Garrowites vs Erskiners: This Time, it’s not about the Gavels.

17 November, 2011 at 5:40 pm 10 comments

Last year, many of us followed with great interest and amusement the heated debate on “did they have gavels or not in the 18th century” in the Guardian, followed by the Great Hanged or Hung Controversy of 2010.

This year, however, the gloves are off. Thomas Erskine’s honour is at stake.

Letter in The Guardian, 16th November, 2011:

This series has not only stolen his [Erskine’s] achievements and given them to a man who was, in truth, a nasty piece of work, but has presumably made it impossible for television to make a programme celebrating Erskine as he deserves. The BBCshould be ashamed.

Professor John Barrell
Centre for eighteenth century studies, University of York

Letter in The Guardian, 15th November, 2011:

It was a travesty. The heroic defender who secured Hadfield’s acquittal was not Garrow, but Thomas Erskine. (…)

The BBC’s charter and its producers’ guidelines say all programmes should be “fair and show a respect for truth”. The producers of Garrow’s Law should look at it.

Professor JR Spencer QC
University of Cambridge

I can understand the outraged gentlemen to a point; at times (means: every single time) I’m very tempted to write letters whenever papers celebrate Nelson’s single-handed (no pun intended) victory at Trafalgar without even mentioning Collingwood.

But a fictional drama is not a biopic. “Merlin” and the artistic license taken by its authors could keep a whole army of Arthurian experts busy. There was no Rose DeWitt Bukater aboard the Titanic, they flew the wrong Union Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Elves never fought at Helm’s Deep. (The Gods only know how many angry letters, essays and meta the latter fact caused…)

I think that the overwhelming majority of the people who watch “Garrow’s Law” are aware of that difference. We know that Mr. Southouse is not real, that Sir Arthur Hill wasn’t the moron the series makes him out to be, and that the William Garrow of the series is also a fictional character. Through his eyes, we see law and justice – or lack thereof – in 18th century Britain.

I know that many of us here have read William Garrow’s biography, which doesn’t try to deny the fact that he moved over to the “dark side” later in his life. If I had to choose between having tea with Garrow or tea with Erskine, the latter would win hands down. Erskine was a navy man (remember the case of Captain Baillie? That was Erskine’s), and we also have to thank him for laying the foundation for the laws protecting animal rights. All things considered, I find him far more likeable than William Garrow.

So, why is it “Garrow’s Law” and not “Erskine’s Law” then? Certainly not because his life would have been less interesting or his lovelife less scandalous. There was his relationship with Sarah, his second wife, mother of two children he’d fathered before the marriage. Lots of drama there! In my opinion, the reason to put the Garrow in the Law was a technical one: it’s easier to paint on a blank canvas than paint over a picture.

When the series started, hardly anybody had ever heard of William Garrow before. He was one of those historical figures who had fallen through the big sieve of time; that made him a perfect canvas. Or a paper to write on, if you wish.

Thomas Erskine, on the other hand, certainly wasn’t a “nobody”, and his achievements impressive. A series about him would have to be more of a documentary than a fictional drama, closer to the facts and under more scrutinity. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to see a movie about Thomas Erskine, preferably with Sam West reprising the role, but I think that the same gentlemen and ladies who are now so harshly criticising “Garrow’s Law” for “hijacking” Thomas Erskine’s achievements would be the first in line to write angry letters about the disrespect of the BBC by “abusing” the life of such a great man for TV drama.

“Garrow’s Law” does have its faults, no doubt, but still, it’s solid, very entertaining drama. And as for “fair and show a respect for truth”: it’s right there, on top of the BBC’s website: “Legal drama inspired by the life of pioneering 18th century barrister William Garrow” – inspired. And credit is given where credit is due. Mark Pallis,  consultant on legal and historical matters of the series, writes very clearly that

Hadfield was defended by Thomas Erskine, and Garrow was one of the barristers for the prosecution – this is because, later in his career, Garrow moved away from the defence work that we focus on in this series and undertook more cases for the crown.

If it should help to smoothe ruffled feathers: I love fictional William Garrow as played by Andrew Buchan in 2011, and I’m a great admirer of the real Thomas Erskine as played by Thomas Erskine in 1778. If it was up to me, they’d both get a BAFTA.

