Police officers and doctors more than any other professionals suffer from the teeth grinding frustration of seeing their occupations ludicrously misrepresented on the screen. However any visit to the GP or interaction with a police officer rapidly acts as as a corrective to misapprehension about the difference between dramatic licence and often dismal reality. Furthermore a glut of fly on the wall programmes allow the viewing public to differentiate between fact and fiction from the comfort of their own homes.
The Bar more rarely is the subject of dramatic treatment on the small screen with Silk, starring Maxine Peake, being perhaps the best recent example; although for many over the age of 40 the quintessential TV barrister will always be Rumpole of the Bailey. Much less often are barristers the subject of documentaries. Even when they have been the cameras in England have always been forbidden from the courtroom. So whatever appears on screen does not include the main professional endeavour of most barristers which is courtroom advocacy.
This means that unless an individual is caught up within the justice system as either a victim, a witness, a juror or a defendant they may live their whole lives without seeing a barrister on their feet in court. Before television and radio newspapers, national and local, would carry very full accounts of trial proceedings. Since the advent of the internet and the rapid contraction of print media only a handful of cases are reported and even then almost never in full. One effect of this is that media reporting at best usually provides a snapshot and sometimes a very misleading one of what happens in court.
Accordingly when a mutual friend put the acclaimed playwright Nina Raine in contact with me last year I was more than happy to discuss with her a work in progress about justice, rape and the involvement of barristers in the justice system. It was immediately clear to me that here was somebody looking to produce a thoughtful and thought provoking piece about one of the most contentious aspects of the criminal justice system namely the prosecution and defence of serious sexual offences. However her excellent play 'Consent' is about so much more than this. It compellingly illustrates the interplay and tensions that exist between reason and feeling in sexual relationships and in friendships. It also illuminates the hardening effect constant exposure to examinations of sexual violence can have on the private lives of professionals.
The play, on now at the National Theatre, has rightly won rave reviews in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and the Independent. This is because the cast have expertly brought to life Nina Raine's characters and lent real authenticity to the quickfire exchanges that see loyalties and judgement tip one way then another. I saw the production alone and eavesdropped shamelessly in the interval to get a sense of the audience's reaction. It would be fair to say that there was little admiration expressed for the barristers on stage and their approach to work. This is not a play in which any character engages the sympathy of the audience save for rape victim Gayle, uncompromisingly presented as further victimised by the court process.
It is no place of mine to complain, however, that none of the barristers were very nice! That there are in real life barristers compassionate and skilful operating within an imperfect and underfunded system to achieve just outcomes does not, I hope, need saying. But with that essential caveat in mind this is an important play and a mighty fine entertainment to boot.