This April BBC Four will broadcast Law & Order, my highly controversial 1978 quartet which exposed corruption in the criminal justice system. Because of all the legal dust it raised many changes in the law resulted – but not before the then Director General of the BBC, Ian Trethowan, was summoned to the Home Office to explain himself. If you google Law and Order, you’re likely to discover a lot more about the American TV series. Is there a connection? You bet! In 1970 I published my novel Sir, You Bastard – some said a seminal work on police corruption. A few years later I got a call from the BBC producer Tony Garnett who asked if I’d like to write a television play on the subject. We took a walk in the park and I told him about bent cops and he commissioned what was the first of the original Law & Order quartet. Transmitted in April 1978 they caused huge outcry from the Establishment, and were subsequently banned, but not before a mutual friend took them over to a Hollywood director. In 1994 this director suggested I should sue Dick Wolf, the producer of the American Law and Order. They had been working together on another show in the 80s and screening my dramas in the office, saying they were the best. My response was: Why now? Now, he told me, because it’s syndication time, and they’d settle rather than risk the show not getting sold world-wide.
But I wasn’t in the mood for suing. Back then I was being sued myself for alleged plagiarism over a show I wrote and produced called Black and Blue and was distracted to hell by it and couldn’t face another court wrangle, and anyway the director was reluctant to be deposed. (My case bumped along for 5 years with four weeks in the High Court before Sir David Neuberger. I won clearly and fairly – the genesis for Judge John Deed). Five years later and in London for the opening of his latest movie I had lunch with the director when he said he would be deposed – he would support me if I took the case to court. After winning my High Court case I thought: Why not look at this? There was another producer working in the office who confirmed what the director told me about Dick Wolf viewing my L&O tapes and even asking this producer to pitch his Law and Order with him. Searching for a big American law firm that could afford a contingency case was no easy task. Many suggested I had a great case, but each having a piece of NBC/Universal’s business there was a conflict of interest – some said I was out of time under the California Statute of Limitations anyway. A partner in a medium-sized New York firm that didn’t have a conflict of interest said we could beat the Statute of Limitations by suing in the Federal Court. However, there unlike in the District Court, if we lost we’d be liable for the other party’s costs which would run to millions of dollars and would wipe out his law firm. There I abandoned pursuit as I was busy with Judge John Deed. What might have happened if I’d pursued it and gone to law for loss of format fees and won? I could maybe have got 10% gross in the early days with everyone figuring: Why not, we may only run to a pilot show anyway? Law and Order (US) and its spin-offs have grossed over $5Billion. Even with 10% of just the producer’s share there would be $40Million on the table. I refused to weep, still being very rich in ideas.
Law & Order by G F Newman screens on BBC Four from 12 April over 4 weeks. The new edition of my novel Law & Order is published by No Exit Press.