Review: Garrow’s Law – The Bull is back in the China Shop #garrowslaw

16 November, 2010 at 2:20 pm 6 comments

Journalists wondering how “Garrow’s Law” could possibly compete with “I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here” might as well ponder whether a triple layer extra moist chocolate cake with whipped cream and almonds has any chance in a competition with a cowpat. Such comparisons only make sense for those who believe that quality is determined by the number of flies attracted. So get your dessert plates and pastry forks, dear readers – William Garrow is back!

Mr. Garrow (Andrew Buchan) has spent the last months “up north” and returns to find newly-widowed Mr. Southouse (Alun Armstrong) despaired, dishevelled and drowning his sorrows.

With the grating cheerfulness of a used car salesman, Garrow quickly figures out that all his fatherly friend needs to stop mourning the loss of his wife is a shave, a cup of coffee and an interesting court case.

Yes, our hero hasn’t changed one bit; if anything, he’s even more tactless than in series one, and while we sit in awe of Southouse’s self-control – he didn’t hit Garrow on the head with his carafe, imagine! – we notice that, along with highlights and a bigger hat, Mr. Garrow also got a different voice. Clearly, the bread in the north must have been laced with lots of chalk! That, or he’s right in the middle of his voice change; this would explain his juvenile behaviour in presence of Lady Sarah Hill (Lyndsey Marshal). But I digress.

Lady Sarah Hill and her husband, Sir Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves), are now proud parents of a baby boy, Samuel.

Well, Lady Sarah is proud; as far as Sir Arthur is concerned, things aren’t quite as clear. For now, let’s just say that I wouldn’t hire him as a babysitter.

Having left her baby with her husband, Lady Sarah heads for the Old Bailey to speak for a former cutlery maid of hers who’s standing trial. She’s not aware Mr. Garrow, never one to miss an opportunity to puff and ruffle his feathers in court, has jumped in to help the damsel in distress. So it comes to an unexpected encounter between Lady Sarah and her admirer, who shows all the maturity, dignity and composure of a fanboy meeting Lady Gaga.

The audience in court is howling with laughter upon watching blushing William Garrow’s amusing antics. Mr. Silvester (Aidan McArdle), on the other hand, feels a headache coming up.

Later on, representatives of the Liverpool Insurance Company engage Southouse and Garrow in a case concerning insurance fraud. One Captain Collingwood (Jasper Briton) – who is not, I repeat it again, not identical with our dear, beloved admiral! – ordered to have cargo jettisoned overboard in the middle of the Ocean, claiming that it was necessary to do so to save the crew of his ship, the Zong.

All this is nothing out of the ordinary until we learn that the Zong was a slaver and the “cargo” in question – people. 133 children, women and men; slaves who were thrown overboard alive, apparently because there weren’t enough water supplies available. The monstrosity of it all takes some time to sink in, even more so when we are confronted with a society which can find no wrong in this act that we’d consider mass murder. After all, as is mentioned several times during the trial, “it’s like throwing horses overboard” – and business is business.

Mr. Southouse, while not without compassion, has no qualms about the whole affair, unlike Mr. Garrow, who slowly realises that, no matter which side he’ll be on in this court case, it will be the wrong one.

Eventually, he’s approached by the freedman Gustavus Vassa (outstanding: Danny Sapani), who wants to see Captain Collingwood prosecuted for murder. He tells Garrow of his own experiences, the atrocious conditions aboard a hulk ship, and hopes to win Garrow for his case.

Southouse explains that such an approach would be impossible, as “cargo can’t be murdered, there’s no difference to other property like cattle or horses”. Because “maritime cargo is inanimate”.

Age of Enlightment, my arse…

While Garrow is sympathetic, he also tries to be realistic. If he can convince jury and judge to find Captain Collingwood guilty of insurance fraud, the consequence would be a slight improvement of the transport conditions of slaves. For Vassa, this is too small a step; he accuses Garrow of “inching towards justice, not demanding it”. Garrow, however, feels that winning this case would eventually save the lives of slaves, and that this outcome was the best they could hope for at this point in time.

