From A&E wards to classrooms to police custody suites, few centres of English public life have remained closed to television cameras, with the notable exception of the courtroom. Not even Channel 4’s 2012 Bafta-winning The Murder Trial could eavesdrop on the deliberations in the jury room. It remains the holy grail of those working in the genre. Director Nick Holt pondered for a long time afterwards about how to access these hidden sanctums, while respecting the primacy of the trial process.
The result is a hugely ambitious drama-documentary series that’s being shown over five nights this week. The Trial: a Murder in the Family pivots on the fictional case of Simon Davis, a university lecturer accused of killing his estranged wife. He denies the charge. While actors play the defendant and key witnesses, the judge, barristers and court staff are genuine and genuinely eminent: lead prosecutor Max Hill is the Government’s new independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
Authenticity is the watchword, and the logistics are mind-boggling. In consultation with legal experts and retired police officers, over 600 pages of evidence were created for the trial, ranging from witness statements to forensics reports, plus CCTV footage and filmed police interviews. Meanwhile the actors – led by theatre veteran Michael Gould as Davis – spent a fortnight workshopping their characters and the events in question, preparing for whatever the lawyers might throw at them on the stand.
Forty-two cameras, most of them fixed to avoid distraction, were positioned around a decommissioned court building in Newbury, Berkshire, with up to nine live feeds capturing the action during the two-week trial. Remarkably, there were no cuts or retakes.
“The minute we went into that courtroom, we were running a live story on a daily basis,” says co-director Kath Mattock. “A mistake, or anything an actor or character did or didn’t say, became part of that story.”
Watching on were 12 jurors who were selected at random, as any jury would be. Those who lived outside the area stayed in different hotels to ensure they didn’t discuss the case. Their verdict will be screened on the final night of the week-long broadcast, when they’ll find out, at the same time as the rest of us, whether it’s the correct one. The “truth” of the alleged murder will be revealed in a short dramatisation of the killing after the verdict is given.
Asked why he’d opted for this dramatised approach, Holt says: “A documentary can only get to the perimeter. This gets to the heart of how a trial lives and breathes, and you can see where our criminal justice system derives its strength. Any criminal case is a story about how we behave towards each other, and that’s endlessly fascinating.”
Defendant: Simon Davis
played by Michael Gould. Davis is a lecturer, accused of killing his estranged wife
Simon’s a tricky character: obsessive and quick to anger, methodical and cerebral, a good father and a caring person. Playing him for ten days in court, I found it hard to disconnect at times. I was in a hotel during the trial and kept separate for much of the day. I tried to relax away from court, but I knew how involved I had become when I was waking at 4am, worrying about what a piece of evidence might do to the case.
The trial was genuine improvisation, although my nature — and Simon’s — is to be prepared. But I like to plan my spontaneity! So I prepared a sense of Simon’s answers to likely questions and obsessed over the timeline of events, but there were moments that had to remain vague. I asked if it might be an idea to have an earpiece in case I went terribly wrong, but we decided that if I did go wrong, that would be evidence and out in the world.
I received very little direction other than a debrief at the end of each day’s filming. The main thing was that, after an hour of jury deliberations, I thought, “Acting job done,” because they were talking. Whether they acquitted or convicted was up to them.
Prosecuting QC: Max Hill
Was part of the last IRA prosecution in the UK in 2001, and the trial of the ricin plotters in 2005
I accepted this on the Wednesday before the trial began on Monday, rather as I would accept a very late instruction to prosecute a murder in real life. We did what we normally would to present as clearly and cogently as possible, and were left to run our case as we wished. Witnesses were able to go through quite lengthy evidence in a single take without the mask slipping. That was all the more impressive with the defendant himself, who I treated as I would any defendant in a homicide and cross-examined without break for the best part of two hours. He didn’t wilt under pressure, and I thought that was enormously impressive.
I’m waiting with bated breath to see what the jury made of me because, for all my years in the job, I’ve never been in a jury room. I may be in for a shock! But it’s also a learning experience — maybe I could improve the way I come across.
I hope this dispels a few myths that TV drama has created around trials. People think that prosecution and defence are always at each other’s throats. In court, we do everything we can for the side we represent, but outside court it’s rare that you’re not prepared to sit down and have dinner with your opponent. It’s not all-out warfare. A good outcome is a fair and balanced presentation of the case for and against, so a jury can make up its mind. This was, I think, as close to real as you can get.
Judge: Brian Barker CBE QC
Was the Old Bailey’s most senior judge when he retired in 2015
When covering a trial, the media can focus on areas that are of interest to readers or viewers without reflecting what the trial was about. So I was fairly sceptical about this series, but very impressed by the professionalism of the production team. With anything that’s condensed into 60 minutes of entertainment, you see the highlights rather than the reality. They wanted it to be realistic and to show the process in a far more balanced light.
The main issue was the time constraint. It was always ambitious to get this done in two weeks, and things were cut down somewhat. I was aware that my summing-up would not be as long as it would have been in a normal trial, because we knew it would leave the jury with less time to consider their verdict. Nonetheless, I prepared for that as I would in any trial, slotting the incoming facts into the story every evening so I could present as balanced a summary of the facts as I could.
I think there will be far less theatre [to the trial] than people might anticipate. It’s hugely serious and hugely important. I think juries go away realising the significance of what they’re doing, and that it has a fundamental effect on many people’s lives. I hope that’s the case here.
Juror: Brendan Arndt
A marketing manager, and part of the real jury tasked with reaching a verdict (centre, with a beard)
The idea of doing jury service intrigued me and, weirdly, this never felt that artificial. It felt like a real court experience and hearing some of the testimony, especially from Simon’s children, was upsetting at times. All 12 jurors brought something from their life experience. I like to be very factual and that can be difficult because often the evidence was very circumstantial. So I tried to bring a bit of balance, bringing people back to the facts, rather than getting emotional or swayed by hearsay.
Maintaining your belief in the presumption of innocence can be difficult because we can all judge too quickly sometimes. That happened with the jurors, too — I thought I wouldn’t get on with some of them, and things did get heated during deliberations, but we ended up being really good friends. Quite a few of us were quite emotional when the verdict was read. I had lingering doubts at the time but, on reflection, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had. That said, there are still debates between us to this day about whether or not Simon did it. We’ll be gutted if it turns out we got it wrong!
The experience has probably changed my view of the justice system: from what we see in the news and on television, it can feel as though there isn’t enough justice served for crimes, but being on this show made me realise there is a process and most of it works.
The Trial: A Murder in the Family is on Sunday 21 – Thursday 25 May at 9pm on Channel 4