: Silk


Steven Castan

Silk, BBC TVBBC screened on ABC1 TV; series 1 & 2 
(12 episodes); written by Peter Moffatt;
starring Maxine Peake, Rupert Penry-Jones and Neil Stuke;
available on DVD, $39.99.

Your honour, Silk has just finished on ABC1, and I am not amused. There is an empty space in my Foxtel Planner on Thursday nights. I submit that the court direct that series three must be completed and filed with the ABC as soon as practicable. The show combines all of my favourite elements of recent British drama and I just cannot appear in any competent court of jurisdiction without my weekly dose of Martha, Clive and Billy et al.

In Silk there are strong believable characters, especially female characters, in empowering and realistic roles. There are also male characters who are believable as well. Why? Because they are not always ‘winning’ (as Charlie Sheen put it), not always gaining the upper hand. The men in Silk have strengths, indeed they strut and preen, and it looks like they will always outdo everyone, but in Silk they are complex and ultimately fallible. The female characters, on the other hand, are able to deal with life’s twists and turns with more dignity — and with their self-respect (mostly) intact. This is rare in today’s TV dramas.

Silk delves into the life of aspirational criminal barristers in London. It takes us into the unique clerking system of fictional chambers Shoe Lane. It weaves us through the travails, both professional and personal, of up and coming wanna-be-silks dealing with the daily pressures of trial work, including, but not limited to, the difficult and dishonest clients, the ethical dilemmas, the intra-chambers politics and the sometimes shocking and intriguing criminal cases in which they appear. Part of Silk’s allure is the way the show walks the fine line between: ‘ah yes, that’s what it’s like at the Bar’ combined with a bit of ‘no, that’s not how it is, it’s never that exciting!’ However, another aspect of the program’s allure is Silk’s underlying premise that if you keep your moral compass straight (using intelligence, guile and teamwork) you (and justice) will win out in the end. This is exemplified by the character of Martha Costello. It is her that we latch onto, to guide us through the various moral messes that seem to besiege these young(ish) barristers every week. She is the hook of the series.

It is my submission that, without her character, Silk would fall flat. I didn’t expect this from the series. I didn’t expect that anyone could pull off a show about barristers that wasn’t either clichéd and over-the-top, or too dry, legalistic and ultimately boring to everyone except maybe lawyers. (Like real life at the Bar?) I expected to watch a few episodes of Silk, lose interest and then be done with it. But no, I was drawn in and dutifully watched every week. Silk also does not fall flat thanks to strong acting, robust and succinct writing and, of course, just the right touch of humanity and (very British) humour.

We watch as main character Martha Costello (excellently portrayed by Maxine Peake) deals with Billy (Neil Stuke), her conniving but loyal Clerk (who always has a sly twinkle in his eye), and Martha’s main rival in chambers, Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones) who almost comes undone by his well intentioned but ethical mis-doings and sometimes follows
his urges rather than good sense. We also watch as Martha deals with her clients, whom she passionately defends, even if she abhors them and their actions (while at the same time empathising with them and their plights).

Series 1 is mainly concerned with the race between Martha and Clive to become silk. Yes, there are shenanigans about the clerkship, and Billy, and loyalty, as well as side stories of the pupils. We find out Clive is not what he was seemingly set up to be in the first few episodes (ie guaranteed to always ‘win’). Series 2 is about ‘life at the top’ for Martha and focuses on the barristers’ ethical dilemmas. Clive oversteps the line in the quest for justice in a case in Oxford and switches from defending to prosecuting, while Martha deals with the ongoing ethical dilemma of defending a man she believes murdered a previous client. We also delve further into Billy’s personal life and the troubles he brings upon himself in the quest to attain more work from a notorious but high paying criminal law solicitor. Finally, at the climax of the series, much is revealed and resolved on many fronts. Ultimately, who do the men in the series turn to when faced with personal and professional dilemmas that could ruin them? They turn to Martha. She is their moral compass as well as ours. She guides them to make the right choices (mostly). And I would recommend that you make the right choice, yourself, and give Silk a viewing. As the court pleases…

STEVEN ‘SC’ CASTAN is a barrister at the Victorian Bar.

(2012) 37(3) AltLJ 213
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