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Monday, 22 November 2010

Garrow's Law

To anyone who did not see the illustrious first series of Garrow's Law, it is a period drama based on the life and legal career of William Garrow, who pioneered fairer changes to the law in the eighteenth century. It has a cast of well-known British TV actors, including Lyndsey Marshal, Aidan McCardle, Michael Culkin, Alun Armstrong and Rupert Graves.

Just like the first series used the recorded trials of the Old Bailey to present the past in a way that was dramatic and engaging to the viewer, the second series has followed this precedent with greater energy, and humour. Although the first series was too long ago to have stuck in my mind, the second series is by no means more of the same.

The show is clever, because it has taken a relatively unknown character in history, some one who history has forgotten, and made him into an exciting barrister, who we largely symphasise with. Although according to some sources they have made him slightly more likable for the purposes of the show than he actually was, they had to, they need a protagonist, a hero. Although they accurately portray Garrow as being a man who has faults like any other, he is by no means an anti-hero. The show has brought Garrow out of obscurity, before this show started I have to say I had never heard of William Garrow, and now the producers have successfully popularised him, thus lifting him out of the shadow.

In the first episode, Garrow is prosecuting the captain of the Zong for insurance fraud. African slaves on a voyage to Jamaica, are killed in order to get the money, but in the eighteenth century context, slaves were regarded as cargo, and the loss of them was not murder. The producer, Tony Merchant, says that he included this story line because it involved issues that were pertinent for the period and for us to remember in the present day. Indeed, it seems William Garrow, although not an abolitionist, was opposed to the slave trade, as he turned down a job as manager of legal affairs of some West Indian planters, and was involved in the prosecution of a master for the torture of his slave girl. However, as much as we might like to believe that William Garrow was involved in the case, which was instrumental in the abolitionist movement, as it challenged the notion of slaves as property, Garrow was not involved in this case.

Sadly (for the show), it was Granville Sharp who championed the Zong in this very famous case, and while Gustavus Vassa was present at the trial, he never met William Garrow, although he was a well-known abolitionsist, who through re-telling his own story, made a strong contribution to the abolitionist cause. The Zong was an important case, as it was a terrible massacre, that shocked Britain, but can the show really justify bending history to such an extent? The producers could not bring out the issue of slavery without focusing on the trial Garrow was involved in later in his career, which would bring him out of context with the rest of the story line.

So we may question all its historical accuracy, but as Merchant, and many others tell us, history is interpretation. I am not sure that putting Garrow in the place of Sharp is re-interpreting history, probably more saying something that is just wrong. But we can not blame the producers for going to extraordinary efforts to draw on the period as a whole, and broaden it outside of Garrow's life, even if it is not strictly correct.

The personal relationship with Sarah Hill also adds drama. Garrow did have a relationship with her, and she was married to Arthur Hill and had a son by him, but the whole messy divorce scenario in the dramas, in which Garrow is accused of adultery in an attempt by Hill to ruin Sarah and Garrow, seems to have been made up. It does make good drama, and to simply present the simple historical truth, would show Garrow marrying Sarah and them living happily together till her death, and how boring is that? So the drama has had a bit of license with their history, in order to make the story line more exciting.

Yet, I want to watch the next story already. The characterisation is good, the acting excellent, and the lines are well-written and often humorous. The costumes are stunning, and the sets are accurate, it is just a little bit of a let down to learn that it is not entirely truthful. I will keep watching though, superb drama, just not the most accurate of histories.

Emma Burbidge