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Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009
Wigs in the dock

By Tom Colls
Today programme

With their labyrinthine plots, declamations of innocence and last-minute reprieves, the legal novel is the ultimate in thriller fiction.

 Leo McKern as Rumpole Of The Bailey
Rumpole of the Bailey, the archetype of Dickensian British barristers

This week, The Associate, the latest legal thriller from US author John Grisham, is being released and is likely to spend many weeks at the top of the bestseller list.

The hero, in the best Hollywood tradition, is an outstanding legal student, with good looks, a brilliant mind, a glittering future - and a dark secret.

The comparison with British legal heroes is somewhat unflattering. Fictional solicitors and barristers are often shambling old men, who ply their trade in eccentric style and are fond of the odd glass of claret.

It seems that more than the Atlantic separates the Inns of Court and the US courthouse.

"In America they have Calista Flockhart and in Britain we have Leo McKern," says broadcaster and lawyer Clive Anderson.

"Americans like a bit of aspiration and glamour, and you can impose that on a lawyer because they often earn quite a lot of money."

But for Labour MP and lawyer Bob Marshall-Andrews, the US brand lacks the humour of the British.

"You don't laugh in a Grisham novel," he says.

What makes the English legal hero so attractive, he says, is the sense of pathos epitomised by John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey. Those in power consider him a failure, while the reader can see his brilliance.

There is another crucial difference - spontaneity. "The seat of your pants is the best indicator of judgement, rather than the cranium - the Americans take a rather different view," he says.

Brave and true

But for Ted Childs, executive producer of ITV series Kavanagh QC, courtroom dramas "do pretty much the same thing" wherever they are made.

Calista Flockhart and Gil Bellows from the series Ally McBeal
In America they have Calista Flockhart and in Britain we have Leo McKern
Clive Anderson

They inevitably involve a heroic legal practitioner whose brilliant courtroom oratory "breaks down the dodgy witness and assures the acquittal of somebody brave and true".

While he admits that British courtroom dramas are sometimes more subtle, they still are victim to their own set of clichés.

"There is always the temptation to lapse into the Dickensian, with knockabout scenes in chambers and winebars," he says.

"John Mortimer, God bless him, has got a lot to answer for."

And neither should the British get on their high-horse about factual accuracy.

"Television depictions of courtroom dramas are a travesty of the truth," he says. "We press into an hour a process that should last for several weeks."

Bound by convention

US legal dramas have one distinct advantage, Mr Childs admits.

Tom Cruise appearing on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross
Could Tom Cruise ever play a British legal hero?
British productions are hamstrung by the legal convention that prevents solicitors speaking in court and barristers investigating cases themselves.

In the US there is no such barrier, meaning the heroic fictional lawyer can sniff out clues and introduce them (dramatically) in court, while their British counterpart is forced to wait patiently in his or her chambers.

As Professor Leslie Moran of Birkbeck School of Law points out, courtroom drama in the two countries is also in part determined by the "geography" of the courtroom itself.

A US court has a large open space at the front where battling lawyers can eyeball witnesses and wave evidence at the jury.

In comparison, British courts are cluttered with tables and chairs, and the wig-wearing barristers have to make their case from behind a desk, meaning that the drama is more reliant on dialogue than action.

What is more, he says, judges in the US have "a higher tolerance for drama" compared with their conservative counterparts in the UK - giving "more occasion to be flamboyant" to US lawyers.

Judge John Deed
Judges rarely play the lead role in legal dramas
On top of all of this, US citizens have a far more hands-on relationship with the law - children learn the US constitution and Bill of Rights at school and there is a history of minorities struggling via the courtroom. This gives a far greater political significance to courtroom battles.

"Litigation is perceived as a political act in the US, where in Britain it is seen as archaic and technical," he says.

But legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg says the antiquated accoutrements of English law aid British drama rather than hindering it.

"There is no doubt that our legal system looks more interesting," he says.

"It certainly helps that we have odd-looking people wearing odd-looking clothes."

For Mr Rozenberg, who reviewed John Grisham's new book for the Observer newspaper, the factor that distinguishes legal dramas is cultural rather than legal.

"Without wishing to be rude to a whole nation, Americans see things in black and white. Good and evil with a capital G and a capital E," he says.

"In Britain we are used to our villains being a little bit good and a little bit evil. Politicians lose their jobs and a few years later they are back in the cabinet.

"Americans are a little bit less subtle. The British are a little bit more realistic."

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