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New Street Law
cast: John Hannah, John Thompson, Paul Freeman, Lisa Falkner, and Penny Downie

creator: G.F. Newman

480 minutes (12) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Acorn Video DVD Region 2 retail
[released 9 October]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
John Hannah has always been an unusual leading man, intelligent enough for the really interesting material and yet a little too handsome for most of it to stick. Memorably once linked with a big screen version of Mr Benn he remains one of England's most interesting character actors and here, at last, may have a vehicle to prove that.

In New Street Law, Hannah plays Jack Roper, a barrister who runs a bargain basement practice intent on taking as much public service work as possible. Jack and his lawyers will work pro bono, pull extra hours and go to the wall for clients, especially if, as is often the case, their opponents are being represented by Jack's old teacher, Laurence Scammel (Paul Freeman). Jack operates his practice from the basement of the law firm Scammel runs, and the two meet in the corridor as often as they do in the courtroom. Together with gifted but naïve young lawyer Joe (Lee Williams), former CPS officer Annie Quick (Lara Cazalet) and distinctly dodgy Charles Darling (the always splendid John Thomson), Jack fights the good fight, whether or not he gets paid for the privilege.

This is substantially grittier than its premise suggests, thanks largely to some supremely intelligent writing. The visual gag of the basement lawyers isn't overplayed but the potential hubris of their career choice is never far from the surface. In one of the series' best moments, which occurs barely two episodes in, the staff convene a meeting and beg Jack to start taking paying work and settle their current case because no one's been paid and the bills are all due. It's a fascinating scene, played in such a way that Jack comes across more as a dangerous obsessive than a heroic crusader. He wants to beat Scammel and it's clear he's prepared to put everyone on the line to do it.

It's this intelligence and the honesty behind it that powers the series along. Hannah is clearly relishing playing a character with a foot in both camps and the rest of the cast fall into place around him perfectly. Particularly impressive are Cazalet as Annie, the former CPS lawyer regularly forced to fight her husband in court, Chris Gascoyne as the chief clerk Alan Thomson. Riding the line between parody and pathos, Thomson provides much of the comedy in the series without ever resorting to pratfalls. The first time we see him he's bartering a judge down on his expense claims and it's this combination of ruthlessness and compassion that makes him such a fascinating character. Other standouts include Lisa Faulkner as Scammel's daughter, who finds herself in the middle of a three-way battle between her mother, her father and Jack, for her soul and future as a lawyer.

What really raises the bar with New Street Law however is the ambiguity of the scripts. At no point does Jack get a clean win, constantly bartering and bargaining with the other side and, at one point, conceivably defending the wrong man. There's a fascinating moment in episode three where, defending a murderer who may have been under the influence of an anti-depressant when he committed his crime, Jack realises that his entire case may be falling apart. The lengths he goes to get to the win risk not only his career but also those of the rest of his practice, and he does all this without batting an eyelid. He may be on the side of the angels, but he's only there because Scammel isn't and the series never lets us forget that.

New Street Law is grounded, pragmatic and often extremely dark. It's intelligent drama first and a gimmick laden series about a lawyer who lives in a basement second. Anyone interested in smart television should give it a try.

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