Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tattoos, Simon Cowell and Having my Day in Court with Judge Alex

The first time I was in a courtroom was as a witness for the police in the UK, when they had decided my complaint against a taxi driver warranted a case for "rude and aggressive behaviour".

The Appeals Court (he didn't turn up for the first trial - ok, a tad melodramatic, I admit) put the problem down to there not being "enough charisma" between us. How much charisma do you need to go from Wardour Street to Brewer Street (less than a mile) behind a pane of glass, I asked the dumbfounded police afterwards.

The second time was in LA in 2011, when I successfully sued my landlady for non-return of a huge chunk of my deposit. Everything I put into practice I learned from watching just one TV show: Judge Alex (follow @judgealexferrer on Twitter). And so, today, I found myself in court for the third time: not in the handcuffs (alas) I fantasised about when I first saw the TV show, and not, thankfully, with my being sued for being his stalker.

I was there as a member of the audience, and not since I saw Simon Cowell's enormous Winnebago (no, that is not a euphemism) on the set of American Idol a few years back, have I been so excited.

In fact, so excited have I been about knowing both men, I nearly got their names tattooed - one on each shoulder - when I was in Venice Beach a few weeks back.

Alcohol had been consumed. Sobriety had been resumed when I settled for an engraved ingot with WWSD (What Would Simon Do) on it (sorry, Judge, even semi-stalkers have their pecking order).

So, here I am on the set and I am asked where I would like to sit - on or off camera. Anyone who knows me would know they could have just plonked me on the Judge's bench at the outset and downgraded me from there.

In fact, anyone who knows me will be surprised to learn that I was not fully robed, gavel in hand, shouting "Action!" with the poor Judge locked in a cupboard elsewhere on the studio lot.

So, I am seated second from the left in the front row, and the first person to talk to me is an actor. So is the second. And the third. And the . . . You get my drift. They join lists that provide audiences for studio shows such as Judge Alex and get paid by the day. I suggest a sum and am told that yes, I am fairly accurate for days like this. When I arrive, the team is already on show five, and there are three more to go. They record 130 shows in a little over three months and the five blocks of three day taping are clearly the most intense.

"They get paid more than we do," says RAN 1 (the Resentful Actor Number 1 on my left, who has been to every show today), nodding towards the hallowed ground beyond the wooden barrier where he is penned. "When I was a litigator . . . " he begins. I decide not to point out that he has never been, will never be, a litigator. I also hesitate to point out that he will never be an actor, either, but hold my tongue. (When I returned to see my second show, he was shunted off to "Standing room". Quite right).

Behind me sits RAN 2. She's a nurse. Not a real one, of course. She has been a "background actor" in several hospital dramas, but is ready to move centre stage.

"Do a monologue - NOW!" shouts RAN 1, a little frighteningly. She stumbles. I think of reciting Henry V's speech from the Battle of Agincourt, but in the millisecond I take for breath, RAN 1 is already off. "I'm a Shakespearean actor really . . . "

There is a very handsome younger man behind him who has played a detective (albeit a "background detective"). He has the kind of look that gives me the feeling that he might just make it, and he comes to these shows to network. He claims they have been very useful.

Oh, Hollywood, I love you. The hope.

The tension is building and the courtroom bailiff Mason is on the set. Very cute. Great smile. Great presence. And his gun is in my eye line. I don't known what it is about men in uniforms and outfits, but take Judge Alex Ferrer . . . Ex-pilot, cop, judge - oh, your honour, please avoid the medical profession; a white coat might prove the final, fatal straw. Even as I write that sentence, I am fantasising about your stethoscope.

The studio, on Bronson in Hollywood, is all very relaxed ("Remember my name!" whispers RAN 1) until the announcement of "The Honorable (US spelling!) Judge Alex Ferrer", which, unlike when you watch on TV, has a slight air of "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your host. . ." about it.

Then he's there. And everything changes. It's like the Second Coming, albeit one a lot more clean-shaven than the first. The cliches of tall, dark and handsome are even more apparent under the studio lights, and from my seat I get a great view.

At least, I did, until the second case, when a very wide defendant blocked my view of Judge Alex completely. Talk about a total eclipse of the Son (geddit? Oh, go back few sentences). I so wanted her to lose. She did.

The third case even had a star guest in singer Freda Payne (most famous for the 1970 hit Band of Gold), which was very exciting. I thought the Judge got a little too overwhelmed at her presence, but by then I was backstage with the producers and out of striking distance of my love rival.

The producers were loving it. I've seen a lot of shows and know a lot of crews and I have never seen one as united and enjoying their work as this one. They laughed, they shared comments, they even clapped when the audience clapped. And they cared. They absolutely cared.

"I really hope she wins," said one, turning to his co-workers. And I could tell he wanted her to. It's drama, after all, and we care about the ending (she did, by the way, and the cheering backstage was heartfelt).

The cases come from all over the US, and Judge Alex (unlike other TV courtroom judges) conducts considerable research into each state's individual laws. With stringers in around 25 states trawling court records, the team also has to weed out people just looking for a free trip to Hollywood. At the studio, the rest room door jammed my finger twice. I told Supervising Producer James that I might sue. He jokingly suggested I could be a case on the final run of taping; even be "the last show".

Oh, James, you really don't know me, do you? I am already shopping for my outfit.

It is not just the research or the good looks (did I mention those?) that make this show easily the best of the US courtroom reality shows - and one of the best shows on TV. The Judge's intelligence, charisma and brilliant lateral thinking are second to none. It comes across on TV, but even more so in the studio where, of the 40 or so minutes taped, by the time you add promos, ads, et al, roughly just 14 will make it to screen. And, having seen the live show, I cannot heap enough praise on the seamless, incredible job they do in the editing suite.

Judge Alex doesn't so much listen to the evidence, it's as if he's breathing it in, and you can see from the initial slight smile, the information being gathered, formulated, and finally delivered in one-liners that are as funny as those from any comedian. I swear I have never laughed aloud so much at anyone on TV. Ever.

And this from a woman who has been watching and reviewing the genre for about 90 hours a week for three decades.

Judge Alex's years as a cop, lawyer and judge seem to be embedded in his DNA and, having had some of the worst criminals before him (the forthcoming movie Pain and Gain is based on one of his most famous cases - the Judge was asked to appear in it but would not renege on a school engagement to which he was already committed), he has seen the lot.

Now, he's clearly having fun, but his ability to combine the minutiae of law with such immense humour is truly breathtaking - as is his incredible energy in being able to perform so eloquently and brilliantly for so many hours under those lights.

And then there are those hands: long, elegant fingers that seem to massage the arguments as the Judge declares “Here’s where we’re at”, before delivering his verdict. Alex Scissorhands.

You'll be hearing more about the show and the Judge when I post the interview I conducted recently with him in Miami, but just in case you're hoping for that Jane Eyre happy ending, I'll put you out of your misery now.

Reader, I didn't marry him.

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