11:54, September 14 68 0 theguardian.com

2019-09-14 11:54:04
Defending the Guilty: the show that celebrates lawyers who aren’t heroes

From Rumpole of the Bailey to Judge John Deed we’re used to seeing lawyers as heroic defenders of justice, people who even in their worst moments are still on the side of the angels.

Now a new comedy series intends to upend that righteous image, preferring instead to tell a story of cut-throat competition and bombastic behaviour set in a world where anything can, and frequently does, go.

“Too often, lawyers on TV are presented as philosopher kings doing their damnedest against impossible odds, but the reality is sort of morons fucking up day to day,” says the show’s creator, Kieron Quirke.

Defending the Guilty, which starts on BBC Two on Tuesday 17 September, is adapted from criminal barrister Alex McBride’s best-selling 2010 memoir (itself initially a column in Prospect magazine) covering the various (and often hilarious) cases he has handled. Sharp, smart and occasionally very silly, it comes across as the legal answer to rambunctious comedies such as The Thick of It or Green Wing.

“What’s interesting is that we prefer our legal stuff on TV to be dramatic, to think that everyone is playing for high stakes and everyone cares about every case that’s happening every single day, but I just don’t think that can be true,” says Quirke, whose father was a barrister, ensuring that he grew up steeped in the law’s “lingo and atmosphere – and its absurdity”.

“I did want it to be a bit like The Thick of It because I knew barristers were funny and that there’s this weird performance element to the job, this desire to win above everything. When you couple that with the fact that cases are often so bizarre but that there can be a great deal at stake I thought it would really work as a sitcom.”

In order to increase the tension, Quirke decide to focus on the chamber’s trainee barristers or “pupils”, all of whom are caught between a desire for workplace friendship and the fact they are in direct competition for tenancy – that is, a permanent job – at the chambers.

“I knew that we couldn’t just have four Malcolm Tuckers – and if it had been just four war-painted barristers then it might become that,” he says. “Plus the pupillage brings everyone together – in reality, barristers have a lonely existence, heading out to this case or that, but the pupil’s room is the perfect place for a sitcom because that’s where people can interact.”

McBride agrees. “I actually really miss my pupil room and still think about it all the time,” he says. “There was a real camaraderie there – you’d walk back in from a disaster and be there with your mates. I mean, OK, they were all trying to kill you, but they were still your mates. You might not have much in common but you’re still going through this thing and will always have that bond, and that’s kind of lovely.”

Adding to the tension is the complicated relationship between naïve new pupil Will (Will Sharpe) and his domineering pupil mistress Caroline (Katherine Parkinson), who both wants to help him and worries that he is fundamentally unsuited to the law.

“They essentially represent to each other their deepest fears,” says Sharpe. “Caroline finds Will dangerous because he’s this little timebomb of empathy and Caroline has a realism and pragmatism that terrifies Will because he worries that’s the only way you can succeed.”

She has a point, insists Parkinson. “What I found most refreshing is that she’s not some poor female victim: she’s good at her job and she’s right that you have to leave the touchy feelings at the door. She can be ridiculous at times, but I do think you buy that she’s a criminal barrister and you know why she acts like she does.”