Flawless in a barrister's wig: Maxine Peake as Martha Costello in Silk
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BBC1’s Silk: we’ve come a long way since Juliet Bravo

The legal drama in which m’learned ladies aren’t just tolerated but adored.

Silk; Line of Duty
BBC1; BBC2

I love Silk. I love gobby Martha (Maxine Peake) and posh Clive (Rupert Penry-Jones) and the way they look so preposterously good in their wigs. I love snouty Billy the clerk (Neil Stuke), for whom every brief is either a landmine or a Lottery ticket, and nothing in between. I love Caroline Warwick, QC (Frances Barber), who pretends to be as vinegary as a pickled onion but is at heart a sweetie. How fantastic that a mainstream TV show should refuse to punish its female characters for having brains the size of Wales and careers that fill up their lives.

How far we have come. Thanks to Juliet Bravo, in which Anna Carteret starred as a police inspector battling male prejudice in a West Yorkshire mill town, I spent most of the Eighties dreaming that I, too, would one day be addressed as “ma’am” by men with bald patches and beer bellies (a fantasy that turned out to be unexpectedly useful when I began working at a Sunday newspaper). These recalcitrant males would resent my great intellect, but the rules would dictate a certain subservience. Cut to 2014, however, and we have a series in which the men don’t merely tolerate a woman’s cleverness; they adore it. Sometimes – take a cold shower, Clive – it even makes them pant with desire. The power of this should not be underestimated. My advice to readers in possession of a teenage daughter: get her to watch Silk.

The first episode of the new series (24 February, 9pm) opened at the party to celebrate Clive becoming a Queen’s Counsel. Martha, who beat him to it in the QC stakes, arrived late, furious at having lost an appeal, and, on discovering that the party lacked music, promptly attached her iPod to a nearby speaker. She then danced loopily to Joy Division while everyone else sipped their champagne politely and wondered all over again at the life force that is the greatest asset of Shoe Lane Chambers.

“I love it when she loses,” Clive said. “I love it when she dances. She’s so very, very bad at both.” Moments later, he and Martha repaired to a nearby courtroom for a timely snog, though not before she had teased him about his own taste in music, which extends (he went to public school) to Kylie by way of Genesis. Jokes about Genesis, you don’t get those in Call the Midwife.

The party was interrupted by the news that the teenage son of Alan (Alex Jennings), their head of chambers, had been charged with the manslaughter of a police officer who had died during a student demo. Whom would Alan choose to represent his boy in court? Do you need to ask? Sure enough, Martha was soon in the boy’s cell, the slash of crimson on her lips a beacon of hope amid all the grey. If Silk’s plots occasionally strain credulity – and this one did – there is always pleasure to be had in the dialogue. Peter Moffat, a writer who has Baftas in his downstairs loo (or somewhere) and who used to be a barrister, too, has a gift for making his characters sound plausible even when they are about to do something wildly implausible. “What’s he like?” enquired Martha, of the judge she would shortly face. “He’s like a sherbet lemon suppository,” said Clive. This, believe me, is Clive all over. Even his similes sound pleased with themselves.

Over on BBC2, we’re halfway through the new series of Line of Duty (Wednesdays, 9pm). I could drone on for hours about Jed Mercurio’s writing: the daring of it (no easy character for the viewer to side with here) and also the artistic pedantry (his way with police procedure and bureaucracy is beyond extraordinary). But you may still be catching up and I don’t want to give anything away. So all I will say now is: wow, Keeley Hawes. What a moment this is for her. She is mesmerising as DI Lindsay Denton, an officer who might, or might not be, corrupt. Fear, anger, resignation, menace: emotions pass over her (make-up-free) face like passing headlights on a bedroom ceiling. She looks ill, as coppers often seem to be, and there is a heaviness in the way she walks, as if a bomb were strapped to her middle. To be honest, I can’t get enough of DI Denton; when she’s not in a scene, I miss her. But do I want her to be innocent or guilty? Ah, this – as Mercurio surely knows – is a much more difficult question to answer. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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