Defending The Guilty | TV review by Steve Bennett © BBC/Big Talk Productions
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Defending The Guilty

TV review by Steve Bennett

Given the Supreme Court deliberations are dominating the news today, this is either the best or worst day to launch a comedy about lawyers.

Defending The Guilty is based on the memoirs of real-life criminal barrister Alex McBride, and focusses on the human flaws and frailties of those in the profession, rather than sharp-witted intellectual powerhouses with a streak of showmanship.

In fact, the slickest brief in the opening episode – which originally aired as a pilot this time last year – is pretty much the bad guy of the piece. Which is something when one of the other characters is a murder suspect. 

The practised Ashley (Prasanna Puwanarajah) is the prosecution counsel in a case being defended by Caroline, a case-weary barrister played by Katherine Parkinson and mentor to the more idealistic novice Will Packham, played by Will Sharpe from Flowers, with book smarts but fretful and gauche.

Their strange relationship – including Caroline’s insistence on being called ‘Mummy’ – is at the heart of the comedy, the push-and-pull between his ‘Hufflepuff’ naivety and her seen-it-all cynicism. ‘What are we doing this for?’ she asks him. ‘Justice?’ he proffers lamely. ‘Jesus no, we’re doing this to win.’

Will’s also feeling the pressure as he is one of four pupils competing for a single job at chambers alongside oleaginous posho Liam (Hugh Coles), no-nonsense ‘angry chav’ Danielle and ‘hot robot’ Pia, little-used in this episode. And the competitiveness never ends in the legal world – for although she tries to play it cool, Caroline is in a ‘death match’ of her own, trying to advance to QC.

The central case of whether a definite wrong’un really did stove in a rival’s head with a wrench is secondary, although it allows writer Keiron Quirke – who previously co-created Cuckoo – to ramp up the tension in the final act, with Will on the precipice of winning or losing the case with the information he’s sussed out.

 The legal narrative seems a little dense and garbled, but then the script is trying to create a similar effect of urgent chaos as The Thick Of It, with a man’s freedom apparently arbitrarily decided by the whim of panic and circumstance rather than the sober debate of many legal dramas.

Also in the crucible of the courtroom, Will is made to squirming with the embarrassment of trying to explain the finer details of an intimate encounter with a juror to a schoolma’amish judge (Georgie Glen), which is the comic highlight of the half-hour.

As for a final verdict? Outside of this scene, Defending The Guilty has few laughs – and some of the obviously witty lines seem too contrived. But there are plenty of wry smiles, and crucially the characters, the dynamic between them and the pace of the plot all make this eminently watchable. The jury might still be out, but it’s looking like this will be a hit.

• Defending The Guilty is on BBC Two at 10pm tonight.

Review date: 17 Sep 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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