely watched the pilot episode of DtG I have to say, for me, the jury is still out (pun totally and unapologetically intended).

There are some wonderful bits of laugh-out-loud comedy and one can certainly see how, when it eventually gets into the swing of things, this show might well become a gem in the crown of weeknight television. The show plays up the stereotypes and generates its laughs from causing that which is usually lurking covertly under the highly slick and cultivated veneer of the Bar to become the overt; squarely smacking you in the face. For instance, I highly doubt that any chambers has a whiteboard with odds for getting tenancy set up in its pupil room complete with insulting nicknames. However, I would not be surprised for a moment to hear that the clerks or junior tenants are running slightly more secretive bets on which of the pupils might make it through the wringer at certain sets.

There is real truth in the constant doubt that plagues pupils during that halfway mark “3 months in” of 2nd six. Even more intriguingly, the use of legal “banter” to flirt or the pulling out of the “I’m a Barrister” card also resonates as an accurate reflection on some of the more, shall we say, interesting characters that populate the Bar.

"There are some wonderful bits of laugh-out-loud comedy and one can certainly see how, when it eventually gets into the swing of things, this show might well become a gem in the crown of weeknight television"

The humour at this stage of the show is often a little obvious; glaringly so on occasion. Perhaps the lack of subtlety or nuance is where the programme most falls short. There are the ridiculous offensive nicknames, the slapstick accidental swearing before a judge, the complete disregard of how pupils really ought to act in preference for what makes for accessible and vaguely amusing television. That isn’t necessarily a problem as such, but I have to say for me the show is truly effective in the moments where its humour made me recall events I have faced in my own practice. Sitting in the cells with an almost certainly guilty defendant who is masterfully manoeuvring around the evidence whilst you try and work out what on earth you’re going to say to a jury during a cross-examination. Watching jurors walk in to court with the genuine fear that your most awkward Tinder date might appear on the panel and absolutely petrified about how to explain that to a judge. Making a mental note not to go within half a mile of a park because your latest client and his mates tend to be arrested for numerous knife point robberies in its vicinity. These are all the real trappings of the job and in capitalising on those gut-wrenchingly honest worries and putting a comedic spin on it, DtG really does tap into something quite unique.

It certainly isn’t Silk or North Square; and in fact there’s something quite refreshing about the fact that this programme isn’t trying to be an accurate yet dramatically charged chronicling of life at the Bar. Rather, it serves to capture the essence of the emotions and quirks of the profession in an engaging way that perhaps transcends the need for accuracy in terminology, conduct or you know, criminal procedure. I’m still not entirely sold, but this series is fun and in many way an injection of fun into the way people view the Bar and barristers as a whole may not be the worst thing ever to happen to us.

Aadhithya Anbahan is a barrister at St Ives Chambers, Birmingham practising in crime, housing and regulatory law.

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Aadhithya Anbahan

Aadhithya has a criminal practice at St Ives Chambers including defence work in the Crown, magistrates’ and youth courts.