Gary Bell is the rudest man in Britain. I have known the bastard for years and no one —move over, lightweight Starkey — comes even close to matching his bluntness, his tastelessness, his heroic urge to offend at all costs regardless of how much collateral damage he causes his friends, his family or indeed his own reputation and career as a brilliant QC.
But Gary has a dark secret: underneath that elephantine carapace of intellectual arrogance, gratuitous cruelty, and room-clearing crassness beats a heart so warm and tender it makes Princess Diana look like Hannibal Lecter.
If a mate were in serious trouble, Gary would be the first to rush to the rescue. Well, wobble to the rescue because, as Gary would be the first to acknowledge, he is exceedingly fat. This kind, decent nature may just be in his genes, but it might also, I suspect, have something to do with his extraordinary back story.
Looking at Gary today in his pinstriped suit and wig, listening to his accent, or hearing his very persuasive accounts of what it was like playing the Wall Game and Field Game at ‘School’, you would not doubt for a moment that here was a man born into the old Establishment. But he wasn’t. Gary in fact comes from a dirt-poor Nottingham mining family, with a chequered history to match. One day, however, he set out to better himself; studied law at Bristol (which is where I first met him: he employed a friend of mine to correct his pronunciation every time he sounded too common), became a world-class debater (rivalled only by his sparring partner Michael Gove), before making his way up the legal ladder to his current eminence as one of Britain’s top criminal barristers.
And now he’s presenting a new daytime BBC1 series called The Legalizer. He and his family have been panicking about this for months — and no wonder, for it’s daytime TV in the same morning time slot as (ITV’s) Jeremy Kyle. The time, in other words, when people who don’t have jobs, lives or futures begin emerging from their beds, tuck into their first Greggs sausage roll and litre of Sunny D and begin vegetating in front of the moving pictures on their giant, taxpayer-funded screen. (Which might sound snobbish but is also true and is very much the sort of thing Gary would say because he fully understands the underclass: they do, after all, comprise the majority of his clients.)
As a result of this, The Legalizer suffers from a maddening flaw: though it lasts 45 minutes, there are only about 15 minutes’ worth of actual entertainment or interest in it. The rest is pure padding — endless recaps of what the previous segment told you five minutes ago, put there, presumably, on the grounds that the target audience is presumed to be either so drugged up or stupid that if the not-exactly-complex narrative isn’t regularly signposted for them they’ll switch over to watch the freaks on Jeremy Kyle.
This patronising is a big mistake. First, I think it’s very insulting: not even crackheads, not even windsurfing and Geordie Shore-studies undergraduates with hangovers are really that thick. Second, it gets in the way of what, beneath all that filler, is a really worthwhile and watchable programme.
The premise — a bit like the Cook Report — is that Gary Bell goes round the country exposing and remedying malpractice. In the episode I saw, for example, he visited a handicapped Muslim woman from Huddersfield who’d been sold a very dodgy mobility scooter; and a rather Milfish Welsh housewife whose camper van had been utterly ruined by the firm that had been supposed to customise it so it could carry her beloved scrambling bikes.
All right, so the sums involved were fairly small: £10,000 max. But the damage done to these ordinary, decent and very likeable families was enormous. As a victim myself, I know whereof I speak: out there in this big, bad world of ours are some seriously unpleasant, utterly unprincipled shysters who prey on the vulnerable and unwary. If you escape their clutches, well, lucky you; but if you don’t, the helplessness and isolation you feel is awful, because frankly no one else really wants to know, there’s often no recourse, and on some level you blame yourself.
There are hundreds of thousands of mini-tragedies like this all over Britain and it’s really heartwarming to see a high-level QC descending from his eyrie to draw attention to these people’s plight, give them hope, bolster their faith in the English justice system and perhaps even get them their money back.
And Gary is a natural at this because although — see Wall Game above — he can be the most brilliant fake, he’s also extremely down to earth in a way that few middle-class people can be. Confronted with a disabled Muslim woman, for example, he doesn’t go: ‘Cripes. A disabled Muslim woman. Better tread on eggshells here.’ He banters with her, cracks jokes, takes the mickey — in a way that brings out the best in her and puts her at her ease.
Gary, mate, stop worrying. You’ve done good. (But for God’s sake sort out that bloody editing!)