“The law can be a debating club where the person with the cleverest verbal aptitude wins,” David Tennant says.
And the UK actor, well-known for playing Doctor Who and the lead role in Broadchurch, plays one such clever chap in the three-part legal thriller The Escape Artist, which premieres this week on SBS One.
The show’s title is the nickname of Tennant’s character, gifted barrister Will Burton. Burton’s career is on the rise, and every criminal he has defended has walked free.
“He’s ethical but he exploits loopholes in the law, using whatever it takes to find a way out for his clients,” Tennant says.
But Burton’s brilliance proves to be his undoing when he “flies too close to the sun”, as Tennant puts it, and obtains an acquittal for Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), accused of the brutal murder of a young woman.
Despite his victory in court, for the first time Burton harbours doubts about his actions. And one careless move at the end of the trial brings disarray and danger into both his professional career and his personal life as a husband and father.
“If you’re privileged enough to be reading a number of scripts, the ones that you don’t want anyone else to have are quite easy to recognise,” Tennant says.
“And this was one of those. I read it straight through and was completely hooked and convinced, teased and satisfied by it, dramatically and emotionally.
“When you have a reaction to a script that strongly, you’ve got to recognise it and make the most of it.”
In writing The Escape Artist, Spooks creator David Wolstencroft wanted to explore “the blood and guts” lurking beneath the surface of the law, which can often seem like “an intellectual exercise”.
“I wanted to write a thriller set in the legal world that’s as much about those primal feelings as it is about the twists and turns of the case,” Wolstencroft says.
Tennant was taken with how Wolstencroft folded scenes of extreme emotion into an authentic story.
“He’s actually writing some wildly dramatic stuff that in the hands of any other writer would maybe seem ludicrous,” the actor says.
“But what is great about Wolstencroft’s writing is that the stakes are higher than you can imagine. It’s all quite melodramatic, yet he roots it all in a world of complete credibility. I think that’s the great triumph of how he writes – you never doubt it.”
For his part, Tennant sought to bring credibility to the project by researching the work practices of barristers like Burton and the way they conduct themselves in court.
“One barrister told me that acting is nine-tenths of what he does, but I wouldn’t have their skill,” he says.
“Three barristers could all say the same stuff, but the way they deliver it is part of how you receive it and part of who you believe, and in the end it’s all about who you believe is delivering the truth.
“I spent time in court and marvelled at their mental dexterity. I watched one thrilling case where the defendant’s guilt looked cut and dried – and in the end he was found guilty – but his barrister convinced me in five minutes that his client was innocent and persecuted by the system.
“So there’s a huge performance element, and when playing those scenes you feel that.”
While he has a diverse body of work to his credit, the crime genre has been good to Tennant, especially with the international popularity of the murder mystery Broadchurch.
The actor has taken on the lead role in Gracepoint, its upcoming American remake, and there’s still a possibility he may reprise the character of Detective Inspector Alec Hardy in a Broadchurch sequel slated for next year.
“All aspects of [the law] are fertile ground for drama,” Tennant says.
“There’s a ready-made package of plots with a beginning, middle and end.”
That said, however, Tennant believes there’s nothing predictable about The Escape Artist.
“It’s quite a tricky one to navigate. It’s one of those shows where you just have to say, ‘Trust me, just watch it!’
“You’ll think it’s one thing, and that will be fun in itself, and then it just gets so much better.”
* The Escape Artist, screens on Thursday at 9.35pm on SBS One.