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Garrow's Law

(BBC; US DVD: 26 Feb 2013; UK DVD: Import)

What a great show!

Wow, what a great little find this show is. Garrow’s Law was a BBC series that ran for only three short seasons and could have profitably run for much longer, if this set is any indication. It’s a shame it didn’t go on, but at least viewers now have the chance to sit down and absorb the whole thing in fairly short order. If, like me, one goes into this show with no preconceptions beforehand, then so much the better. This is a consistently excellent series, and the sets, costumes, acting and dialogue is top-notch.


Besides, there are tricorn hats! Ponytailed wigs! Men in knee socks! What’s not to like?


William Garrow is a real historical figure, an 18th century English barrister (that’s “lawyer” to Americans like me) who made a name for himself by taking on the defense of poor clients. Previously, it was plaintiffs who generally sought legal counsel; defendants tended to speak for themselves. In a society as stratified as Britain’s, this frequently led to poorer defendants being ill-used by their better-off social superiors. Miscarriages of justice were common; men and women were routinely transported, flogged or even executed on the flimsiest of “evidence”. Hearsay was rampant, as was perjury, and a gentleman’s word against a commoner could easily lead to the commoner’s condemnation.


Garrow—both in history and in the series—chose to resist this trend. The son of a headmaster, Garrow was apprenticed to an attorney, John Southouse, and learned as much as he could about the law before practicing it himself. His defense of common servants, prostitutes, accused thieves and others stirred great interest at the time, and makes for riveting TV as well. Many of his innovations went on to become standard practice. The presumption of innocence—“innocent until proven guilty”—comes from him, as does the concept of adversarial representation, in which both accuser and accused have legal counsel pleading their side of the case.


All this is fascinating stuff on its own, but the show’s producers, perhaps fearing that legal drama circa 1790 might not keep the viewers coming back, have plumbed Garrow’s private life for material as well. His ongoing, intensifying relationship with Lady Sarah Hill, the wife of a member of the House of Lords, is also based on historical fact and adds an element of drama (of a somewhat soap opera-ish kind) to the series. Lord Hill is portrayed as self-interested and more than a little smarmy, and his paranoia about his wife all but pushes her into Garrow’s arms. Although less compelling than the myriad legal cases that form the backbone of the series, the Lady Sarah subplot does provide some welcome relief from the litany of injustice that pervades the legal scenes.


As mentioned, the acting is consistently outstanding. Andrew Buchan plays William Garrow with just the right touch of self-satisfied smugness that one might expect from a self-proclaimed reformer, while his legal nemesis, Mr Silvester, is played with a dash of wry charisma by Aidan McArdle. Rupert Graves, who will be familiar to fans of the BBC’s Sherlock as DI Lestrade, plays Lord Hill with a kind of upper-class daftness that is never overdone, while the gracious Lyndsey Marshal (Cleopatra in HBO’s Rome) as his wife Lady Sarah makes the most of the limited role that she is given. John Southouse is well played by TV veteran Alun Armstrong.


The DVD quality is excellent, with the sets and costumes effectively conveying the muck and filth—and grandeur and sheen—of the era. Cells in Newgate Prison are grim and gritty, with dirt dripping from the ceiling as horses trot by overhead; the palatial homes of the upper class look more like museums than actual living spaces. The courtroom in which Garrow argues is a rowdy place filled with hollering bystanders, reminiscent of a cabaret rather than a court of law. As the judge wryly admonishes the crowd at one point: “This is not a theatre… it is much cheaper.”


A trio of bonus features add another hour to the set’s running time. “William Garrow: Fact and Fiction” examines the historical figure, while a behind-the-scenes feature presents the usual insights from cast and crew, including comments from the costume and set designers, director of photography and others. “Garrow’s Law: From Dawn to Dusk” takes the viewer through a typical day of filming, from hair and makeup to final shooting. Each of these features is roughly 20 minutes long, and each is engaging enough. There are photo galleries and cast filmographies as well, but no commentary track, which is too bad, as it might have been interesting to hear the producers talk more about specific choices they made in reviving this long-dead historical figure.


No matter—it’s a great show nonetheless. Too bad, then, that this fine series never got more exposure in the US—maybe it would have stuck around a little longer. It’s every bit as deserving as, say, Downton Abbey to have a devoted following—notwitshstanding the absence of Maggie Smith—but never got the chance. We have some consolation, though: the box set is available and is well worth the time.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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