Saturday, August 18, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Garrow's Law

Andrew Buchan as William Garrow.
Are you a fan of British courtroom shows like Rumpole of the Bailey? How about historical dramas along the lines of Poldark? If you answered yes to both questions, then you may want to check out Garrow's Law, a 2009-12 BBC series that smartly combines both genres. Andrew Buchan (Cranford) stars as William Garrow, a real-life London barrister (1760-1840) credited with coining the phrase: "Innocent until proven guilty."

In the series, Garrow is a curt intellectual interested more in legally or socially significant cases than in a profitable career. His associate, a middle-aged solicitor named John Southouse, often confers with their clients in the damp, cold confines of Newgate Prison (where moldy water trickles down the walls). Their cases range from an attempted assassination of King George III to treason to torture of a slave (a misdemeanor according to British law at the time). Interestingly, the cases were culled from actual trials documented in the proceedings of the Old Bailey (click here to visit the online database).

Lyndsey Marshal as Lady Sarah Hill.
Garrow's courtroom appearances attract the attention of Lady Sarah Hill (Lyndsey Marshal) and the two quickly develop a mutual attraction. Unfortunately, Lady Sarah is married to Sir Arthur Hill, a pompous baronet with a second-rate political career. It's not long before others note the smoldering exchanges between Garrow and Lady Sarah, resulting in scandalous rumors and eventually an allegation of adultery.

The continuing plot line involving Lady Sarah offers interesting insights into the limited rights of British women during the Georgian era (e.g., she owns no property, even her jewelry belongs to her husband). However, it never quite gels as an effective love story despite the strengths of the individual characters. One reason is that, as Southouse tells Sarah: "Garrow will be Garrow." In other words, his love of the law and his detached persona form an obstacle in developing normal relationships. From a dramatic standpoint, Garrow's legal discussions with his mentor Southouse overshadow the soapier scenes with Sarah.

Alun Armstrong as Southouse.
Andrew Buchan brings the requisite dash and brooding quality to Garrow. However, British veteran character actor Alun Armstrong steals the series as the clever and quietly kind Southouse (pronounded soot-house). PBS fans may remember Armstrong for his portrayals of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (2008) and as Flintwich in Little Dorrit (2008).

From a production standpoint, Garrow's Law looks like a big-budget film. The filthy streets of the London slums and the dark tunnels of Newgate Prison are skilfully contrasted with the bright, ornate residences of the aristocrats. 

The real William Garrow from rose humble beginnings to a highly successful career as a barrister, politician, and judge. In 1812, he was knighted when he was appointed His Majesty's Solicitor for England and Wales (essentially the Deputy Attorney General). The following year, he became the Attorney General. Garrow had a long-term relationship with Sarah Dore, who had previously had a child out of wedlock with Sir Arthur Hill. Garrow and Sarah finally married in 1793--several years after the births of their two children.

Garrow's Law works well as a keen portrait of Georgian England and an examination of a legal system that was evolving rapidly. If its dramatic subplots falter occasionally, they never get in the way of the show's strengths. With a mere total of 12 episodes over its three seasons, it's a shame that the BBC cancelled it so early in William Garrow's career.

Acorn Media provided a copy of the season 3 DVD set of Garrow's Law.


  1. An excellent series cancelled in its prime. Too bad PBS didn't show it under the Masterpiece banner. That might have made all the difference.

  2. Rick, for me the strength of "Garrow's Law" rested firmly on the excellence of Southouse's character. Alun Armstrong turned in a remarkable performance. Thanks for profiling this lesser known series and especially for the shout out for Alun Armstrong.

  3. Rick, I am a fan of "Rumpole of the Bailey" and of PBS series similar to "Poldark", but I have never heard of this one. Thank you for sharing what sounds like an intriguing costume/historical drama.

  4. I have never heard of this one..I will be looking for it. I love/love period films.