In a crowded field, Garrow's Law (2009-2011) is a British legal drama with an unique premise. Though its cases and romantic subplots resemble myriad other British courtroom shows, from Rumpole of the Bailey to Judge John Deed, Garrow's Law is ingeniously set in Georgian London, specifically the end of the 1700s (and, just barely, into the 19th century). The aim of the series, in at which it largely succeeds, is to explore the often appalling social injustices of English law during this time, particularly against the poor, women, and the illiterate, and the efforts of real-life maverick barrister William Garrow (1760-1840)* to move the courts toward reformation and in particular an adversarial courtroom system.
Garrow's Law - The Complete Collection (the BBC cancelled the program in 2012) repackages the show's three season set DVDs into a single package that's about one-third less expensive than buying them individually. There are 12 one-hour episodes in all, with each season set including a short featurette.
Working closely with (and grounded by) veteran barrister John Southouse (New Tricks' Alun Armstrong), neophyte but articulate barrister William Garrow (Andrew Buchan) takes on some of the least promising cases at the Old Bailey, from an accused serial stabber of young women, the "London Monster," to James Hadfield, accused of attempting to assassinate King George III. Garrow typically finds himself before controversial, often prejudicial judge Sir Francis Buller (Michael Culkin), whose ruling that a husband could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb is the source of the term "rule of thumb."
Its teleplays draw from real cases recorded in Old Bailey Proceedings and, besides Garrow, Buller, and would-be assassin Hadfield other historical figures such as newspaper publisher John Julius Angerstein (a kind of 18th century Rupert Murdoch), anti-slavery advocate Gustavas Vassa, and Welsh British Army Lt. General Thomas Picton also appear. The final episode of the first season is suggested by the trials of Thomas Hardy and John Horne Tooke.
More interesting, however, is the show's depiction of 18th century law, the cruel injustices it inflicted on the poor especially, and Garrow's efforts to protect the rights of these accused, establishing precedents that have become basic tenants of courtrooms in much of the civilized world. This aspect of the program is consistently fascinating.
Damaging the show slightly is its major subplot, Garrow's burgeoning romantic relationship with Lady Sarah Hill (Lyndsey Marshal, The Hours, Rome), the wife of MP and British peer Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves) and who also acts as a kind of whistle-blower, funneling insider information to Garrow. As with the most of the writing on the show the relationship is fact-based, as Garrow and Sarah did indeed have a romantic relationship, and Arthur Hill was the father of her child, though the two were never actually married. The show's third season dramatizes a custody battle between them over Sarah's son.
The romantic subplot at times teeters dangerously near Harlequin Romance waters, though the strikingly beautiful Marshal and her understated performance compensate somewhat. The cast is mostly excellent, particularly Armstrong and Culkin, and despite a TV budget Garrow's Law is convincing in its period details, presenting a lived-in, richly atmospheric London of the late-1700s that's entirely believable.
Video & Audio
Bound in rather flimsy packaging, Garrow's Law - The Complete Collection pulls together the three, two-disc volumes, with four hour-length episodes in each of the three DVD cases. Presented in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen, Garrow's Law is a handsome production properly presented here. The excellent Dolby Digital stereo audio accompanied by good English SDH subtitles.
Supplements include text biographies of the historical William Garrow, as well as filmographies of the cast. But the real extras are the featurettes included with each set: "William Garrow: Fact and Fiction," "Garrow's Law: From Dawn to Dusk," and a more standard behind-the-scenes promo film. Each runs 19-22 minutes.
Above average, Garrow's Law is fact-based historical fiction with a concentration on late-18th century law and real-life cases that are almost always intriguing. The program's romantic subplotting is at times a bit melodramatic but overall this is a fine, Recommended series.
* It was William Garrow who introduced the concept of "presumed innocent until proven guilty."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.