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
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
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