Edited to add: the co-directors of the Old Bailey Proceedings Online weigh in (looks like we’re on the same page…)

Entry filed under: 18th century, garrow's law, resource, royal navy, tv. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Review: “Garrow’s Law”, Series 3, Episode 1: “Not the Madness of King George” “Garrow’s Law”, Series 3, Episode 2: “Luddites and Liars”

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Garrowfan  |  17 November, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Well said!

    • 2. Molly Joyful  |  17 November, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      When I read the letters I had this vision of Waldorf and Statter, shaking their canes and yelling at the kids to get off their history lawn…

  • 3. Anke  |  17 November, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Very nice article. What exactly was the “dark side” you are referring to? I have been trying to find out more about Garrow, but did not find too much.

    • 4. Molly Joyful  |  17 November, 2011 at 10:14 pm

      Thank you! Here is my review of William Garrow’s biography; maybe you can get the book at a library, it’s really interesting. As for the “dark side”: success definitely changed him. In some cases, he began to hold completely opposite views to the ones of his younger days. Very conservative, oppressive. I quote wikipedia: “Garrow, as “a mere creature of the Regent”, could be trusted to oppose this; rather than the progressive, defensive work undertaken in his early career, this period was one of conservative aggression against the reformers.” I think he betrayed many of his ideals, which is very sad. Erskine, on the other hand, stayed mostly true to himself, so it’s not that I don’t understand the criticism.

      Edited to add: also a great resource on all things Garrow:

  • 5. Anke  |  17 November, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Thanks so much. I’ll check it out.

    • 6. Molly Joyful  |  18 November, 2011 at 1:05 pm

      You’re welcome. 🙂 I’ve just seen that the book is now also available as a paperback. Here. Maybe you want to keep an eye on it, sooner or later, “used copies” for a small price will become available.

  • 7. Meredith  |  18 November, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, this is the third time they’ve placed Garrow into Erskine’s shoes (Ep1.4 = 1794 treason trials, Ep 2.3 = Rex v. Baillie, and now Ep 3.1 = the Hadfield case). In some cases, the writers give Garrow Erskine’s exact words, ie: “the dark mover behind this scene of iniquity.” (Whatta line!)

    With all that, it makes me wonder if these letter writers haven’t been paying attention until now? If they’re going to complain about historical and legal inaccuracies, how about the fact that no member of George III’s family testified in the case, it was Judge Kenyon who oversaw the trial, not Buller, and it took place at King’s Bench, not The Bailey.

    I dunno, I suppose furious letters full of condemnation are more likely to be published than more measured ones, but there’s something self satisfied in them, as if only they are smart enough to uncover the truth. When in fact, it’s more like, yeah, duh we knew that, what took you so long?

    When the creators of the show go out of their way to provide the real historical inspirations behind the cases, and to point out what was true and what wasn’t, and when from day one they’ve made it clear this is a drama, not a documentary or potted biography of the real man (whereas how many Hollywood films about Austen or Shakespeare are completely ahistorical yet claim to be “the true untold story!”?) it is difficult for me to work up a froth about it.

    • 8. Molly Joyful  |  18 November, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      I also thought they were a little late to the party; especially with the Baillie case in the last series, which was one of Erskine’s first, not attracting any negative attention at all. I wonder if somebody, somewhere wrote an article in an academic paper? That would be interesting to read.

      there’s something self satisfied in them, as if only they are smart enough to uncover the truth

      Yes, that! It’s not like all the people working in the legal field who watch the show (and there are many!) had no idea who Thomas Erskine was. They are just, as the guys from Old Bailey Online wrote, able to tell history drama from documentary.

      I don’t know of many other TV productions which do so strongly encourage people to do some research. I just have to look at the stats to know that people want to learn more, that they look up the names and facts. I think that’s fantastic; active interest versus the passive “go entertainment” attitude that’s the norm nowadays. For that alone, Garrow’s Law would deserve a lot of praise. (Though “Erskine’s Evidence” would make a neat show as well!)

  • 9. Justine Elyot  |  21 November, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Well, call me whatever-the-opposite-of-a-pedant is, but I was rather expecting some dramatic license to be taken in a TV drama.

    If anything, the series will have inspired people to look into the period for themselves, resulting in more recognition for Erskine rather than less.

    Thanks again for your continuing wonderful coverage of this series.

    (And I know about Collingwood, but then, I’m a Portsmouth girl, born and bred ;).)

  • 10. ladywg  |  17 October, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Reblogged this on World of the Marchioness.


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