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'This could so easily be one of your own kids...it was tough'

Responsible Child shines a light on a topic that needs more discussion: should a minor be tried as an adult or as a child? Gemma Dunn reports

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Billy Barratt as Ray McCullin in Responsible Child

Billy Barratt as Ray McCullin in Responsible Child

Billy Barratt as Ray McCullin in Responsible Child

A good TV drama should at the very least entertain, inform, or trigger a conversation. Responsible Child, a feature-length film about England's minimum age of criminal responsibility, easily does all three. Based on real events, the factual drama tells the story of 12-year-old Ray and his 23-year-old brother, Nathan, who are arrested after stabbing their mother's partner.

Whatever the circumstances that have led a child to kill, the law is clear: the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 and, therefore, Ray must stand trial in an adult court.

Told in two time frames, the film follows both the events that led up to the murder and the unfolding drama of the trial, taking us inside a young boy's experience of the legal system and asking powerful questions about responsibility and redemption.

So, just how did director Nick Holt become entangled in this side of the law?

It happened while conducting research for his hit TV series The Murder Trial some years back, he explains.

"One day, I saw a very young child going into the court and I asked whether this child would be giving evidence, or how this child might be part of a trial. And the lawyer I was with said, 'No, no, he's the accused'. It came as quite a shock.

"It led me to ask questions about what age we put children on trial and I began researching this area - the minimum age of criminal responsibility - only to find out that it was 10. It's an extraordinary and little-known aspect of our justice system.

"Ten is one of the lowest ages in the world and breaches our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"So, this is a story I've wanted to tell for a long time."

Writer Sean Buckley echoes: "After my first meeting with Nick, I was compelled by two things: one was the case and the story and the second was looking at the issue of the minimum age of criminal responsibility."

Raising one of the most complex and challenging questions of our time meant the research period was key to the film-makers.

"We felt very early on that we wanted to take Ray and the audience through a complete arc of the system, from his hitting custody through to serving his sentence," Buckley insists.

"So, we met people from the youth offending services, people from inclusion at a secondary school and we met child psychologists and forensic psychiatrists just to get a holistic view of Ray's life and the different systems.

"I've sat through lots of murder trials in my time and, of course, they move very, very slowly; they take weeks, rather than minutes. But to get the key points right was really important."

As for it being based on a real-life case, he adds: "It has its feet in the real world. I met with a lot of people who were involved in the real trial, the legal teams, characters that we see in there that are based on people. But it's important that this is a film in its own right."

While 12-year-old Blinded By The Light star Billy Barratt takes the titular role of Ray, stars Michelle Fairley, Tom Burke, Stephen Campbell Moore and Owen McDonnell join him as the likes of his defence barrister, prosecution lawyer, court-mandated child psychologist and solicitor, respectively.

"Getting into the mindset of a barrister was tough; to become a woman who thinks how they think," Game Of Thrones star Fairley (56) says of her character, Kerry.

"Nick was keen to make everything feel very real rather than a courtroom drama - seeing their process, how they rack their brains in an attempt to save someone's life. Taking on that responsibility, playing both a mother and barrister, when what happened could so easily be one of your own kids, that was tough."

"Dr Keaton's role is to give a clear understanding of the neurological processes," Campbell Moore (42) says. "As I think one of the strengths of this film, in a way, is that it doesn't rely wholly on emotion.

"One of the things I really liked about the script was that it applies the clear argumentation that a child is still a child, until they can make rational decisions and the development of the prefrontal cortex is key within that. The forensic nature of a court case allows you to do that."

As for Barratt? "He's brilliant," Holt declares. "But we had to be careful about the scenes that we gave him as to not overwhelm him and allow him an opportunity to be Ray in moments that weren't involving a murder."

  • Responsible Child, BBC Two, Monday, 9pm
  • Belfast Telegraph