|Law & Order is one of the biggest TV franchises in the world. The US series, which follows the criminal justice process from crime scene to courtroom, is the longest-running prime-time drama currently airing in America, where it has just begun its 20th season. It has already spawned four spin-offs, and tonight ITV1’s new Law & Order: UK marks the first British version of the show.|
Dick Wolf, the series’s creator, says that viewers of the British version will recognise the familiar Law & Order style, combined with a distinctly British tone. For a start, the show’s London locations are key. “Law & Order has always been shot in a specific way,” he says. “So just as we previously have with New York, we’re using the landscape of London as an integral part of the stories.”
Those stories, however, are lifted from early series of Law & Order, and so they’ve required updating to make the transfer to 21st-century Britain. Aside from overcoming the tricky issue of the two countries’ very different legal systems, the production team have had to alter the scripts to take into account, for instance, the fact that the police no longer sit around “waiting for the call”; now they all have mobile phones.
The series’s new stars are all British, too. The former Coronation Street actor Bradley Walsh plays down-to-earth, ex-alcoholic DS Ronnie Brooks. Harriet Walter plays his boss, DI Natalie Chandler. And among the prosecuting legal team is Freema Agyeman, one of Doctor Who’s former assistants.
However the formula that has made Law & Order such a success in the US has not been tampered with. The show combines a police procedural with the more complex dilemmas of mounting a successful prosecution. Audiences are drawn in by a relatively straightforward attempt to catch criminals. But it’s the subsequent legal complexities that allow Law & Order to tackle broader themes.
Wolf maintains that because of this complexity “now more than ever, Law & Order is the smartest drama left on television. The first half of this show is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery.”
Bradley Walsh, however, made a conscious decision not to watch the US version before he began filming for ITV. “I didn’t want to be influenced by any other characters,” he says. “DS Brooks is a very gentle soul, and he can really empathise with everyone he meets. Unusually for a copper on TV, he doesn’t have any angst and he very rarely raises his voice.”
Walsh says that his character was probably a very gung-ho cop in the Seventies – “like The Sweeney” – but that he’s become a man who realises that bureaucracy has a necessary part to play in modern law enforcement. “None the less, he does want to nick people, he wants to see justice done,” says Walsh.
Indeed one of the more unusual aspects of Law & Order: UK is the faith it has in the British legal system, if not always in the lawyers themselves. As assistant prosecutor Alesha Phillips, Freema Agyeman plays a driven, successful young barrister.
Agyeman says her character is fundamentally “an opinionated, strong-willed young thing who believes in the system. She feels like the Crown Prosecution Service works and that she too can help bring about justice.” That, adds Agyeman, “makes her rather more contemplative than Martha Jones”, the all-action Doctor Who character that made her name.
Agyeman is herself a Londoner, and Wolf and his team were keen to keep up a Law & Order tradition by making the show’s setting feel like one of the cast. “Initially there was a lot of back and forth between me in America and the team in London about the technical details,” he says. “We’re paying for the city, so we try to use it in every shot.”
However, one thing that Wolf wishes he could have transferred wholesale from the US is the number of episodes in a series. In America, a typical TV drama will run for more than 20 episodes. Law & Order: UK, ITV’s flagship drama for 2009, is 13 episodes, although that is still relatively long by British standards.
But, as you might expect from the man at the helm of one of the world’s biggest TV franchise, Wolf is bullish. “My goal is to get ITV up to 18 or 20 – if this one works,” he says. And it will be quite a coup if the UK version wins enough viewers to meet Wolf’s bold ambitions.
Law & Order: UK starts tonight on ITV1 at 9.00pm