New BBC drama Silk is a big, bold, fast-paced insight into the world of the criminal Bar, showing legal eagles at work and play.
Maxine Peake stars as Martha Costello, mid-thirties, single, passionate, a defence barrister applying for silk. Martha is faced with challenging cases and surprising clients. Her beliefs and prejudices, her conscience and her faith in the criminal justice system are tested to the limit over the course of the series.
Martha’s main competition in chambers is Clive Reader, played by Rupert Penry-Jones. Clive is funny, gifted and dangerous. He’s the same age as Martha and they are called to the Bar together. Both are applying for silk – how they perform in court is vital to this process and Clive knows how to play the game.
“Clive Reader doesn’t really care about the people he’s representing, he just cares about winning,” explains Rupert Penry-Jones. “It’s his job and he’s less interested in whether they’re guilty or not. In his eyes he is always doing the right thing.”
Rupert believes this is essentially the difference between Maxine Peake’s character, Martha Costello, and his own:
“Martha, gets very emotionally involved with all her clients, whereas my character Clive is all about winning. He won’t mind walking on a few people to get where he needs to get. Clive believes it’s his job to defend his client and get them off, whether they are guilty or not guilty. He believes you don’t get emotionally involved with every case.”
There is an interesting relationship between the two characters of Clive and Martha. “They love to hate each other. I think he probably likes her a bit more than she likes him. They’d certainly miss each other if they weren’t in the same legal chambers, they’re not enemies but they’re not friends.”
Could this be the beginnings of a romance in chambers?
“I think Clive would if he could, but he’s actually involved with somebody else in the chambers. He likes women,” says Rupert.
Rupert found playing Clive: “Unintentionally funny. He is very clever and comes out with witty comments. I think the audience will love to hate him really. He comes out with comments that are so outrageous you can’t help but like him!”
Whether they like it or not, Martha and Clive are in competition with each other, and everyone in the Chambers knows it.
“Billy, the senior clerk, played by Neil Stuke, is playing Clive and Martha off against each other because it’s very unlikely two barristers from the same Chambers will get silk, when they are applying at the same time. Let alone for a woman to get silk, so Billy is hedging his bets with me, but his mind changes, depending on what’s going on.”
His love of the ladies finds him sleeping with Niamh, his pupil, which is very unprofessional. It’s unclear early on if Clive is doing this to get on, as Niamh’s father is a Judge. However Rupert is quick to point out: “He does like her too. It starts off as just a bit of fun. But he does actually get it on with her. She’s not sure what she’s doing and is just going along with it for as long as it can last I suppose. But he does get himself into some deep water later on.”
The legal profession is a world that writer Peter Moffat is very familiar with. Rupert explains that Peter “used to be a barrister, so he really does know. You get the feeling that he is writing himself into some of the characters, not so much my character, more Tom’s character, you get the feeling he sees himself as a bit of a young maverick barrister.”
As to what sets Silk apart from the other legal dramas, Rupert says: “I think the battle over defending people who are guilty is an interesting dilemma that gets dealt with in this. I like the relationship, what goes on in chambers with the barristers and the clerks is a lot of fun and is not something I have seen before.
“A lot of shows do either just that or just the court stuff and to have the combination of our lives mixed up with that is interesting. North Square was mainly about the chambers and Law And Order is mainly about the court so we are sort of mixing it up a bit.”
After learning what he has through Silk, Rupert still has faith in our justice system. “What I didn’t realise was that there are very few countries that actually have a jury – the UK, Australia, America, that’s pretty much it. Everyone else just has the court deciding! So I think that makes our system in some ways fairer than others and we have that whole idea of innocent until proven guilty that seems to be stronger here.
“I wouldn’t ever want to be in the dock though; I can imagine it would be terrifying, even if you’re innocent!”
As for being a barrister for real, Rupert says: “No, the problem for me and a dilemma we deal with in Silk is the idea of defending someone who you know is guilty and helping them get a not guilty verdict. That, I would find really difficult!”
Silk, from Tuesday 22nd February, BBC1 HD