DVD Review: Criminal Justice Series 1

“We’ve got the best criminal justice system in the world and the jury will get it right”

I do love me a good crime/legal procedural on the television (see North Square, The Jury, Murder One, Damages) but I rarely have the time to watch everything I want to these days and the BBC series Criminal Justice is one of the ones that slipped through the cracks. It has sat on my Lovefilm queue for ages and after a conversation about Ben Whishaw with one of his fans, I decided to finally get round to watching both the series on DVD.

Predictably, I loved it. Written by Peter Moffat (who also penned North Square), it is a five episode trek through one person’s journey through the various stages of the criminal justice system. The 2008 first series starred the aforementioned Whishaw as Ben Coulter, an aspiring footballer who finds himself accused of murder after a drink and drug-fuelled night out with a girl who ends up stabbed to death whilst Ben struggles to remember any of the details of what actually happened. And so from interview rooms in the police station to failed bail appeals and prison cells and then the subsequent court case, Ben’s experience at the hands of the system is thrillingly portrayed. 

Moffat balances the various strands perfectly, ensuring each remains vividly interesting yet never focusing too much on one at the expense of another, tracing the hallucinatory horror of realising what was happening as the gravity of the situation slowly makes itself apparent to Ben to the all-too-real fear of having to go to prison as bail is refused to the frustrations of having to play the legal games necessary to get the best deal. 

And for me [kind of spoiler alert], it was made more interesting by a lack of certainty that he was as innocent as he made out. The drug taking of the evening in question and his complete memory lapse meant there was always an ambiguity for me that was never truly addressed, Whishaw’s compelling performance adamant in its declaration of no wrongdoing. He captured so much of the dread that felt eminently relatable in the sense of what it might be like if, heaven forfend one should end up in a similar situation, in the panic of having to deal with prison life, the added importance of having the unconditional support of one’s family, the need to make the right kind of friendships – as Pete Postlethwaite’s cellmate Hooch proves, in an excellently moving performance.

And as always for me these days, the delights in watching a well-known theatrical cast are manifold with some excellent people onboard throughout the show. John Hodgkinson’s senior police bureaucrat butting heads with Bill Paterson’s thoroughly old school cop; Lindsay Duncan doing delicious battle with Nicholas Farrell in the courtroom under the watchful gaze of Richenda Carey’s judge; the anguished struggle of Juliet Aubrey and David Westhead’s parents to stay positive in the light of endless revelations about their son; Darrell D’Silva’s bent screw deferring to the all-powerful might of David Harewood’s top dog prisoner. And even the smaller parts maintain a similar level of quality and recognisable faces, to wit Clare Burt as a disconnected nurse, Sam Alexander’s green cop, David Annen’s dismissive lawyer.  

So if you, like me, have stupidly waited five years to watch this, I thoroughly recommend tracking down a copy to watch as it is a highly entertaining piece of television which, although it may tend a little towards the stereotypical in some of its characterisation of stock types, has much to say about the various branches of the criminal justice system and does so in a remarkably fresh fashion.

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