Monday, September 9, 2013

Diagnosing Silk

Those in their fifties today were in their teens in 1975 when Rumpole of the Bailey first aired on television. Its creator was Sir John Mortimer, a genuine British barrister, played by Leo McKern. The series eventually featured 44 episodes the last of which appeared in 1992. The show has, at minimum, produced a phrase destined never to die. “She who must be obeyed” was Horace Rumpole’s muttered reference to his wife, Hilda, played by Peggy Thorpe-Bates.  Both actors have since passed away. For Brigitte and for me, the series also presented what we viewed as a realistic insight into the workings of the British legal system as viewed from the perspective of a senior barrister and a lawfirm, called chambers, of which he is a member.

In the United States series based on lawfirms have been quite numerous. The American Bar Association cites 25  such shows, labeling them Best; of these 24 were made here—and that list does not even include The Good Wife. In Britain the second such series, in structure entirely echoing Rumpole, is Silk. It just aired its third and last episode of Season 1 on Public TV last night. It has all the necessaries: Barristers, solicitors, criminals, victims, police, odd judges, wigs, chambers, drinking in dark crowded bars by night, conniving chamber clerks, etc., except that, in Silk—is that a sign of leveling?—there is no evident Head of Chambers, that role filled, and perhaps by default, by the Chief Clerk.

This is a rather long, but alas necessary, introduction to my actual subject. It is that Silk appears to have been born with a disease—but one which afflicts all too many new television series, be they fiction or documentary. Don’t get me wrong. Silk is in many ways quite excellent and benefits much from its lead character, Martha Costello, played by Maxine Peake, a relative newcomer. Martha Costello has values. I thought I would try to diagnose this disease.

The show suffers from what I call flicker, by which I mean a chopped-up character where video images, certainly in action sequences, last much less than one second each. In scenes with many people, thus out- and inside courts, continuous motion, also continuously interrupted, adds to one’s sense of trembling or tremor. Based on this feature—the object of which, presumably, is to induce excitement in the viewer—makes me weight Parkinson’s disease as perhaps the appropriate diagnosis. But there is also a lot of noise. The noise is present over, above, and beneath the dialogue; and all through this noise, except in the most tense exchanges, there is a constant musical sound as well. This audio-based distraction reminds me, deeply schooled as I am in diseases, of Synesthesia, in which sounds and smells and even symbols, like writing, turn into colors and, possibly, colors turn into sounds. One interesting feature of Synesthesia, however, is that many people who are said to suffer from the syndrome deny suffering at all—and treat it as an added source of stimulation and of meaning.

Now, of course, it’s well to remember that TV shows are not people. They are social constructs. To apply human diseases to them too directly may be inappropriate, except by analogy. And one analogy might be to fuse, as it were, Parkinson’s with Synesthesia into a single syndrome—and then search for a broader cause of it in the social world. Then a proper diagnosis finally comes into focus, sort of, flickering and music-making all the while. Call it Advertisingitis.


  1. Oh, how very interesting. We have seen only one episode of Silk. Towards the end of that first episode, I looked at John and said, "gosh, this is quite good but... I don't know. I don't think I can watch this one... it's too... exhausting. Interesting, no?

    The acting is very good. The story, at least that first on, was compelling. But the emotion of it all is intense, too much so. And I now see that that may be the result, at least to some extent, of what you describe here, that flickering. Those fast cuts are agitating. And the speed with which these people appear to have to live, work, act, it is exhausting. Who could stand that? If this is truly what goes on in the legal system in Britain, one despairs. When have they time to think, to actually think? Multitasking taken to the extreme. This is not progress.

  2. Yes. Stress as entertainment. If that's what London is like in law -- which, of course it is not -- working at a fish-and-chips shop as part time labor would be like a bit of heaven.


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