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Lore of the law

29 June 2012

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WHAT would you nominate as England's greatest gift to the world? We might plump for choral matins, or Shakespeare, or the General Synod - but not the former prison chaplain turned barrister, the Revd Harry Potter (yes, really). He proclaims, in The Strange Case of the Law (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), that the greatest export of all is our system of common law - a peculiarly impressive conviction, coming from a Scotsman.

The first episode last week looked at its origins, from Anglo-Saxon to Medieval England. The earliest law code in Europe is a sixth-century list of fines. A felony or injury could be cleared, on payment to the victims or their family of the appropriate fine.

This sounds an extraordinarily mechanistic view of law, until we appreciate the context. Paying the fine drew a line under the offence, cutting short the likelihood of its developing into a feud. The victim's family were responsible for ensur­ing that the perpetrator paid up - there were no legal officers.

Later, hundred and shire courts sought to determine guilt by a system of oath-takers: relative to the severity of the crime, you had to provide the relevant number of people who would attest, under oath, your innocence. This sounds open to abuse, but, in a culture where eternal damnation was only a hair's breadth away, a religious oath was treated with the utmost seriousness, as perjury could lead to eternal torture in the fires of hell.

The programme was shot through with religion: trial by ordeal was supervised by clerics - as God would, of course, ensure that the truly innocent would not be harmed by grasping red-hot iron or being thrown, bound, into a lake.

True Love (BBC1, Monday to Friday of last week) was a series of five half-hour dramas: Monday's, for example, told the story of Paul, from whose marriage all spark had been extinguished, who fell for a blonde when he passed at the bus stop. The attraction was mutual, leading to an explosion of passion. The girl left, taking a chunk of his savings with her. He returned to his wife.

The dialogue was improvised by the cast, proving once and for all how much we need playwrights. The whole thing was dire in the extreme. Each playlet was set in Margate, and each scene was set in the warm glow of either sunrise or sunset. All truth and reality was as thoroughly airbrushed out of the location as it was from plot, dialogue, and character.

Truth and reality were centre-stage in the remarkable Plan B, Leona and Labrinth: Project Hack­ney (BBC3, Sunday of last week), in which these three megastars of the pop scene returned to their London borough of origin to encourage young people in a pupil-referral unit to create and perform raps and songs.

Every cliché of therapeutic self-empowerment was invoked, but, for once, they felt true to the situation. Ben (Plan B's real name), Leona Lewis, and Labrinth proved themselves gifted in enabling these troubled young people to find within themselves the honesty and creativity to express their feelings and tell their stories. This introduced to them, for the first time, the idea that sustained hard work might deliver far more satisfaction than anything else.

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