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July 2019



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Brothers in Law, Henry Cecil

On the Co-op charity book shelves the other day, I spotted A Companion Book Club ‘Extra’: an omnibus edition of three books by Henry Cecil. Thinking it was a very long time since I’d read anything by Cecil, I took it away with me and it turned out to be quite a blast from the past. This special edition is illustrated by stills from the Boulting Brothers’ film of 1957, so contains many pictures of Ian Carmichael, who specialised in good-looking-silly-ass roles at that time. As well as the film, Brothers in Law became a TV and then a radio series starring Richard Briers. I’ve certainly heard some of the radio version, probably on Radio 4 Extra.

Henry Cecil Leon was called to the Bar in 1923 and became a County Court Judge in 1949, so he knew what he was writing about. Brothers in Law was published by Michael Joseph in 1955 and proved a lasting success. This is slightly surprising since, apart from the criminals, it deals almost exclusively with upper middle class characters. Hard to believe it was published in the same decade as Room at the Top (1957) and Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (both 1959). It has far more in common with Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House (1952) and its sequels, books which also deal with a naïve young professional just starting out. Several Doctor books were filmed, starring first Dirk Bogarde and then Leslie Philips.

The hero of Brothers in Law is Roger Thursby, twenty one years old and just called to the Bar. He joins the chambers of Grimes (a wonderful character), as a pupil and soon realises what a lot he has to learn. His life is complicated by living with a scatty and impoverished mother and by running two girlfriends (the rotter!) both of whom want to marry him. One of the girls, Sally, would obviously make just as good a lawyer as Roger.

The descriptions of the arcane goings-on in chambers and in court make one think that little about the law had changed since Shakespeare wrote of ‘the law’s delay’ or Dickens castigated the whole system in Bleak House. Some of the cases, especially those involving divorce, seem to prove that ‘the law is a ass’. So has the book stood the test of time? I’d say yes, for its humour and honesty. There’s much that’s ridiculous and Roger at first has grandiose dreams of a glittering future which are shattered by his first court appearance. He is clever, still wet behind the ears but basically a very decent chap you can’t help liking. By the end of the book we leave him, still unmarried, working very hard indeed to master the law and about to move to different chambers. I’ll be reading the next instalment, which is set twelve years later with Roger ‘one of the ablest counsel at the junior Bar’ and wondering whether to ‘apply for silk’. I’d be interested to know how today’s lawyers view these books.

This clip from the film is interesting because it shows Terry-Thomas in an unusual role for him. He could be Peter Sellers here! The scenes with ‘Mr Green’ are among the best in the book and result in Roger winning his first case.



a very long time since I’d read anything by Cecil

I don't think I have ever read anything by Henry Cecil but if the film clip is anything to go by I think that I should! Your review certainly makes it sound like a series that I would enjoy.
Wee sister

Re: a very long time since I’d read anything by Cecil

I think you would. There's a lot of learning in the books, worn lightly.

I rather liked the Richard Briers radio version. Hadn't realised there were books.

I like Richard Briers in almost anything on radio.

The books were very popular. There were Penguin editions and I think some titles have been reissued fairly recently.