Law: On Trial: The Courtroom Drama ; with Jury Exemptions Running at 66 per Cent, Could Public Screenings of Twelve Angry Men Be the Answer? at a Season of Classic Legal Dramas at the National Film Theatre, Prominent Lawyers Will Look at the Way Law Movies Influence Our Perception of Justice
Verkaik, Robert, The Independent (London, England)
In the past 50 years the law has proved fertile ground for film- makers. Now the National Film Theatre, in the first season of its kind, is to show some of the best and get lawyers to talk about their favourites. The screenings begin next month, in the same week as the Human Rights Act is implemented, and will feature such classics as Twelve Angry Men and Inherit the Wind as well as The Trials of Oz and Rumpole of the Bailey.
Barristers, including the author John Mortimer QC, Helena Kennedy QC and Geoffrey Robertson QC, will explain how they have been affected by some of these films.
For Robertson and Mortimer the experience will be that much more immediate as each had real roles in the Oz trial of 1970 which challenged the basis of Britain's censorship laws. The 1991 BBC TV version of the drama, Trials of Oz, was written by Robertson and has Simon Callow playing John Mortimer as the senior counsel. Robertson is also connected with another film in the series, The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison, in which Denzel Washington plays Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, whose life was destroyed when he was wrongly jailed for killing three people in a New Jersey bar. Robertson worked on Carter's defence.
Robertson is head of Doughty Street chambers, which is sponsoring the event, "Court on Screen", and many of its other barristers have been called upon to introduce the films.
Edward Fitzgerald QC, who helped win a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, who was hanged for the murder of a policeman in 1952, is expected to open one of the screenings of Peter Medak's Let Him Have It. John Mortimer will also talk about one of the law's most enduring creations, Rumpole of the Bailey, after a showing of Leo McKern's first outing in the title role in a BBC Play for Today.
The National Film Theatre (NFT) believes this is the first time it has screened a season of films exclusively about the law. The NFT's Brian Robinson says a structured presentation highlighting the relationship between the workings of the law and the way it is presented on screen is long overdue. "There is an unquenchable thirst for things legal and the administration of justice or in fact the administration of injustice," he says.
Robertson, who is credited as the driving force behind the project, adds: "The adversary system of trial in England and especially America provides the visual media with a rich source of combat drama and the selections highlight the courtroom's potential for high tragedy and low comedy."
He says the season, which begins on 4 October with Albert Finney's The Biko Inquest, "invites contemplation of cinematic portrayals of lawyers and their trials from a wider perspective than just entertainment".
A recent US study of the impact on the public of televising the OJ Simpson trial suggests that this led to a remarkable drop in the number of claims of exemptions from jury service.
In this country jury exemptions are running at 66 per cent. If the Government is serious about getting more people to do jury service it could start by showing Twelve Angry Men at court houses across the country. Who could fail to be drawn to public service after listening to Henry Fonda's laconic arguments turning his fellow jurors one way and then the next?
Mr Robertson argues that films like these can also have a direct impact on the justice system. "I vividly remember how conviction rates at the Old Bailey plummeted during the first series of Rumpole," he says.
And certainly there must be many among the senior ranks of the City law firms, once idealistic, young lawyers who ran off to law school after watching films such as Inherit the Wind. …