Southouse sets off to Liverpool to interview James Kelsall (Colin Tierney), the first mate of the Zong, and gets to enjoy all the comforts of a lengthy travel by coach.

Upon his return, Southouse and Garrow discuss the case during a stroll in the park, and now look at this, they run into Lady Sarah again! Good grief, London really must have been a small place back in the days…

Meanwhile on the romance front, Sir Arthur Hill asks the nanny (Victoria Balnaves) of his son what she thinks of the baby’s appearance. He takes the girl’s assurance that the boy was “[moo-eyes and meaningful pause] very handsome, Sir, and very much in the way of his father!” as the final proof that young Samuel is not his son, but Garrow’s.

I still try to figure out in what universe this conclusion makes any sense, but then Sir Arthur seems to have undergone a very obscure change of his personality since the last series. He used to be jealous, and who could blame him, but he clearly loved his wife and he even (indirectly) helped Garrow in the last episode of S1, as his conscience didn’t allow him to act the way his peers wanted him to. Sir Arthur was a likeable character, and his reactions and emotions were understandable.

I admit that I don’t know much about the real Sir Arthur Hill; maybe he really turned into a delusional petty tyrant of a husband, but if that was the case, his transformation from gentleman to git sending his valet to spy on his wife, obsessed with the idea that he’s not the father of his child would have needed some sort of explanation for the audience. His wife hasn’t seen Garrow in months, it makes no sense. A part of the story is missing here, and as it is, one questions Sir Arthur’s sanity rather than Lady Sarah’s fidelity.

The case of the Zong progresses. Due to the sensitive nature of the case and in order to not give the abolitionists in London any material to further their cause, the government – represented by Viscount Melville (Stephen Boxer), with Sir Arthur Hill as his mouthpiece – wants to influence the outcome of the process. Sir Arthur tries to convince the insurance company to abandon the case, but – they’ve lost money! They want it back! And morals be damned, they don’t predict history but follow policy, by Jove!

Insurances, you’ll notice, haven’t changed much since the 18th century.

And while Garrow makes no secret of his dislike for his clients and assures Southouse that he will make the case “an issue” for the government, Sir Arthur Hill resorts to blackmail to get his wife back under his thumb. He asks her to spy on Garrow concerning the Zong-case, as a proof of her loyalty. Lady Sarah, under pressure and thinking of her child’s well-being, agrees.

Lady Sarah asks Garrow for a meeting, and of course he’s eager to see her again. He can’t help but wonder about her sudden change of mind and offer of friendship, though, and when she asks about the case, he instinctively evades her questions.

Garrow gets in touch with Gustavus Vassa; he wants him to make a witness’ statement in court, representing the 133 souls lost. Vassa tells Garrow in one of the most touching and shocking scenes of the episode about the humiliating “selection” process by potential buyers he had to endure. Eventually, he agrees to become a witness.

Meanwhile, Lady Sarah returns to her husband and tells him that she can’t spy on Garrow as it would be unjust. When he demands that her loyalty be to him, her husband, she insists that she must be true to herself first. That goes down about as well as you can expect, and Sir Arthur, increasingly erractic and incapable of understanding his wife’s inner conflict, sees her refusal as a proof of her love for Garrow and the illegitimacy of baby Samuel.

Viscount Melville, obviously not busy enough with intrigues and politics, feels compelled to mingle with the private life of Sir Arthur. Not out of the goodness of his heart, mind you – by ruining the reputation of Garrow the man, he can get rid of Garrow the barrister, who’s a thorn in his side and a pain in many backsides.

