In 2013, Channel 4 broadcast The Murder Trial, a documentary offering unprecedented access to a high-profile Scottish court case, from opening statements to jury’s verdict. But despite winning a Bafta for his work, director Nick Holt was frustrated.
“We were looking for ways to get back in the court,” he says, “but the issues around consent and access meant it was going to be extremely difficult to do it again, and there were always certain doors that would remain closed to us, such as the jury room and the conferences between a lawyer and their client. We wondered whether there was a way we could do it again but without sidelining those.”
A pioneering experiment like The Trial needed an unusual approach and a new perspective, hence the involvement of director Kath Mattock, also a Bafta winner but this time in drama with Murder, her BBC Two mini-series of to-camera accounts of violent deaths. “I’d sat in the Old Bailey a lot during my research for Murder, but I was interested in exploring whether the two worlds of documentary and drama offered something different: could they enhance each other?”
In consultation with legal advisor David Etherington QC, Mattock, Holt and screenwriter Sarah Quintrell read through case studies and constructed a narrative that had both legal rigour and emotional appeal, as well as sufficient mystery to give both sides plenty to explore and the jury plenty to discuss. “We needed something jurors could see themselves in,” explains Holt. “Cases that weren’t very alien like a gangland killing or terrorism. Something where they could bring their own experiences.”
The resulting murder case – an academic accused of strangling his estranged wife in the family home – ran to around 600 pages of documentation for the barristers’ evidence bundles, created from scratch. Preparation was inevitably complex, with defendant, victim and witnesses taking part in two weeks of rehearsals.
“If this was scripted, you’d have an overview of the main story,” explains executive producer Jonathan Smith. “With this, on the day of the murder, you have 12 people with their own lives, which means 12 different scripts of what happened on that day. The police have investigated from their point of view, the barristers from theirs and all the characters from theirs. The actors have had to learn their stories in much the same way you’d revise for an exam. So trying to stop that all falling apart has been the knife edge we’ve had to live on.”
Having identified a location for the trial – a decommissioned Crown Court in Newbury – and recruited the legal professionals (“they offered different flavours,” says Holt of the leading counsels), potential jurors were sourced from a local catchment area. The 12 final jurors were then selected at random.
The trial itself lasted for a fortnight, with no directorial interference during court proceedings. The legal professionals were allowed to conduct the trial in whatever manner they wished, exploring whichever areas and asking whichever questions they deemed fit.
“The minute we went into that courtroom, we were running a live story,” says Smith. “There was an unspoken but functional bond with the barristers. They’re brilliant at what they do, and we just stood back and let them go. The more the barristers pushed the witnesses, the more the actors loved it.”
“During rehearsals,” says Mattock, “only three actors knew the truth and we tried to maintain that all the way through the trial. Concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘story’ are very subjective in a courtroom, so the trial had a natural fluidity within the confines of the legal process.”
The final piece of the puzzle was shooting the dramatised insert that will air after the jury’s verdict, indicating whether or not they made the correct decision. Lips are sealed as to the content, although Holt’s final assessment of the project is encouraging.
“It shows professionals doing their job very well. The prosecution acts fairly, thoroughly and rigorously, and the defence is as robust as it needs to be in the face of serious allegations. You can see where our criminal justice system derives its strength. After going through this, I’d be happy to be put on trial by jury.”