Simon Hoggart

Criminally good

Criminal Justice (BBC1); Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1); Marco's Great British Feast (Channel 4) 

Criminal Justice (BBC1); Celebrity Masterchef (BBC1); Marco’s Great British Feast (Channel 4) 

Years ago I was ‘political consultant’ on State of Play, the successful BBC drama serial that got very substantial ratings. It launched several acting careers, being one of the few TV series that was also watched by the people who make films. About half my advice was ignored, to the delight of colleagues at Westminster who would ask how I managed to get something so spectacularly wrong. But the producers were right; dramatic effect is more important than nit-picking detail. And to be truly, nerve-shreddingly realistic, you have to ignore reality. Real life is usually rather dull; to be convincing as reality, realism is not enough.

So lots of people think that Criminal Justice (every weeknight, BBC1) goes way over the top. The police aren’t quite so bad as they are depicted here, the system nothing like so stacked, prison life nowhere near as hellish. I have no idea. I’ve never been charged with murder. And I suspect that an awful lot of the events in Peter Moffat’s screenplay are heightened and exaggerated. But that didn’t stop the show from grabbing you by the lapels and refusing to let go. If I have a complaint it’s that the case against the hero, Ben Coulter, brilliantly played by Ben Whishaw, is so overwhelming, it’s impossible to see that an injustice has been done. Wouldn’t it have been more intriguing if the evidence was ambiguous, if we sensed that the system was cutting corners to get a result?

But it races along, with scarcely a wasted frame of film. The characters shift and metamorphose as you watch. Bill Paterson is magnificent as the investigating copper — is he bent, or just weary, or both? Con O’Neill has some of the best lines as the sleazy yet attractively cynical solicitor who gets Ben’s case: ‘The truth can go to hell, and if you don’t get that into your head right now, forget about the rest of your life.’

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