Melville gets Sir Arthur in touch with a particularly unpleasant attorney called Farmer (Anton Lesser), who gave me a bad flashback of Mr. Mercer in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. I suspect they are cousins. Mr. Farmer is specialised in helping husbands to make their wives’ lives hell on earth. He advises Sir Arthur to demand a separation of bed and board; this would make a divorce and possible remarriage impossible. A devilishly clever and cruel way of punishment, as such an arrangement would leave Lady Sarah in a limbo; while disgraced by being kicked out of her husband’s house, she has no chance to get remarried and restore her reputation, which means ruin and disgrace in the society of the 18th century.

Mr. Southouse and Mr. Garrow get into a heated argument over the strategy for the process. Southouse can’t see the point of calling Gustavus Vassa in the witness stand, while Garrow feels that the man’s statement is vitally important for the case. Southouse protests: “I will not have this case sabotaged by pamphleteering and agitation,” to which Garrow says “and I will not have this prosecution ignore murder!” With that, Garrow takes a firm stand.

The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Sarah Hill, who shows Garrow and Southouse the court citation she’s received. Southouse explains to her the dire consequences of Sir Arthur’s actions, and then leaves the two alone. Lady Sarah tells Garrow the reason for her husband’s jealousy, and informs him that she hasn’t come to ask for refuge or hide from disgrace, but rather that she will own it.

Later on, Sir Arthur informs his wife that he doesn’t want to see her anymore in his house upon his return from court, where the process against Captain Collingwood concerning the “insurance fraud” on the Zong begins.

Gustavus Vassa is called into the witness stand, and he talks in detail about the unimaginable, atrocious conditions and cruelty aboard a slave ship. A very intense, painful scene, which makes all the talk about “cargo” even more disgusting.

Mr. Silvester, however, can’t really see what Vassa’s statements have to do with the case in question – after all, this is about insurance fraud, and it’s legitimate to jettison cargo to save the crew.

Vassa cries that it’s never legitimate to murder, and Judge Buller orders him to curb his temper, to which Vassa says: “If I am angry, I’m a savage. If I’m sanguine, I’m not a man.” His words are not without impact on the audience, as the shocked expressions on many faces show, but Silvester explains in firm words and without emotions to the jury that “blacks are goods”, period, and goods can’t be murdered. Listening to his speech is a bizarre and horrifying experience, because by the laws of his time, Silvester was right.

By the laws and understanding of his time, Captain Collingwood acted in the best interested of the “cargo” owners. He threw the children and women, the sick and the old overboard; the compensation of the insurance company for those losses was higher than the possible sales price. He ensured that those slaves survived who could be sold at the highest price. The murder of 133 people – nothing but a business decision.

William Garrow is a man of the 18th century, too. And it’s one of the strengths of this series that Garrow fights the social ills of his time with the laws of his time. It would have been so easy to let him act like a man living in our times, making a flaming speech about human rights and the dignity of man. I have to compliment the makers of Garrow’s Law for avoiding this trap.

Still, the proof for the “insurance fraud” (and you have no idea how I hate to use that term in this connection) is missing. Luckily, Garrow takes a walk in the rain, which is yet another opportunity for the camera to use slow motion, just in case somebody might have missed that this is a Very Important Moment. It was like a music video for Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes”.

You see, there were water blotches in the journal of a crewman whose entries contradict the statements of Captain Collingwood. Standing in the rain, Garrow realises that it’s not possible that the Zong ran out of water supplies as it had been raining. In the end, the first mate of the Zong confirms this fact and the insurance fraud is proved.

Judge Buller’s remarks that “…legislation finds the time to regulate the manner of killing of a partridge, that no abuse be committed, that he be shot fairly – well, we shall let that be…” – this gives some insight into his own thoughts on the matter, as does the punishment he hands out. Once again, Judge Buller (Michael Culkin) is as unpredictable as the weather.

So the only question that remains is: will the jury see cargo or people? Will they punish insurance fraud or take a moral stand as well? I will not answer that question so not to spoil the ending for you, but if you know human nature, you can probably guess the outcome.

