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American law... British order

It's one of the longest-running dramas on US television, but how will Law and Order fare in its new UK incarnation on ITV?

Gerard Gilbert investigates

Gerard Gilbert investigates

If the American police procedural-cum-legal drama, Law & Order, is recommissioned for a new series next year – and after 20 successive seasons there seems to be no reason why it should not be – then the show will surpass Gunsmoke to become the longest-running scripted drama on US television. But even if not, Law & Order is certain to survive in one of its many hybrid forms – successful spin-off shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent – or maybe in one of its new overseas adaptations. For the franchise is now leaving the US and going global.

Paris Enquêtes Criminelles is a French version of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, while Russian television is adapting the show with a Moscow setting. And now ITV is about to unveil the British version – Law & Order: UK – a co-production between Kudos (makers of Spooks and Life on Mars) and NBC Universal. Thirteen early episodes have been modernised and anglicised – overseen by Dick Wolf, founding father of Law & Order, who will be executive producer to the French, Russian and British versions.

"The British show is totally different from the US version but exactly the same," says Wolf. "And that's the biggest compliment I can give to Chris Chibnall, the British writer who has made all the necessary changes."

Chibnall, whose writing credits include Life on Mars and Torchwood, had more than 420 episodes of the American original to choose from – the idea being that he cherry-picked the most suitable plots. "I was looking for stories that I connected with emotionally and that felt relevant to Britain today," he says. "Dick Wolf sent me over his favourite episodes and I watched about 150 in total. It's a very addictive show so it's great to be getting paid to sit and watch them."

The Law & Order format is both simple and unswerving. In the first half of the hour-long episode a team of cops (played here by Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica and former Coronation Street regular Bradley Walsh, with Harriet Walter as their boss) investigate a murder, which, in the second half, is brought to trial by Crown Prosecution Service lawyers (played by Ben Daniels, Bill Paterson, and former Doctor Who assistant Freema Agyeman). "The difference from States is that you don't really do plea-bargaining in the UK," says Dick Wolf. "Oh, and we don't wear wigs."

While there is plenty of location work in London, including Sunday shoots at the Old Bailey, the courtroom interior, the police station and the offices of the CPS lawyers were all created in disused Ministry of Defence buildings just off the Surrey stretch of the M25. "These windows are a lot bigger than you'd find in an actual courtroom but we liked them for dramatic effect," says producer Richard Stokes, showing me round the sets. "And there are so many computer and TV screens in courts these days because there is so much CCTV evidence."

It's the CPS characters who are filming today. Between takes, Freema Agyeman scotches reports that she fell out with Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies when she left Torchwood, which was allegedly at an advanced stage of scripting, to join Law & Order: UK. "Not true in the slightest," she says. "Russell was the first person to ring up and congratulate me for getting the job – followed closely by Julie Gardner (executive producer on Torchwood and Doctor Who). I would love to go back whenever – that door is open – but at this stage of my career I feel it's all about getting experience."

Bill Paterson, who plays Agyeman's boss, was her father in BBC1's Little Dorrit. "Yes, lovely to work with Freema again. And Harriet Walter, who was also in Little Dorrit. The whole cast is exceptional," says Paterson. I ask him about his character, expecting the usual back-story spiel, but he says: "There's not a lot of room for a back story. What you see is what you get, and in some ways it's refreshing – you don't have any of those police-drama clich├ęs – no maverick traits. Mine's a pretty down-home guy who leads a pretty regular life."

Series creator Wolf says this economy with character and plot is deliberate. "They're totally self-contained stories; there are no serialised elements – if you haven't seen the show for a month, a year or three years, when you come back you don't have to know anything that's happened in between; nobody's been sleeping with anybody, nobody's got married or divorced... it's just a workplace show, which is refreshingly unencumbered."

For uncommitted viewers who struggle to keep up with the fashionably complex and involved story arcs of US dramas like Lost, 24 or Heroes, this weekly closure can come as a relief. "You get a complete hour of television that's very satisfying," says Wolf. "It's like eating a three-course meal, you don't need anything else and it gives you the ability not to get caught up in the cult of personality. It's a six-person ensemble – Anthony Anderson, who came in to the show last spring, is the 27th principal actor to be in the US show; some of the main characters have rolled over five times."

Wolf says he picked up his taste for economical storytelling during his formative years in advertising. "The wonderful thing about advertising is that you have to tell a complete story in 30 seconds or it doesn't work," he says. "The thing I've said to directors and editors over the years is: 'When was the last time you saw a movie that moved too fast?' The wonderful thing about Law & Order is that there are no transition scenes; there are no people driving in a car or walking up to a building... you don't have enough time. Each half has enough information for most hour-long shows. When you do that it has to move fast, it can't be boring, there can't be fat in the scenes."

And without sacrificing any of its Britishness, the finished product is slick, self-confident and familiarly addictive. It's a winning formula, and Wolf knows he has an extensive back-catalogue to take to any metropolis with a major legal system and a sufficiently high murder rate. "I'm going to Berlin tomorrow – that's a city that could support a version. I would love to see a Middle Eastern version – I'd love to do one in Cairo. The show is an exploration of human frailty and human weakness that is universal."

'Law & Order: UK' starts at 9pm on 23 February on ITV1

LAW & ORDER: WHO'S WHO?

Crown Prosecutor Alesha Phillips (Freema Agyeman)
Brought up on a Hackney council estate, Phillips thinks the CPS is a good platform from which to right society's wrongs. Least likely to say: "So, what school did you go to?"

Senior Crown Prosecutor James Steel (Ben Daniels)
A former defence barrister, Steel joined the CPS after the birth of his son – but his burning sense of injustice has cost him his marriage. Least likely to say: "I can see that it's a grey area."

Director of CPS, George Castle (Bill Paterson)
Castle is the ultimate arbitrator, and a sounding board for Steel and Phillips. He's a liberal at heart, but hates woolly, over-emotional thinking, and can cut to the heart of a case in seconds. Least likely to say: "Let's take a punt on it."

DI Natalie Chamber (Harriet Walter)
Matt and Ronnie's boss is firm, but also one of the lads. She is a far cry from some of the stiff-backed female authority-figures in other cop shows. Least likely to say: "Stand up when I come into a room."

DS Ronnie Brooks (Bradley Walsh)
A former alcoholic, old-school copper Brooks supports West Ham and two ex-wives. With a sugar addiction since he gave up drinking, he leaves the running to his junior colleague, Matt Devlin. Least likely to say: "Oh goodie, salad for dinner again."

DS Matt Devlin (Jamie Bamber)
The scion of a London-Irish family in Kilburn, Devlin is a charming but go-getting character. He is far more happy to kick down doors than his more mellow senior partner. Least likely to say: "Anything for a quiet life."

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