Responsible Child review: Searing factual drama questions England’s legal system

BBC Two's factual drama about a child killer is a thought-provoking examination of England’s minimum age of criminal responsibility

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 30/11/2019 - Programme Name: Responsible Child - TX: n/a - Episode: 1 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Rafael (Ray) McCullin (BILLY BARRATT) - (C) Kudos - Photographer: Ed Miller

When does a child become fully responsible for their actions? Can they ever be responsible? And what if those actions include something deadly serious? Something like murder?

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Ray (played by Billy Barratt) is an apparently sweet-tempered 12-year-old boy who has endured a tumultuous childhood. He may look like an angel, his lawyer muses, but he and his adult brother have both just been charged with brutally murdering their abusive step-father while he slept — and Ray will be put on trial in an adult court. Does the crime justify the trial (and potential punishment) that he faces?

That’s one of the questions posed by documentary-maker Nick Holt’s new factual drama Responsible Child, examining how in England and Wales, children as young as ten can be put on trial for murder.

Holt spent time in Glasgow High Court several years ago, where he was researching for a documentary. “During my time there I saw a very, very young child coming into the court, and I asked the lawyer who I was with whether this child would be giving evidence… and he said, ‘No, no, he’s the accused’,” Holt revealed during a BBC press screening. “And that came as quite a shock, and that led me to ask questions about, what age do we put children on trial?”

Responsible Child is inspired by real-life events and appears to be loosely based on the 2014 case of Jerome Ellis, but Holt has specified that although the film “has its feet in the real world,” Ray is a character created by him and screenwriter Sean Buckley (Skins). 

Responsible Child
Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley and Billy Barratt (BBC Pictures)

Barratt, who is also 12-years-old, is extraordinary in the role of Ray, who is essentially a carer for his younger half-siblings. His father is an alcoholic, his mother and brother Nathan struggle with depression, and his step-father is abusive, attacking Nathan and threatening his life. Barratt manages to portray a child who is at once old beyond his years, but who is also frightened, impressionable and vulnerable. 

The drama, set across two time frames (the run-up to the murder and the trial itself), may well prove controversial — as pointed out, the boy may look angelic, but the crime he stands accused of is brutal in the extreme. Ray’s step-father (Shaun Dingwall) was defenceless, lying asleep on the sofa when his two step-sons stabbed him repeatedly with kitchen knives. 

The murder itself is shown in short bursts, but there are no real close-ups of the wounds inflicted, a deliberate choice to protect the film’s young lead actor. “We kept any trauma to a minimum for Billy, and it’s a scene we dealt with very carefully,” Holt revealed.

The murder scene was shot in three parts, with varying degrees of fake blood used. “You can see Billy making stabbing actions in the non-bloody version, and he’d then leave the room and we’d add some blood to Shaun [Dingwall]… He never really saw Shaun covered in blood, and he never saw the knives hit Shaun, which was odd because he desperate to [do it], it was the thing he was looking forward to most! So probably cruel but it was for the best.”

While the drama closely follows Ray’s perspective, it also features some excellent supporting turns, notably from Michelle Fairley (Game Of Thrones, Suits) as Ray’s defence barrister, and Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys, The Last Post) as a court-mandated child psychologist who questions whether a 12-year-old’s brain could fully compute the consequences of murder. After all, he seems to suggest, a child is still a child. 

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Responsible Child airs at 9pm on December 16th on BBC Two