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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Silk: Peter Moffat, scriptwriter

With several legal dramas under his belt, including two series of Criminal Justice, what was it that made the former barrister and BAFTA award-winning writer, Peter Moffat, return to his legal roots, for the new drama series, Silk?

"So much to say – big stories and lots of courtroom drama – but I wanted to make it as much about barristers and their life in chambers as about the trials.

"I wanted Silk to be full of politics, intrigue and from my experience at the Bar, I felt life in chambers had all of those components."

Silk also provides an insight into the fast pace of life and quick turnaround of cases barristers are up against at work, Peter explains.

"Barristers are under terrific pressure. It's really common for a barrister to get a 'brief' the night before a case – partly because new cases come in all the time and the senior clerk, who allocates the barristers' work, may not want to turn down a particular case or might owe the solicitor a favour.

"I remember when I first started out as a 'pupil' in my twenties, coming back to chambers at lunchtime and being given a 2 o'clock GBH trial. I remember sitting on the Tube desperately trying to read the badly photocopied brief, arriving at court 15 minutes before the trial was due to start, running down to the cells to meet the client and having precisely three minutes to take instructions from a heavyweight villain, twice my age.

"You just have to put on your wig and gown and pretend you know what you're doing. It's really stressful, really hard work and it's these elements of the job I wanted to include in Silk. This is why along with the two barristers running for silk, Martha and Clive, I created two characters I describe as 'baby barristers' who tell you something about being a 'pupil' and learning on the job and just how extraordinary that experience is."

Peter adds that he wanted to provide some insight into how barristers work, the process and structure of getting a brief.

"Absolutely central to all of the barristers' careers and lives is the senior clerk, played in Silk by Neil Stuke, he's definitely the one in charge.

"A senior clerk acts like an agent schmoozing for work from solicitors and then allocating the work to his barristers. As a barrister, the most important professional relationship you have is with your clerk. It's imperative you get on with them. If you don't, if they don't like you, your career is in trouble.

"Chambers is like one big family, you talk to one another and help each other, but you're also in direct competition with each other for the work. It makes for an interesting dynamic."

In terms of the dynamic and choice of characters, Peter explains his thinking behind Martha Costello, played by Maxine Peake, who is perhaps not your run-of-the-mill barrister.

"Silk is set in London. A big percentage of the criminal bar in London are men, they're white and public school educated. For a northern girl from Bolton to break into and succeed in this world is tough.

"Martha Costello represents people who are disadvantaged and in need of help. Martha only defends, that's her reason for being a barrister. Her mantra is 'innocent until proven guilty'.

"I wanted to explore how her ideals hold up given the number of people she's represented who have done very bad things. What happens to Martha's principles when she has to represent defendants who appear guilty, who have told her they are not guilty? It throws up the question, what's it like representing someone who you know is guilty and what that means for you personally.

"Clive is definitely more from 'Establishment'. Martha is a bit of a wildcard and she doesn't come from a legal background whereas he does. He knows the world of the law, he knows the right people, or he thinks he does!"

With an ongoing appetite for legal drama on television, Peter explains what he hopes to bring to the audience with Silk.

"I wanted to make sure that every big case, every trial in every episode, brings with it a really meaty, complex ethical or moral dilemma, which will affect the barristers in their professional and even personal lives.

"I wanted to show the correlation between client, defendant, trial and barrister so that the rich, textured, dramatic entanglement is plain. I also wanted the audience to be surprised and to watch Silk and say 'I didn't know that'."

As for what is it that makes legal dramas so watchable, Peter adds: "I think there's a natural structure in a legal drama. At the end of each episode you have a verdict, there's always a classic conundrum moment.

"Trials have their structures, prosecution case laid out first, challenged by the defence, then the defence case challenged by prosecution. In terms of acts, it's classically set out, as well as in terms of dynamics between characters.

"As a barrister I have to trip you up, you have to defend yourself and try to trip me up. I am going to want information from you, you're going to want to tell me things I don't want to know, and all of those are really natural dramatic relationships.

"Everybody is under pressure, because you could go to prison, or if I lose the case, it matters for my career. Will the solicitor brief me again if I don't win?

"The other great factor is anybody can be on trial, you can choose from all walks of life. So for a writer, you have an endless choice of who you are going to put in the dock."

Having written about the law on a number of occasions through a number of successful dramas, Peter provides his take on the current system.

"I think its great on the whole. We have what's known as an 'adversarial system' which means you're not after the truth, you're after a result. One side represents one argument or story and the other side represents another. I think it is the best system. I've talked to many jurors, watched many trials and I feel most of the time the 12 members of the jury get it right."

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