Doing us justice

Television - Andrew Billen finds a new ITV drama not guilty on many counts

That BBC1 must weekly come up with so many different types of lawmen - detectives, judges, pathologists and, in Outside the Rules (17 and 18 February), forensic psychiatrists - to star in its Crime Doubles series suggests that law and order has become less a genre to be explored than a quota to be met. The latest criminal mutation arrived on ITV1 on 17 February with The Jury (Sundays, 9.30pm), and I could hardly stifle my yawns at the prospect . . . until I thought about it again and realised that this variation could almost count as original. Centring a legal drama on a jury has not, to my knowledge, been attempted since Twelve Angry Men.

There are reasons not to, the main one being that you end up with as many leading characters as a film by Robert Altman. However, the writer of this six-parter, Peter Morgan, is showing great skill in introducing his jurors to us. We have so far met only six of the 12. Each of this first batch intrigues, partly because of who they are and partly because of the reasons they agree to serve.

The oddest motives, because purest, belong to Peter, played by the film actor Michael Maloney. Keen as mustard, he truly believes it is his citizen's duty to "stand in judgement over someone's destiny". At least, this is what he tells himself, for Peter is also, as Alan Bennett would say, a man of no importance, a pensions salesman, the unvalued Jewish son-in-law in an upper-class family. When he enters the Old Bailey, the celestial choirs start to sing and the camera pans up reverentially, as if to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is the moment of his calling and there is a dry humour to it: we are not to take the law as seriously as he does.

For his co-juror Charles, the attraction of the jury room is exactly that it is not a cathedral. He is a trainee priest whose faith has gone cold. Jury service is his retreat, his halfway house back into the world. Stuart Bunce plays him as an unsocialised depressive.

Rose is also using her time in court to escape - in this case, an unsatisfactory life with her oafish but possessive husband. Here at last is a part of her life she cannot share with him; she is not going to waste her freedom. Changing into her glad rags in the loos, she's on the pull. Love among the ushers will be a challenge to credibility, but if anyone can make an affair believable it is Helen McCrory, a recent Anna Karenina on Channel 4 and (although she's on screen for only three minutes) the best thing in the new film Charlotte Gray.

The other jurors we have seen at close quarters are a recovering alcoholic, a single mother and a washed-up bankrupt. As Anne Robinson would never ask, which among these is the strongest link? In their favour, and unlike most juries, which are working-class in bias (the middle classes know how to get out of serving), they do represent a decent spread of society. As the defence QC puts it, they are "a real jury, a real London jury. Not a bunch of Daily Mail readers from Tunbridge Wells." The mix and, indeed, that line of dialogue point to this serial's ambition to address society.

The aspiration is most obviously shown in the case that the jury is trying. Morgan has let his heroes loose not on a conventional, Morse-like case, but on a murder with strong racial overtones. Even more remarkably, it is not a replay of the Stephen Lawrence killing, which would be both hackneyed and trivialising, but, counter-intuitively, the case of a Sikh boy, Duvinder Singh (beautifully played by Sonnell Dadral), accused of murdering a white classmate. Outside the court, the two communities scream and wave banners at each other. The members of the white victim's family are sentimental, possibly racist, thugs. In the pub at the end of the first day, they talk menacingly of "reaching out" into the jury room and into prison.

The metropolitan sophistication of this London story is underscored by the casting of two titans of the West End, Derek Jacobi and Antony Sher, as George Cording and Gerald Lewis, the lead counsels. Jacobi steals it so far, giggling as the jury enters the court and doing a larky cross-examination, but Sher, crouching like an eagle over his prey, will have his day, too. Both actors have been scandalously underused by television: Sher is still best known for The History Man 20 years ago, while Jacobi has not had a series since Cadfael ended in 1996. Yet the casting of stage royalty not only adds prestige, but is justifiable dramatically: barristers are always hams.

I only wish ITV had been brave enough to remove the whodunnit element entirely. If we had been let in on the truth of the case from the off, we could concentrate on the jurors' lives and the muddiness of the law. Instead, we shall distract ourselves by debating whether Duvinder Singh is innocent or not. My advice is to regard all the flashbacks as unreliable. Watching in slow motion the shots of the murder shown before the titles, I am convinced that, at the crucial moment, Dadral's face is replaced by an older man's. I think - and here I go - the boy is innocent. Never mind, this serial offers other and more grown-up pleasures than the verdict.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects