Belfast Telegraph

Drama puts legal eagles in the dock

The Trial: A Murder In The Family is a five-part series in which a fictional killing is tried in a real court. Susan Griffin goes behind the scenes

By Susan Griffin

The sheer number of police procedurals and court dramas that populate the TV schedules is all the evidence we need to prove we can't get enough of whodunnits, whether they are fact or fiction.

Now Channel 4 is set to merge the two in a groundbreaking five-part series called The Trial: A Murder In The Family, described by the channel as a "thrilling hybrid of drama and documentary".

Screened over five days, the fictional trial will focus on the murder of a woman found strangled and the defendant, who is her estranged husband.

The deceased, who's shown in flashbacks, as well as the accused and some of the witnesses, are actors, but everyone else is the real deal, including the judge, prosecution, defence, 12 jury members, forensic experts, police officers and eyewitnesses.

"We were looking for ways to get back in the court," says Nick Holt, who won his second Bafta in 2014 for the documentary The Murder Trial, and co-directs this with Kath Mattock.

"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."

Mattock, who won a Bafta in 2013 for the BBC Two drama Murder, adds: "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?"

The film-makers collaborated with legal adviser David Etherington QC and screenwriter Sarah Quintrell. Together, they formed a narrative, which it's hoped will offer legal precision, emotional pull and enough ambiguity to allow plenty of exploration and discussion.

"We needed something jurors could see themselves in," explains Holt. "Cases that weren't very alien, like a gangland killing or terrorism, but something where they could bring their own experiences."

Understandably, the process was painstakingly complex.

"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," says executive producer Jonathan Smith.

"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."

In preparation, the defendant, victim and witnesses took part in two weeks of rehearsals.

"But only three actors knew the truth and we tried to maintain that all the way through the trial," says Mattock.

"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 trial lasted a fortnight and was shot on location in a decommissioned Crown Court in Newbury, with no directorial interference during court proceedings.

The legal professionals were chosen "because they offered different flavours", says Holt.

These are Max Hill QC, the senior barrister for the prosecution who is aided by junior barrister Michelle Nelson; John Ryder QC, the senior barrister for the defence and his junior barrister Lucy Organ; and Judge Brian Barker CBE QC, formerly the most senior judge at the Old Bailey.

"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."

The series will also examine what's required of jurors as cameras follow the 12 jury members into the deliberation room to consider their verdict.

"I don't know anyone who's done jury service and I'd never really understood how it works in the UK, so I applied," says Brendan, a juror who hails from Australia.

"To not be able to check my phone, or talk about the trial, or the case outside the jury room and holding room was very tough, because so often we form opinions by discussing things with people. We had to be very disciplined."

Once the jurors have given their verdict, viewers will be able to see what actually happened in a dramatised insert, indicating whether the jury came to the correct decision.

"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," says Holt, who is keen not to give anything away.

"You can see where our criminal justice system derives its strength. After going through this, I would be happy to be put on trial by jury."

The Trial: Murder In The Family, Channel 4, tomorrow, 9pm

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