13 October 2010

"There's been a murder!"

Have you noticed that, in Taggart, the last scene almost invariably shows the apprehended villain being prodded into a police vehicle? Fin. We never see DCI Matt Burke testifying and being cross-examined before the throng of a fifteen-soul Scottish jury, nor the presiding Scottish judge sitting in the distinctive red-crossed criminal gowns of the High Court of Justiciary, nor the male advocates wearing white bow ties instead of the Geneva bands of the English barrister. The macer isn't summoned. We don't gasp as the jury cries "not proven", we don't miss the absence of opening speeches in Scots trials. We can never be wholly sure if the accused's confession is corroborated by admissible evidence, as required by Scots law; never hear if Detective Robbie Ross' louche police practices and illegal searches derail prosecutions; nor if the procurator fiscal decide that  a prosecution is in the public interest. Generally, all we know is that there's been a murder, the culprit has been apprehended and Scottish criminal processes will presumably and unerringly bring them to justice. Moral equilibrium is resorted. In part, this is the narrative tension of the piece. The denouement must be conclusive.

One of the curious side-effects of this (understandable and justifiable) narrative closure is that  Taggart leaves much unsaid about the distinctiveness of Scots courts. And Taggart isn't alone in this respect, but is certainly the most high-profile, long-standing example of a Scottish drama in which some figuration of Scotland's legal world might be attempted - but generally this opportunity is foregone. Similarly in Ken Stott's recent - and highly enjoyable - rendition of Ian Rankin's Rebus, identical police practice and storytelling values were to the fore. Previously, Scots law themed dramatisations have been broadcast, including Sutherland's Law in the 1970s in which Iain Cuthbertson played a small town procurator fiscal. STV recently put the first series of The Advocates onto their YouTube channel, which draws on all the familiar tropes of a foosty Faculty of Advocates, an incestuous Edinburgh power elite whose Jekyll and Hyde sensibility is revealed by the remorseless cynical lawyer-hero-investigator with a jaundiced view of it all.  English law has much more successfully found expression in popular culture, from Rumpole of the Bailey to the more recent Kavanagh QC and even the dreaded Judge John Deed. The American attorney dramas are endless. One may quibble and complain about the melodrama and implausibility of their scripts and  the unrealistic performances given by actors, but crucially they make space for the recognition of legal distinctiveness.

Generally, the spaces and eccentricities of Scots Law aren't often projected onto the popular consciousness through the medium of television. This, I think, is to be lamented. Equally, this dearth ought to be contextualised in the lack of televisual representations of Scottish life more generally. Its an old and familiar saw that our seperate legal system is one of the foundations of Scotland's continuing independent-mindedness. I've never found this terrifically convincing, at least insofar as it suggests that most Scots have a developed clue about what goes on in courts up and down the country - and draw succour in some substantive way from the continuing influence of the Corpus Iuris Civilis. If they do think that, most Scots I've spoken to must keep the inspiration mired in a gloopy soup of false consciousness.

The thought was set in motion by a couple of unconnected recent experiences. A North American fellow Peat Worrier recently directed my attention to a book by an American jurisprude called Richard Sherwin, entitled When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line Between Law and Popular Culture. Sherwin's central point, according to my friend, is that the ubiquity - even the hegemony - of popular representations of legal processes on the telly is having a discernible impact on the real practice of criminal justice - and even more curiously - on the practice outside the United States. One anecdote reflects the point. Such is the impact of American popular culture’s representations of their criminal justice system, and so pervasive is its language, that having been arrested, a significant number of Canadians are now known routinely to bitterly complain about not having been read their Miranda rights.  Jurors are likely to entertain certain ideas about trials. In the absence of court recording, these are largely mediated by yarn-spinning, dramatic or comic television shows. I imagine our fellow citizens are often disappointed to find that legal representatives want an actor's delivery and don't deliver rollicking closing arguments like Boston Legal's Alan Shore.

On a connected but distinct point, I also wanted to mention the rather odd way in which some of the papers have been reporting the Sheridan trial. Or more precisely, how Scottish law and institutions have been depicted and discussed in sections of the metropolitan press.  For instance, this piece in the Guardian is full of odd circumlocutions, repeatedly referring to "counsel", failing - presumably purposely - to use the apt Scots term "advocate" even once. Precisely what is odd about the prose is somewhat difficult to put the finger on. No doubt a sub-editor is implicated, concerned not to befuddle their overwhelmingly English readership.  They also write about "Lord Bracadale, the judge at the high court in Glasgow". An eccentric in-house style may be partly to blame here, but reading the article, it was almost as if there were speech marks in the original. For me, it read like the despatch from an international journalist, full of simplification and vernacularisation. Still, this is at least marginally preferable to the Gurnian's initial tack of simply using the English term and referring to Maggie Scott QC as Sheridan's "barrister"...

