“Taking silk” is a phrase in the British legal field to describe what happens when a barrister achieves the rank of Queen’s (or King’s) Counsel, which typically happens only after at least 15 years experience. The phrase comes from the silk robes these professionals don. It’s also the name of a current British drama that not so long ago aired on BBC America. Silk – Series One, consisting of the first six episodes, has recently been released on DVD.
Created by Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice), who served the bar and so has first-hand knowledge of this world, Silk is the story of a small group of barristers in London. Their competition for promotion is fierce, and the pressure to succeed is intense. This series attempts to realistically portray what it’s like to be in such a contest, and is pretty entertaining in the process.
Martha Costello (Maxine Peake, Shameless) is a smart, ambitious lawyer with a great reputation, who really wants to take the silk. To do so, she is plenty willing to take on last-minute cases, which the chambers’ tricky senior clerk, Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke, Reggie Perrin), throws her way, especially those that will look extra good to the people who will be evaluating her, showcasing her range.
Martha is saddled with training Nick Slade (Tom Hughes, Cemetery Junction), so needless to say, she’s quite busy, having to set a good example for him and make sure he’s learning something while still doing her job. Plus, messy personal issues crop up at inconvenient times, too.
Martha’s chief rival is the funny, but ruthless, Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones, Whitechapel). Not only does Clive make Martha’s job harder, but he soon beds Niamh Cranitch (Natalie Dormer, Game of Thrones), his own pupil, so he’s not the most likeable guy. Clive often succeeds, as any good foe must, but he also has his own share of setbacks, such as when the man he must interview for turns out be a person Clive should stay well away from.
The main challenge that Silk faces is staying believable. The players do tend to be pretty easy to sort into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories, which isn’t nearly as interesting as complex parts with layers would be. Martha is a hero and Clive is a villain. There is also sometimes a bit of hokiness in the lengths certain people will go to to achieve their goals, though that is typical of much on television.
What the series does well, though, is raise moral and ethical quandaries. How can the barristers represent someone they detest or argue a case they don’t believe in? Is the judicial system flawed and should it be changed? Are there parts of it that must be upheld no matter what, and are more important than any individual trial? And if the methods of catching a criminal aren’t on the level, should that perp escape punishment? Several of the episodes leave viewers with much to consider after.
The story does culminate in a very exciting, messy finale, in which the fates of several main characters are up in the air. Because of bribery and deception, it’s not easy to get it all sorted out.
A second series has already aired in Britain, with a third commissioned, so there will be closure of these threads for anyone worried about such things.
There’s a single extra on this DVD going behind the scenes of the show. This is far too light, and will disappoint pretty much anyone that likes to look beyond the installments themselves. I’m not sure why a modern series which is still making fresh episodes would be released in such a barren set, but the lack of bonuses is definitely the biggest drawback.
Silk Series One is available now.