'Masterpiece Mystery!': 'Silk' gowns enrobe sex, drinking and Machiavellian politics

On Sunday, Aug. 25 (check local listings), PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" premieres the three-part BBC drama "Silk," created and written by Peter Moffat.

It does feature people in white wigs and robes, but it's not a period piece. Silk fabric does figure in the plot, but nobody's on his or her way to, or returning from, the Far East with bolts of cloth. There's a bar but no juggling of glasses.

Instead, Moffat drew on his experiences as a barrister (in the U.K. split legal profession, they specialize in courtroom advocacy and drafting legal pleadings) to tell the story of up-and-coming junior barristers -- Martha Costello ( Maxine Peake) and Clive Reader ( Rupert Penry-Jones, "Whitechapel") -- in a barristers' chambers in London, who are attempting to attain the coveted rank of Queen's (or King's) Counsel.

Co-starring are Neil Stuke as Billy Lamb, the senior clerk in the chambers, and Natalie Dormer ( "The Tudors") as Clive's pupil, Niamh Cranitch, the daughter of a high-court judge.

Also in the cast are Indira Varma ( "Rome") as a political solicitor with the gender-switched name of George Duggan, and Phil Davis ( "Whitechapel") as criminal solicitor Micky Joy.

The distinction of a QC almost vanished from the British legal system, where it was considered a license for the roughly 1,000 lawyers involved to raise their rates and get all the best, most interesting and lucrative cases through a system that supposedly rewarded merit rather than just years in the job.

In addition, QCs get to upgrade to a silk gown in court (along with traditional white wigs), hence the term "taking silk."

In a summer 2010 interview with U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Moffat said, "'Silk' is based on my experience at the bar. I want to tell it as it really is. The extreme pressure, the hard choices, the ethical dilemmas, the overlap between the personal and the professional, principles fought for and principles sacrificed, the Machiavellian politics, the sex, the drinking, the whole story life at the bar is the richest possible drama territory."

In the U.K. system, there are also "solicitors," who recruit clients and then usually (but not always) ally themselves with barristers, who do the actual work in court.

In deciding to pick up "Silk" for "Masterpiece," executive producer Rebecca Eaton had no objections to Penry-Jones -- and there was also a connection to one of the PBS' drama series biggest hits.

"I think he is a fabulous-looking man," she tells Zap2it. "One of the producers of 'Whitechapel' is actually Gareth Neame, who produces 'Downton Abbey.' "

She also was fond of the setting "in chambers, as they're called. It's much more swellegant [than our system], although it takes more figuring out. I happened to know what's a barrister, what 'making silk' means, but I did wonder if our audience understands the competition to be a lawyer. We don't have that."

The character of Martha Costello also reminded her of another legendary "Masterpiece" character, an iconic British police detective, played by Helen Mirren.

"She was, I thought, sort of a Jane Tennyson character," says Eaton, "an intense, smart woman on her own, with a few issues."

As for Penry-Jones' Clive, on the surface he's an elite Harrow and Oxford graduate but balances off his arrogance and drive with good humor and charm.

"Clive isn't exactly what you think," says Eaton. "You don't really know what the relationship is between them.

"But Billy is the linchpin. He's the one who directs traffic, decides who gets the work and who gets attention. It's a really interesting look at contemporary British life."
Photo/Video credit: PBS