6 November 2013

Fiat Justicia, Pereat Some Badly-Written-Wummin

A: "I'm a lawyer."
B: "Oh? What sort of thing?"
A: "Mostly criminal defence work. These days."
B: "I don't know how you do it."
A: "Do what?"
B: "Defend people like that. Criminals. People who do awful things. Aren't you worried, if you get them off, that they'll be free to do something terrible to yet another innocent person? Representing them, even if you believe - even if you know - they're guilty? I couldn't do it..."

This is a grim party staple. The sort of thing you resort to, when the flint of conviviality isn't striking, and there's no light or heat in the conversation. It also tends, in my experience, to solicit boring but worthy answers from the glazed lawyer, who listens to the questions with a mounting attitude of resignation, grasping stoutly for the claret glass to get them through it. Everyone is entitled to a defence. Fair trials, terrifically important. Not for me to judge. Rhubarb, rhubarb.

This predictable question is at the heart of the BBC's predictable new legal drama, The Escape Artist.  And like the droopy party chat which it takes as its inspiration, The Escape Artist is numbingly dreary.  The Artist in question is Will Burton, played by David Tennant.  Burton is a thriving junior barrister, renowned for his surprising defences in hopeless cases: a trimmer, less charming Rumpole figure, without the Wordsworth and the termagant spouse in She-Who-Must-be-Obeyed.  

Yes, Burton may be guilty of working too hard at his legal practice, and neglecting his wife and wean a bit, but he is surrounded by a cardboard cut-out Happy Family. They might as well come with a dotted line in red across their throats with the instruction "cut here".  Burton's saccharine and colourless domestic bliss is upended when he takes on the case of a sub-Lecter, facing charges on overwhelming evidence that he brutally murdered, mutilated and sexually assaulted a young woman.  

This menacing character maintains an aviary in his living room. Flat-cap-and-Yorkshire tea this is not. He ought to have "I dunnit" rent into his forehead, or a colourful range of shirts run up, bearing the legend "homicide's my hobby: do not approach or you'll be next". As you'd expect, the Escape Artist produces the anticipated jurisprudential trick - but manages to slight this guilty murderous goon, resulting in ... well, just what you'd expect really. You can imagine the transactions at the script meeting: "wouldn't it be wizard, if we visited a defence lawyer with the bloody consequences of his profession?"

Napoleon once quipped, having ditched the infertile Josephine in hopes of a younger wife who could produce an heir, that "what we need is a walking womb." Although Ashley Jensen does her best to give her cardboard character some idiosyncratic life, her purpose in the drama is primarily (a) to have baths (b) to hover supportively around Tennant's character, cooing to ratchet up sympathy for this dramatically bland clan and (c) to get brutally hacked to death (it is the predictably which makes it harrowing) by Toby Kebbell's none-too-subtle bird-fancying sociopath. 

Sorry to ruin the end of the first episode for you, but if you didn't expect to see Jensen lying face-down in a pool of gore fifteen minutes into this thing, after Tennant had secured the inevitable acquittal on a technicality, your sensitivity settings need recalibrating. Character Arc: Death is not an unfamiliar fate for chronically underwritten, often female, characters of this sort, but The Escape Artist reduces Jensen's character to a ridiculous cypher, a supporting actress in Burton's tragedy with little personal interest, texture or spirit beyond what the spirited and appealing Jensen brings with her.

That's just hackneyed plotting, crass characterisation and bad writing. That'd be enough to hull this programme beneath the waterline. What sinks this piece altogether is the banal, unoriginal way the writer - David Wolstencroft of Spooks fame - addresses his central theme. The work of a defence advocate does pose interesting ethical questions. Wolstencroft's toom tabard plotwork means that The Escape Artist poses almost none of them.  He gives us a totally unsympathetic criminal. A criminal we all know to be guilty. The interesting contingencies and uncertainties of real life are all entirely eliminated.

If you are sitting, talking to a client who insists, plausibly, that he is innocent of the crimes imputed to him by the prosecution, I dare say his protestations and denials might seem convincing. At least in the moment. David Tennant, and the audience, face none of those conundrums here.  Because, as everybody knows, all complex issues are best examined in drama, by knocking off all their grey edges and ambivalences. As engagements with the theme go, The Escape Artist is turgid.

Paired back, Wolstencroft seems to be asking us, should folk who keep owls caged in their living rooms all be summarily shot without trial - just to be on the safe side? After all, Fiat Justicia, Pereat Some Badly-Written-Wummin...


  1. The specific tropes you're looking for are "Disposable Woman" and "Stuffed into the Fridge". (If you're not familiar with TV Tropes, I should warn you, it's one of the internet's most addictive time sinks.)