Garrow’s Law PREVIEW

Garrow, Lady Sarah and Southouse
(Pics: Graeme Hunter/Twenty Twenty Television)

Sunday, November 14, 9pm, BBC1


Rating ★★★★

Traditionalists who long for simpler times when the authorities really had zero tolerance for criminals must absolutely love Garrow’s Law.

The 18th century was a time when sodomy was a hanging offence and a ship’s captain could legally throw slave men, women and children overboard at sea if there wasn’t enough drinking water to go round. And, of course, most of the ‘criminals’ were what we’d today simply call poor and disadvantaged.

Series one, which first got us interested in the pioneering exploits of barrister William Garrow, was almost funny in showing us how bloody awful and iniquitous the Old Bailey was at the time. You half expected Blackadder and Baldrick to pop up every week.

Royal Television Society award
After the success of that season, inspired by the contemporary records from the Old Bailey that are now available online, and with a Royal Television Society award on the mantelpiece, co-creator Tony Marchant’s series and his starry cast are back.

And it kicks off with an extraordinary story about 133 slaves being dispatched overboard from the cargo ship The Zong. Not that the charge is mass murder, of course, but rather a legal squabble between the insurance company and the ship’s captain, whom the insurer’s think is trying to fiddle them.

As the lawyer opposing Garrow remarks, it’s a ‘case of chattels and goods, the same as horses being thrown over’. Did Captain Collingwood act so inhumanely to save the rest of the crew (after his blundering gets them lost at sea), or is there some corrupt reason for his brutality?

Andrew Buchan and Rupert Graves 
As Garrow, played once again by Andrew Buchan, the closest thing Britain has to James Stewart, searches frantically for a moral dimension to the case, his private life is in turmoil.

Lady Sarah Hill, newly returned to London with her infant son, is turned on by her jealous husband, Sir Arthur (Rupert Graves), who suspects the child might be that of her one-time admirer, Garrow. Sir Arthur and his high-ranking friends, unable to defeat Garrow in court, are determined to ruin him and Lady Sarah.

It’s a compelling mix of plotting and emotion, but the series’ magic is in the window it offers into a time when the legal process was extremely primitive. Before Garrow was re-examined in the recently posted online archives, he was obscure (not even a mention in the Oxford Companion to the Law).

Inventing the art of cross-examination
Thanks to Garrow’s Law we can glimpse this extraordinary man, years ahead of his age, outspoken and boldly anti-establishment during this phase of his career (he went on to be Attorney General and an MP).

Garrow argued for the right to put the case for defendants and virtually invented the art of cross-examining prosecution witnesses. Until then the judge or even the jury chipped in with questions. As depicted on-screen, the courtroom was chaotic, resembling a public debating chamber rather than a legal forum.

High-class lawyers were disdainful of representing the rabble dragged to court by shifty thief-takers and bounty hunters, who often gave evidence against the poor slobs they were paid to haul in.

Alun Armstrong and Lyndsey Marshal
The cast are all good, some with faces so characterful they look as though they’ve stepped out of the late 1700s (no names mentioned). Alun Armstrong is fatherly as Garrow’s mentor, Southouse, while Lyndsey Marshal manages to be strong but vulnerable as Lady Sarah.

It’s good to see this series returning. Each week’s story is dramatic and fascinating, with intrigues about the implications of being gay, about women and property, and the mistreatment of disabled sailors all to come.

If Garrow at times seems too saintly here, you still wonder what this man, so out of synch with his contemporaries, must really have been like.

Someone so dogged that he would cause uproar by calling Gustavus Vassa (actor Danny Sapani), a freed black man, to give evidence to a disbelieving court. Garrow was a man who could  really make enemies, and it’s great to watch him doing it.
• Tony Marchant has done an interesting blog about dramatising Garrow’s Law on the BBC site.

Comments

  1. I’d forgotten about this series. It will be great to see it back again. We need something decent on Sunday nights. Now don’t tell me, ITV will put something good on at the same time now that Downton Abbey’s finishing.

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