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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.

Flawless in a barrister's wig: Maxine Peake as Martha Costello in Silk
Flawless in a barrister's wig: Maxine Peake as Martha Costello in Silk

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. 

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