Dominic Rossi (Denis Lawson) is a Glasgow-based criminal lawyer with a thriving practice. At present his attention is scattered in several different directions – the stabbing of an elderly man at a bus stop, an ex-soldier accused of multiple murders and the death of a private investigator whom he’d recently employed. But he finds that all of these disparate crimes lead to Tim Forsythe (Michael Kitchen), a merchant banker who’s keen that Rossi should cease his investigations. And since Forsythe has the intimidating Glen (James Cosmo) on his books, it seems that his silence will be rather permanent.
Airing on BBC1 during April 1989, The Justice Game is an efficient four-part thriller from the pen of John Brown (1944 – 2006). The previous year Brown had written the well-remembered ITV serial The One Game, which featured Patrick Malahide as a manipulative games player. Brown would go on to contribute scripts to a number of popular series such as Bergerac, The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Inspector Morse and Taggart.
Denis Lawson (b. 1947) made his television debut in a 1969 episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook and during the 1970’s was busy working across film, television and theatre. One of his early film roles, in the original Star Wars (and then its two sequels), would ensure he would always maintain a certain cult status but it would be two very different 1980’s television roles that would establish him more firmly with the British public. Dead Head (1986) was a BBC serial which attracted a huge amount of newspaper notoriety at the time, although thirty years on it seems rather tame. The Kit Curran Radio Show featured Lawson as the eponymous radio presenter and whilst not a huge ratings-winner, ran for two well-received seasons.
In addition to Lawson, Kitchen and Cosmo, there’s a host of other quality actors who appear across the four episodes (Diana Quick, Iain Cuthbertson, Russell Hunter, Joss Ackland, Michael Culver and Ceila Imrie).
The first episode quickly establishes Rossi’s character. He’s a man of contradictions – after a session working out on a treadmill his first thought is to reach for a pack of cigarettes. We also observe his skills as a lawyer (he manages to get two prominent footballers off an assault charge). The Amnesty poster on his office wall and his desire to take low-profile cases connected to social justice issues are clear pointers to his values and mindset. Rossi is in a relationship with Kate Fielding (Diana Quick). Like him she’s a professional (Kate’s a doctor).
It’s a pity that an actor as good as Russell Hunter exits the story relatively quickly. He played Sandy Sadowski, a man who had information for Rossi but was brutally stabbed multiple times before he could pass it over. John Brown is in no hurry to connect all the pieces of the puzzles he sets up, as with four episodes to play with there’s plenty of time to establish these various plotlines. The well-dressed Tim Forsythe is a man of few words, but several are directed in the direction of Glen who organised the gang that killed Sadowski.
Throughout the serial Denis Lawson impresses. Dominic Rossi’s clearly something of a renaissance man, he’s not only a hot-shot, fast-talking lawyer but he can also belt out a mean rock ‘n’ roll tune (as witnessed at his parents wedding anniversary party). The choice of Glasgow as the battleground was a good one. Although the Glasgow-based Taggart had been running for a number of years, the location still offers a less familiar milieu than London. The last episode also makes a quick trip to New York as Rossi trails the money men behind Forsythe. Lurking in New York is Sir James Crichton (Joss Ackland). Ackland is characteristically still and sinister as the spider in the middle of the web.
The late eighties setting, deep in the dying days of Thatcherism, helps to inform the tone of the serial. At the time Glasgow, like many other cities, was undergoing considerable redevelopment and renovation. The first episode opens with Rossi taking Kate on a tour of his old house, located in one of the most run-down areas of the city. But since the house has been demolished, Rossi contents himself with pointing at the bare ground where the various rooms had been. Displaying a tinge of romanticism shared by many self-made men and women, he regrets the loss.
It’s hoped that something better will take the place of these levelled slums, but the likes of Tim Forsythe seem more interested in generating the maximum amount of profit for the company he works for. Despite the fact that Forsythe remains a fairly nebulous figure (henchmen such as Glen do all the strong-arm stuff, leaving him distanced from the action) there’s a clear delineation between Rossi and Forsythe. Rossi is concerned with people and justice whilst Forsythe is concerned only with profit. Certain reminders of the era – mobile phones as big as housebricks, Forsythe’s cocaine habit – help to make it the perfect story for the consumerist eighties.
Roger Limb’s score sometimes eschews the familiar radiophonic soundscape he was well-known for. But it’s still atmospheric and the more sinister cues help to create a vague sense of unease which compliments the sometimes bleak and violent world presented across the four episodes.
The Justice Game is probably an episode too long and rather wastes good actors such as Iain Cuthbertson in small roles, but it still chugs along nicely to its inevitably bloody conclusion. As might be expected from the cynical worldview it presents, we find that “justice” is in very short supply.
The following year, the three-part Justice Game 2 was broadcast on BBC1 during March 1990. The serial opens with Rossi in Italy, enjoying a holiday romance with the lovely Francesca (Anita Zagaria). Rossi’s considering a career change – from lawyer to advocate – and this holiday was supposed to help him make up his mind, although he remains noncommittal by the end of it. I like the way the first scene has a number of quick cuts, showing Rossi and Francesca enjoying themselves in various different ways (driving an open-top car, him rubbing suncream into her back, riding a pedalo, riding bikes, eating icecream). It’s slightly corny, but it works.
Rossi returns to Glasgow and Francesca quickly becomes a fading memory, so he’s surprised (but pleased) when she unexpedically turns up. She’s a woman with a secret though. Back in Italy several of her friends have met violent deaths and the killings don’t stop when she travels to Scotland – meaning that Rossi’s right in the firing line.
There have been a few changes since the first story. Rossi’s moved into an impressive, if crumbling house (complete with a leaky roof) and has gained a new colleague, Eleanor Goodchild (Barbara Flynn). Flynn, as ever, is wonderfully watchable as the powerful Eleanor. She may only be Rossi’s junior partner but is she part of the reason why he’s considering a career change? Some have dubbed her “a female Dominic Rossi” which amuses him. He certainly seems to be going through something of a mid-life crisis (he picks up a prostitute in a bar, although it appears he wasn’t charged for her services).
Even though this serial is an episode shorter than the first, it still takes its time to get started. There’s action in the first episode – several bloody deaths – but these take place in Italy whilst Rossi’s back in Glasgow and yet to connect to this main plot. But the death of a young man (a potential client for Rossi) in a suspicious hit-and-run accident adds another layer to the narrative and also reconnects Rossi to the seamier side of life (something rather alien to the upwardly mobile lifestyle he’s been recently enjoying).
Justice Game 2 is slightly less satisfying than the first serial. Barbara Flynn and Denis Lawson have a good combative relationship, but this could have been developed a little more. Anita Zagaria works well as the lady with a dark secret, it’s just a shame this part of the story is rather stretched out.
But although it’s slightly inferior when compared to The Justice Game, it’s still a stylish thriller, held together by Lawson’s central performance. Both serials have a nice period feel (late eighties, early nineties) and if there’s the odd lull from time to time, you can be sure that another shock or twist is just round the corner to spice things up.
The Justice Game (containing both series) is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016. The picture quality is a little grainy, which isn’t too surprising considering that the source materials are unrestored 16mm film prints which are nearly thirty years old, but there’s no particular issues. RRP is £19.99.