“245 women silks ever, out of tens of thousands”
I do love a legal drama and so too does Peter Moffat. I’m forever grateful for him for the Helen McCrory-starring joy that was North Square and I’ve recently caught up with the two series of Criminal Justice that he was responsible for, so it was only natural that I should be a big fan of Silk. But as the time pressures of a busy theatre schedule rarely let go, it wasn’t something I had time to watch live and it was only with its arrival on Netflix that I was able to catch up with it. The show focuses on a single chambers with two leading lights both hoping to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, “taking silk” as it were, and dealing with the pressures of life at the Bar.
Casting Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones as the rivals Martha Costello and Clive Reader works extremely well – her fierce intelligence and emotional counterbalance being perfectly portrayed by the ever-strong Peake and Penry-Jones making Reader something of an arrogant buffoon yet one with some redeeming qualities as he competes and consoles, seduces and shines his way through life. Over the six episodes, the focus is mainly on Martha and her dilemmas as she finds herself pregnant at a time of huge professional significance, but the series as a whole makes for a modern and exciting version of a legal drama.
It does feel that almost every good actor of note managed to find themselves a role in this. There’s hardly room to mention all of my favourites but Aden Gillett’s twinkled-eyed judge, Siân Brooke’s anguished rape victim, Al Weaver’s cocky wideboy, Peter Wight’s officious Met bigwig, Fenella Woolgar’s opinionated prosecutor and Penny Downie’s well-spoken widow were particularly memorable. And as with any multi-part series worth its salt, there are longer-running storylines – Martha’s emotional attachment to Danny Lee Wynter’s rentboy plays out over several cases and Paul Hilton’s psychotic burglar is another constant, threatening, presence.
The chambers-based story about the rebellion against Neil Stuke’s head clerk feels a bit like a retread from North Square but gives Nina Sosanya her only real storyline of note as the chief instigator. And there’s fun to be had with the competition between the two pupils, Natalie Dormer and Tom Hughes, trying to develop their own careers by seizing the opportunities that come their way and finding their own ways to connect with their masters. There’s a good balance of stories and pleasingly, not too much interlinking of them with personal lives à la Casualty, Holby City.
A bit of a triumph of British television-making then. And whilst the scope may be less epic than its US counterpart The Good Wife (which I have also come to belatedly and blissfully) with it’s A-list guest stars and 24 episode-long series, I would argue that it more than holds its own due to the exceptional quality of its writing and a career-best performance from Maxine Peake.