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28 October 2014

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Interview with New Street Law co-creator and lead writer Matthew Hall.

Matthew's writing credits include Holby City, Dalziel and Pascoe and his own series Wing and a Prayer. He established the format and characters with co-creator G F Newman, and has written four episodes.

You have a legal background - is it something you've wanted to return to in drama for a long time?

I'm 38, and, I was a barrister for five or six years in my twenties. I've been writing since - I got my first job writing Kavanagh QC for ITV*, and I ended up going from one writing job to the next. I did write a legal series back in the late 90s called Wing and a Prayer* for Channel Five,* which got a BAFTA nomination.

I've been very keen to get a show like New Street Law on the BBC, what's called a legal precinct show. That's a show that takes place mostly within the precincts of the courtroom and barristers' chambers. The whole of human life can come through those four walls. That gives the series legs, which is what we're looking for on a long-runner. But it took time getting it right.

I have a production company [One Eyed Dog Productions] together with Gordon Newman. Jane Tranter, head of BBC Drama, asked us if we'd come up with something, and we created New Street Law. It took about two years from that point to actually get it onto the screen.

Gordon had done very serious drama, I'd done really quite serious drama, but this was to be for an 8pm spot. So Jane put us together with Red Productions in Manchester, who are well known for really cool, trendy, fashionable drama.
"I'm constantly trying to make sure it's full of thought provoking issues, that it's legally topical, that we're pushing it as far as we can at 8pm in the evening."

How did the partnership with Red work?

We couldn't be any more different, us and Red. We didn't have an easy relationship at all to start with. I'm constantly trying to make sure it's full of thought provoking issues, that it's legally topical, that we're pushing it as far as we can at 8pm in the evening.

Red have brought a real contemporary edge to it. They brought a lot of very populist casting, they've cast a number of actors from the soaps. Frankly it's not something I'd have ever done, because it's outside my knowledge. But that's the wisdom of the BBC, putting us together in that way.

Red are unashamedly Manchester based, everything they do is set Manchester, and that really helped to root the series, even though it's mostly shot in a film set. You've got a fusion, which I think works quite well.

It's a very issues-led drama - what's behind that?

My experience of the law was that everyday you're dealing with grave experiences and quite often horrific things. You deal with them in quite a matter-of-fact and sanitised way. I feel that a lot of legal drama glamorises what goes on.

Even if you're representing someone accused of a very heinous crime, when you sit down next to them and hear their life history, you inevitably conclude that you can see exactly why this has happened. It's very unusual that you meet someone who is entirely bad for no reason.

"When people say to you as a barrister, 'How can you represent someone you know is guilty?', you invariably say, 'It's far more complicated than that'."
So when people say to you as a barrister, "How can you represent someone that you know is guilty?", you invariably say, "It's far more complicated than that". You meet very few people you would condemn out of hand.

You meet an awful lot of people in very difficult situations, whose life has led them to this point, for whom the law is an extremely blunt instrument, and does very little, apart from perhaps remove them from circulation for a time.

That was about the height of my disillusionment with the law. I was very idealistic when I went into it, and wanted to change things and make lives better. And I looked at it and thought, "Well, in 20 years' time I'll just be doing rape and murder instead of more minor violence and robbery." It feels like a big machine that doesn't achieve very much. What I wanted to achieve in the show was to dramatise all the moral complexity.

We've got an episode about an Asian policeman accused of torturing an Asian suspect in a police cell. Another is about a woman accused of being accomplice to murder of a ten-year-old child, so we're going to quite dark places. My firm belief is that the audience wants real tragedy, real darkness and real comedy both in the same hour.

The format really took flight when we had the idea to have two chambers in opposition to each other. Originally we just had one, and something was missing. When we divided them, that was brilliant because you have the story of the week, and you see everything from two sides, at least.

On to social embarrassment and realism »

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