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DVD review: 'Garrow’s Law – The Complete Collection'

Dennis King Published: March 14, 2013

More than just a courtroom procedural uniquely set in Georgian London in the late 1700s, “Garrow’s Law” is also a deeply compelling, reality-based legal drama of historical significance that explores startling social injustices in English law during this grim period.

Based on the work of real-life barrister William Garrow (1760-1840) to fight for the rights of the women, the poor and the illiterate, the BBC series, starring Andrew Buchan as the maverick Garrow, drew its stories from real cases recorded in “Old Bailey Proceedings,” and concerned Garrow’s often unwelcomed efforts to move British courts toward reformation and a more adversarial courtroom system.

Blessed with the usual high quality of acting and production values that viewers expect from BBC shows, this period drama collects 12 hour-long episodes from the series’ three seasons (before it was cancelled in 2012).

The fiery neophyte Garrow, working under the steady supervision of veteran barrister John Southouse (Alun Armstrong), is assigned some of the Old Bailey’s least promising (real-life) cases – from defending the “London Monster,” accused of stabbing a series of young women, to advocating for James Hadfield, charged with attempting to assassinate King George III.

Several historical figures crop in during the intricate court cases, including anti-slavery campaigner Gustavas Vassa, powerful newspaper magnate John Julius Angerstein and British Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Picton.

Garrow often finds himself appearing before judge Sir Francis Buller (Michael Culkin), a controversial and prejudicial figure whose ruling that a husband could beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb was said to be the basis for the term “rule of thumb.”

While a subplot concerning the handsome young Garrow’s illicit romance with Lady Sarah Hill (Lyndsey Marshal), wife of MP Arthur Hill (Rupert Graves), crops up periodically, episodes mainly focus on cases in which legal injustices inflict great cruelty on the poor. Garrow’s efforts to protect the rights of the accused and to establish new precedents in law give the series its greatest dramatic heft.

As the show neatly points out, it was Garrow’s work that helped establish the widespread legal concept of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Bonus extras in the three-disc collection include three featurettes – “William Garrow: Fact and Fiction,” “Garrow’s Law: From Dawn to Dusk” and a behind-the scenes promotional short – plus a text biography of the real Garrow and filmographies of the cast.

- Dennis King