Television review

Wigs and wags in intriguing British drama


‘Masterpiece Mystery: Silk.’ 9-11 p.m. Sunday. PBS.

San Francisco Chronicle

Americans often have trouble understanding accents and idioms on British TV shows, but with Silk — a three-part, six-hour series on Masterpiece Mystery! — they’ll be challenged to understand the bewigged British legal system as well.

It is worth the effort, though, even if you don’t entirely get the difference between a barrister and a solicitor or that lawyers in the same firm may be called on to either prosecute or defend a client. Although the series, created by Peter Moffat ( Criminal Justice), sometimes teeters on the edge of melodrama, the characters and performances maintain our interest.

Silk is British legal slang for someone who achieves the status of queen’s counsel. Martha Costello (Maxine Peake, Little Dorrit), a hotshot lawyer in Shoe Lane Chambers, has her hopes set on becoming QC. Her rival is the morally challenged Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones, The 39 Steps), who works in the same office.

Martha and Clive are each assigned a law student. Martha gets floppy-haired charmer Nick Slade (Tom Hughes, The Lady Vanishes), while Clive gets — in more ways than one — Niamh Cranitch (Natalie Dormer, The Tudors), who is smart as a whip and also the daughter of a powerful jurist. Nick lives up to his name in the first episode by “nicking” expensive legal regalia, including the horsehair wig that must be worn at all times in court. He turns his charm on Niamh, but her romantic interests lie elsewhere.

The office is run with a sometimes dictatorial hand by Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke, Reggie Perrin).

While we are intrigued by the personal and professional ins and outs at Shoe Lane, there are challenging cases to be handled.

In the first episode, Martha is called on to defend a petty criminal accused of beating an elderly pensioner during a burglary. Later, she has to go to bat for a teenage boy who’s been turning tricks since he was 13 and is accused of “cottaging,” seducing older men for anonymous sex in public bathrooms.

Silk is closer to USA’s Suits than Law & Order: The cases are interesting, but the greater focus is on the personal lives of Martha and her colleagues and a clandestine internal plot to clip Billy’s wings.

Some of this stuff is overwritten and difficult to believe. Would, for example, an ambitious lawyer really snort cocaine at a social event?

The performances help fill in the credibility gaps. Peake is terrific as Martha, easily conveying both her consummate courtroom skill and her inability to manage her personal life. Hughes and Dormer are both sexy and convincing, and Stuke is terrific in the complexly shaded role of Billy.

Only the otherwise accomplished Penry-Jones gets skunked by the flaws in the script. Clive slips and slides from good guy to cad far too easily to be believed, and he pushes credibility completely under the tram when he finally appears to take stock of what a moral reprobate he is.

One other word of warning: The show may test your endurance for annoying seesaw cello music, which runs rampant through the entire six hours. Yes, we get it: Life in chambers is fast-paced.

American viewers will see the first of two Silk seasons this year and, despite some missteps, it’s more than enough to hope we’ll get a chance to see more.

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