Judgement day

Television - Andrew Billen on the trials of the late George Carman QC

After the encomiums to HMTQM, it was a relief to get a warts-and-all obituary of another national hero, George Carman, the libel lawyer who smashed the reputations of Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton. Get Carman: the trials of George Carman QC (5 April, 9pm, BBC2) was a slightly over-egged title for a drama documentary that similarly tried a little too hard when all it needed to do was tell his story. Carman, who died in January 2001, was one of the bar's great phrase-makers, a cross-examiner whose bite was as bad as his bark and, away from court, a wife-beater and drunk. As reported over the years, the legal trials in which he appeared gave as much entertainment as the fall of the Major government, the imprisonment of Jeffrey Archer and the humbling of Bill Clinton combined. Not reported until after his death, the personal trials he suffered - his anxiety attacks, his alcoholism, his relationships with women, the fact that he never became a judge - also proved entertaining in a grim sort of way.

Now that the fly-on-the- wall fad has passed, most documentary-makers, want to make feature films. But you could see why the director, Colin Barr, decided to make this as much drama as documentary. Carman's cross-examinations were theatrical, and we had a brilliant impersonator in David Suchet, whose recent portrayal of Melmotte in The Way We Live Now proved that monsters are his metier. The Carman-Suchet cross-examinations of witnesses in the 1978 Jeremy Thorpe murder conspiracy trial, and of Gillian Taylforth and the South African journalist Jani Allan, made the palms of your hands sweat.

The format, however, pushed to fit these scenes into an illustrated lecture by a ghostly Carman. The programme began with his shade climbing the back stairs of a courthouse, eavesdropping on his finest moments as he ascended towards celestial light. The study he entered at the top, however, was dark and smoky, more an antechamber to hell. Here, Carman-Suchet lit up, poured himself a brandy and put Frank Sinatra on the gramophone. As "I've Got You Under My Skin" struck up, he began his masterclass on how to hold a jury in the palm of your hand by making them believe you were one of them, as Old Blue Eyes had. This was interesting to me, because the one time I saw Carman perform, in a libel action brought by Edwina Currie against the Observer, his closing speech flew well over the heads of the jurors, who, in a nice, lower-middle-class way, did not like his bullying either. He lost, which perhaps proved his point.

In opposition to this self-advertisement ran the testament of his three wives and son, Dominic. He was a serial assaulter of wives, an alcoholic who, on at least one occasion, was deemed by his own chambers as unfit to appear in court, and an addicted gambler who once lost £35,000 in a casino in a single afternoon. Damning by association, the documentary showed archive footage of seedy gambling dens, drinking houses and the Playboy Club, all of which he frequented. Mad Frankie Fraser spoke warmly of how he would drink with anyone. That he could make Taylforth out to be the acme of depravity simply for rehearsing a blow job on a chocolate bar - "Is your behaviour not disgusting?" - was rich. But none of his behaviour made it into print before his death, because no newspaper wanted to spill the beans about someone on whose services it was likely at some point to rely.

But just as Carman ran his opponents into the ground, the documentary permitted no subtlety in its discussion of its subject's paradoxes. This showman from Blackpool, who enjoyed the end-of-the-pier entertainers, was so nervous of appearing in court that, in his early days, he would literally pass out in front of a judge. While he was so much the master of a brief in court, his temper at home was uncontrollable. His need to win a case was simply greater than that of his opponents and got him the best clients. And yet, equally, his neediness was vulgar and may explain why he never made it to the bench. Though brilliant at practising the law, he was never properly accepted by the legal profession itself.

Nevertheless, everyone wanted to take part in the show, not just his ex-wives and junior counsel, but also the judges, who clearly looked forward to Carman's cases as much as the rest of us. If Louise Shorter's programme had a bias, it was that it overemphasised how crucial Carman's contribution was in each case. At the time of the Thorpe trial, for instance, most people put the acquittal down to a one-sided summing-up by the judge, not to Carman; and it was detective work by the Guardian's legal team, not Carman's eloquence, that won the paper the Aitken case. The programme made up for inflating Carman's legal genius by running down his private character as ruthlessly as he had done Taylforth's. Like Max Clifford, the subject of a triumphant Louis Theroux documentary the week before, Carman emerged, in this flashy presentation, as a Dickensian grotesque whose grim shadow paradoxically added colour to our national life.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard