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Ditherer has a brush with law; Actor James Fleet specialises in men who wouldn't say boo to a goose. New BBC1 sitcom Chambers has him looking ruffled and defenceless in a court of law, and it suits him. Graham Keal reports.

Playing a bumbling inadequate may not come easily to James Fleet, but he's very good at it. His latest sitcom casts him as a barrister working for John Bird, but he's not so much a legal eagle as bewigged budgerigar.

James has cornered the market in hesitant, half-baked, mild mannered men, with Hugo Horton in the Vicar of Dibley and timid Tom in Four Weddings and a Funeral being the best-known examples.

Now he's Hilary Tripping in BBC1's Chambers, picking up the role he played in an acclaimed run of three series on Radio 4. 'You can guess a lot about him just by his name, really,' says James.

'Hilary Tripping is entirely non-confrontational, which is a very bad thing in a barrister . . . He doesn't want to disappoint anybody by beating them, so he's always torn.'

Sarah Lancashire and John Bird play his more ambitious colleagues, and their names say a lot about them too. As Ruth Quirke Sarah is, well, quirky, and as bigoted head of chambers John Fuller-Carp, John is full of, er, rubbish.

The radio hit makes a smooth transition to TV, with some scenes filmed in the actual Inns of Court in London adding to the atmosphere.

'It was a huge eye-opener making the move to TV, seeing the set and making them into real people,' says James. It added to his performance too.

'When you do radio you don't know what you're doing when you start talking, and it's because you haven't had a costume fitting. When you go and have your fitting and you try the jacket on, you try the trousers on and you put your hands in the pockets and you think, 'Oh yeah, I know - he's like this . . . ''

Chambers is funny and classy, establishing that someone like Hilary may be highly intelligent yet still have all the worldly wisdom of the Andrex puppy.

'It's sort of subversive really. It says, 'Look, these people are in the legal system and they're completely incompetent.' And you laugh at that in the same way that you laugh at Yes Minister. We live in a country where the legal system's completely weird and we don't understand it. Sometimes it feels like it's run by idiots. And in Chambers, it is.'

Accurate or not, the perception that barristers are a mollycoddled minority who earn sums out of all proportion to their talents is a popular one.

And aspects of Chambers do ring true. Writer Clive Coleman is an ex-barrister, so he knows all the dodges, the scams and the 'respectable' route to inflated fees and six-figure incomes.

Whether his former colleagues will thank him for revealing them is another matter, though the radio recordings at Broadcasting House proved a popular outing for law students.

Episode one sees Hilary's chambers heading for a fat fee from a lengthy, pounds 50 million property dispute. The work barristers put into the case is irrelevant - the fee will be inspired by what the case is worth to the litigants, nothing else.

James is once again playing the innocent but he can't just do it on autopilot. 'If anyone tells you it's easy then they don't know what they're talking about,' he says.

'Making a good sitcom is the hardest thing. Making believable characters do these extreme things and then timing it and making it pacy is really hard. Film making is a lot easier.'

That, he says, is because film cameras come in really close, so the smallest eye twitch is picked up and the director can use it for any purpose.

Expressions and gestures for TV comedy must be precisely pitched somewhere between stage and film. 'You've got to be small for a camera but big because they don't come in close. It's very hard to do.'

Ditherer Hilary is clueless about women too, but James is a little more assured. He's married to actress Jane Booker and their son Hamish is seven.

The Scottish name harks back to James' mother's side. She was born in Aberdeenshire and took James from the Midlands to live there when he was ten, after the death of his father. James never saw a play until he was 18 and had no interest in acting - until he embarked on an engineering degree at Aberdeen Poly.

He joined the dramatic society at Aberdeen University and got the bug. 'I dropped out of engineering and went to drama school in Glasgow.'

Since then he has tackled all manner of roles - a murderous religious zealot in Cracker, a wily politician in Crossing the Floor and cuckolded husband number five in Moll Flanders - but it's the ditherers who get remembered. Off-screen James may be more dynamic, but not that much more.

Had he ever had a brush with the law? 'Hmmm, yes. I got a speeding ticket once. It came in the post.'

Chambers starts this coming Thursday on BBC1.

WEEKEND
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Author:Keal, Graham
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 10, 2000
Words:814
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