Series 2 of Garrow’s Law promises to be just as good as series 1. I love the show; excellent 18th century costume drama and the highest number of dashing gentlemen per square metre, who could ask for more?

Not everything is perfect, though: there’s the deconstruction of Sir Arthur Hill which I find rather confusing; far too many slow motion scenes which were probably thought to emphasise the significance of a moment but did little more than waltzing out the seconds and grate on my nerves.

And then there’s “Gustavus Vassa”: this was the name forced on Olaudah Equiano by his “owner”, Lieutenant Pascal of the Royal Navy; a name he only accepted under great pressure, so I was surprised his real name wasn’t used in this episode.

As a person living in the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s brain around the mindset that made slavery possible and even saw it as an “advantage” for society. Portraying a horrific issue like slavery is tricky business. Many will say that “Garrow’s Law” didn’t deal with this matter the “right” way, that a more in-depth approach should have been taken. I can understand that criticism, but I don’t know if you can actually really “do it right”.

What I do know, though, is that it’s important, so very important to educate people, especially the younger generation, not only about the “glorious” past, but also about the atrocities mankind is capable of. Maybe it could have been done better, but Danny Sapani’s performance in this episode has probably left a deeper impression in many than most school books. Chapeau, good Sir.

You can watch this episode of “Garrow’s Law” online on the BBC iPlayer. Sorry, UK only.

LINKS

Mark Pallis has posted an extensive link list about The Zong and slavery.

Tony Marchant blogs about writing “Garrow’s Law”.

BBC website

Daily Record: Interview with Andrew Buchan

Mark Pallis talks about Garrow’s Law in The Guardian

The Stage: Lyndsey Marshal joins fight for older women’s roles

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Garrow’s Law – interviews, links, and why isn’t it Sunday yet? Emma Collingwood: “The Radiant Boy – Four Ghost Stories from the Age of Sail” now available on Amazon / Preview online!

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Garrowfan  |  16 November, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for your post.. I really enjoyed your thoughts!!

    Looking forward to next weeks episode!

    Reply
    • 2. Molly  |  17 November, 2010 at 12:36 am

      You’re very welcome. It’s good to have Garrow’s Law back; I’ve missed the series.

      Reply
  • 3. Mark Pallis  |  16 November, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Hi, Enjoyed reading this. And I’m glad you enjoyed the show.

    You’re right that Vassa was also called Equiano. When he published his autobiography, he used both names. However, if you notice, we only have other people calling him Vassa – he never calls himself that (I think so at least!). The idea being that his slave background is always with him, despite the wig.

    On Silvester, the amazing thing is that the words he uses there are the exact same words as were used in the real case! I have put the links on the bbc pages.

    Hope you enjoy the next episode!

    Mark

    Reply
    • 4. Molly  |  17 November, 2010 at 12:53 am

      The idea being that his slave background is always with him, despite the wig.

      Ah, now that’s an interesting idea; I didn’t think of that possibility. A brief mention somewhere about the name would have been nice, though, I’m a bit uncomfortable with people thinking that his slave name was his real name.

      On the other hand, I hope this will encourage people to do a bit of research. Thanks a lot for all the the write-ups and sources; you’ve done a great job there!

      On Silvester, the amazing thing is that the words he uses there are the exact same words as were used in the real case!

      Reading such statements is one thing – I mean, of course there’s disgust and shock, sure – but actually seeing and hearing somebody speaking those words is different and hits home harder. Excellent work, and excellent choice of case.

      Hope you enjoy the next episode!

      I’m very curious about that one, as it touches one of my own fields of research. If I may ask: has the next episode been influenced by the case of Captain Angel?

      Reply
  • 5. Mark Pallis  |  18 November, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I can’t spoil the story! : )

    A list of links and inspirations will go up on the BBC site and on my blog after the show!

    Reply
  • […] Episode 1: “The Bull is back in the China Shop” […]

    Reply

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