There's been a murder, indeed.


  1. Why don't you pen just such a pilot, get yourself and agent and see if it could fly?

    Alternatively, a joint novella or two with aid of a penny dreadfull scribbler might boost your anonymous Swiss account and lay open the bids for the TV and big fillum rights?

    Scaredy Cat?

  2. A gauntlet across the gob! You make a fair point, Bugger. Its all very well sitting soorly in a dark corner, griping away. Could always set the opening episode in the criminal trial of a leftwing Scottish political firebrand accused of some yet to be decided but reputation-wrecking offence... All inspiration purely fictional, you understand.

  3. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and no animals were harmed during the production of this TV series.

  4. The central character Toy Shafter, a larger than life left wing politician, a man of the people a modern day John McLean ------

  5. Sorry sticky M key

    Tommy Shafter although Toy Shafter has a certain Leggoesque resonance.

  6. Hi Lallands,

    I remember Sutherland's Law with affection. The late Iain Cuthbertson was indeed a great actor and the series had great scripts but the action took place mostly outwith the courtroom as I remember it. I think therefore if you ever take up Bugger's suggestion of writing courtroom drama you may find it more difficult than you imagine, to make it entertaining.

    Good TV drama should leave the viewer with the impression that they have learned something from the experience and I recall vividly that it was in Sutherland's Law that I first heard (I was quite young at the time) the term "procurators fiscal" as the correct plural for procurators of a fiscal persuasion. Your own appellation for Mr. Baker of "swine pursuivant" is unusual in capable of being simultaneously either singular or plural and I would ask you therefore whether you consider him to be "a" or "The" swine pursuivant, although I think I may already know your answer.

    An element of humour is also essential in a good drama, and here I think may lie your principal difficulty. After - "Its a lie, your Honour. It wisne me. I never swore at the f***'in polis!", given in solemn testimony, has been used once, I think you may find yourself struggling for further comedy lines.

    As you note it does seem that crime dramas are more popular than courtroom dramas. They are also usually more formulaic. Who can forget at near the end of each episode, when Dickson of Dock Green's gloved hand descends on the miscreant's shoulder in the midst of the baddie committing some evil deed, the baddie uttering the lines "All right Gov'. Its a fair cop. You've caught me bang-to-rights." (Presenting his wrists to be 'cuffed.) "I'll come quiet." Uttered week after sodding week.

    Taggart's "There's been a mur-dur" is surely but a pale shadow.

  7. Good post.

    I had thought a couple of weeks ago that ITV should have split their re-make of Law & Order between setting it in London & Edinburgh (or Glasgow). This would have highlighted the diferences in English/Scottish law perfectly...

    Can't think on an actor to take Sam Shepherd's role though...

  8. Bugger,

    I'm sure our fictional "Freedom Come Aa Ye" figure could have a fictionally devoted wife who we could call Toy Shafter - perhaps in sharp commentary on flinty West Coast political masculinities and their traditional dinosaur chauvinisms?

  9. All sage advice gratefully received, Rab!

    You are probably right that without the whizzbang phantasmal alternative reality of a Boston Legal, a "straight" Scots courtroom drama risks intense sleepiness. To whit, Kavanagh QC, which in all honesty was often dreary. I'd be more tempted by a rather more off the wall interpretation, myself, a short-bread tin Scots Law alternative reality...

  10. Thanks Allan,

    Just an idling thought I thought I'd share and see what you all make of it. Certainly, it seems to me that there is lots of potential - whether such a show was gritty, irreverent, relevant, burlesque, silly, earnest or straight. I'd just be nice to see anything offering a bit of a figuration of these things. Maybe one say, when I've a bit of time, I'll take up Bugger's suggestion and give it a go!

  11. Remember Granada's Crown Court from the 70s, which was on for about half an hour every day?!? It ran to nearly 900 episodes.

    That was entirely set in the courtroom, but I suspect it was essentially the legal equivalent of Crossroads.

    Gosh, I wonder what the Scottish equivalent would be called??


  12. Egad, how could I have left it out, Stuart!

    As I remember Crown Court, the witnesses, barristers and judge and so on were actors - but the jury were ordinary members of the public? No doubt the show contributed to the - quantitatively false - sense that the jury is at the heart of most English criminal trials.

    I also seem to recall, a few years ago now, that one of the terrestrial channels revived the genre - this time trying a rape case with a jury staffed with "celebrities" of one stripe or another, including the awful Jeffrey Archer.

  13. What would the Scottish version of a courtroom-based soap opera be called? Why, "Take the High Court" of course!

  14. Opening lyrics?

    Oh! ye'll take the High Court and
    I'll take the low court,
    And I'll be reclaimin' afore ye;
    But me and my client
    Will never meet again
    In the bonnie, bonnie halls o' the Session.