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Tuesday, 17 April 2018

BBC One's new law drama 'The Split' shines a light on a little seen world

The writer of BBC1's new drama is an Emmy and BAFTA award winner. It's not a crime drama, it's not a period drama. It's set in a world we haven't seen a lot in the recent landscape of British drama.
I'll be honest and admit I've struggled with Abi Morgan's last two TV dramas. 2011's The Hour started promisingly enough but quickly fizzled into nothingness and was axed after two series. Her foray into crime drama came with 2015's dark Nordic Noir inspired River which saw a foggy Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd portray lead character John River. The atmosphere of the series was so overpowering that it was hard to see past it and once I discovered that the only character I actually liked, 'Stevie' Stevenson (portrayed by the ever-excellent Nicola Walker) had actually died and River was seeing her as a ghost I checked out and never felt compelled to return.


Her latest drama, a swish six-parter The Split about a family of female lawyers at the heart of London’s emotionally-charged divorce circuit appeals far more. We've not had a really good law drama since BBC1's Silk which came to a slightly premature end in 2013. The family at the centre of things here The Defoe's aren't immediately a likeable bunch but it's clear they've done very well for themselves and take no prisoners when it comes to defending their clients. It's a show led by women both in front of and behind the camera. Morgan writes and produces the series with Jane Featherstone who's CV boasts Life On Mars and the BBC's superb spy drama Spooks. Recently Featherstone bought us ITV's megahit Broadchurch and Channel 4's sci-fi drama Humans.

The fact that there are so many women in front of and behind the camera shouldn't be worth a mention but sadly it's a rarity in the UK television industry. We lag behind the US where female showrunners, directors and writers are far more commonplace. Here Morgan is joined by director Jessica Hobbs something that the BBC should be commended for but it's a shame I felt compelled to bring it to your attention.

The Defoe women are confident and strong. The main focus here is Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker who sports a new blonde do for the role). Hannah has walked out on the family firm Defoe’s to join rival company Noble & Hale. She now faces her sister Nina (Annabel Scholey)and mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay), also successful family lawyers, on the opposing side of high-profile divorce cases.


The Defoes live a privileged life. The house that Hannah and fellow lawyer husband Nathan (Stephen Mangan) live in is spectacular, their offices are spacious and pristine and their day is peppered with fancy lunches at London hotspots. It shares the same opulence we're used to seeing in the worlds of The Good Wife and The Good Fight. It feels like a world we've not seen for a while on British TV.


The show boasts an impressive cast of well-known faces. Multi-millionaire Sportswear mogul Davey McKenzie (Stephen Tompkinson) leaves his childhood sweetheart Goldie (the always brilliant Meera Syal) completely blindsided by the announcement he wants a divorce.  While Mathew Baynton stars playing against type as a stand-up comedian who is fighting his wife for visitation rights with his children.

At its heart, the show is about the four Defoe women and Morgan has done a good job painting a believable, if not somewhat alienating world for her characters. Some viewers might the world a bit offputting. The issues here aren't as relatable as some of the BBC's more down to earth dramas but Nicola Walker delivers an emotional and ever reliable performance and this first episode sets up the main themes of the series well. From Anthony Head making an appearance as the dad who abandoned Ruth and her daughters 30 years previously to Meera Syal's Goldie turning to Hannah to give her husband a run for his money. The pacing is gentle but not dull and it'll be interesting to see what you make of it. Morgan's characters are always rather cold and not people you'd want to spend much time with but the cast here lift the material with Nicola Walker helping to make this an easier watch than it would be with a lesser talent in the lead role.

In a world where everyone is binging their TV drama, I didn't feel overly compelled to watch the next episode available to me, and it's not going to be something that will stick with me when the credits roll. The stakes are low and it's not one to stick with you once you've watched it but it does shine a light on a world we've not seen for a long time and that makes it more intriguing than another crime-by-numbers drama.

The Split starts Tuesday 24th April at 9.00pm on BBC One.

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