The sun always shines on TV

As I write this, the sun is setting over the pool, the palm trees are swaying gently in the breeze and the sound of the sea breaking against the volcanic sandy beaches is wafting gently across the terrace. Well, not quite. I am on holiday, but childcare dictates that most evenings I am watching TV rather than enjoying the balmy evenings (and dodgy resort ‘entertainment’).

Not a problem, I can watch TV along with the best of them, although the lack of recording facilities has meant watching programmes I have avoided for years.  Like Casualty.  Medical dramas are banned in our house (apart from Scrubs, which doesn’t really count), mainly because of squeamishness (not mine).  It could equally be because of completely implausible portrayals of anything that ever takes place in the NHS.

I haven’t spent a great deal of time in hospitals, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but bits of Saturday night’s Casualty were so absurd I laughed out loud.  Real life medical staff, who do spend their lives in hospitals, are, I would imagine, highly jealous of their fictitious counterparts. 

TV nurses and doctors are both highly attractive and multi-skilled, working in large, calm open spaces (apparently wards), with penthouse-like offices and an endless stream of resources.  Not only do they get instant results from any medical treatment or investigation, they appear to be super-human, able to diagnose rare conditions just by looking at patients. 

The same is largely true for TV lawyers, who have lives far more exciting, intriguing and glamorous than most real ones could even dream of.  But rather than revelling in this parallel universe, many are quick to cry foul when legal dramas get it wrong. 

Back in 2008, displaying a hitherto unseen insecurity, the then chairman of the Bar Council, Timothy Dutton QC, took the BBC to task over inaccuracies in its prime time drama, Criminal Justice, in particular the depiction of his fellow barristers as ‘devious, overly aggressive and unethical’.   He complained that ‘the serial is not the basis upon which one can draw any sound conclusions about our system of justice’. 

The writer of the programme, Peter Moffat, a veteran writer of legal dramas and a trained criminal barrister, pointed out that the Bar needed to face the fact that ‘like every other profession it has brilliant and fair-minded practitioners, those of average ability and the violent, dishonest and stupid working within it’.  Hear hear.

This wasn’t the only time Moffat was criticised for employing far too much dramatic licence.  His most recent creation, Silk, was heralded as a real insight into the machinations of the criminal bar, but came under fire for portraying it as having something of a drug culture.  That said, Silk was a big hit with lawyers and the public alike and what’s not to like?  Machiavellian politics, ethical and moral dilemmas, pressure and intrigue and, let’s be honest, sex.  Moffat has now turned his attention to the family courts.

Less serious and infinitely more absurd is Judge John Deed, featuring a judge for whom the word maverick is surely an understatement.   He sits on cases in which his mistress acts for one of the parties, a conflict of interest if ever there was one, and as a juror in one episode he does his own research into the case he’s hearing.  This led one real life judge to warn a jury not to follow Deed’s example and threaten the judicial process.

I’d like to think most people would have the common sense to realise that what they see on TV is not reality, even if it purports to be, but especially not when it’s billed as drama.  The problem is most people have very little experience of the law (apart from will writing and conveyancing, neither of which are likely to make great viewing) so TV drama, subconsciously and unintentionally, fills the gaps in people’s knowledge.

It probably doesn’t matter too much if English TV judges keep on banging gavels, although it does suggest attempts at accuracy are somewhat less than wholehearted and it annoys Marcel Berlins quite a lot.  But it is unfortunate if people assume the court procedures they watch, such as lawyers manufacturing evidence or defendants taking time out during evidence to consult their legal team, represent reality.

While it may be unfair to expect TV producers to do the job of educating people about the justice system, it wouldn’t take a huge amount of effort to get it right.   I can imagine there are plenty of lawyers out there who would happily lend their expertise in exchange for a walk-on part in Moffat’s next creation (or, in my case, were I a lawyer, tea with Rupert Penry-Jones). 

It won’t be long before we can watch real live justice being delivered on TV, although as filming will be limited to judges delivering their sentencing remarks, it is unlikely to supplant its fictionalised version any time soon.  Which is something of a disappointment for those of us hoping for a modern-day, reality-TV version of 1970s drama serial Crown Court.   Daytime TV would never be the same again.

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