Channel 4’s latest TV experiment The Trial: A Murder in the Family starts from a fictional premise – Simon Davis is on trial for the strangulation of his estranged wife, Carla. But the alleged killer is prosecuted and defended by real QCs (Max Hill and John Ryder) in a courtroom presided over by a genuine retired judge, Brian Barker. The dozen peers deciding Davis’s fate are members of the public, hearing evidence from experts and witnesses who are a mix of actors and members of the public.
Fittingly, the project is a collaboration between a skilled practitioner of TV crime drama – Kath Mattock, who made BBC2’s Murder – and a pioneer of factual programming: Nick Holt, whose 2013 Channel 4 series The Murder Trial was permitted to film a real court case in Scotland.
Even with that unprecedented access, Holt was not allowed to film meetings between lawyers or the jury’s deliberations, which must remain secret under pain of imprisonment. No such limitations apply to The Trial: A Murder in the Family because Hill and Barker and the jurors are discussing a made-up case, and, even if Davis gets sent down on Thursday night, the worst sentence “he” could get would be having to appear in a panto come Christmas.
Both the fictional and factual elements are impressive. Ingenious use of old photos and footage of the actors Michael Gould and Emma Lowndes, who play the defendant and victim, creates a convincing backstory of family photo albums and home videos. The scripted sections also introduce grabby twists about the relationship and medical histories of the Davises.
If those will satisfy the crime drama crowd, the parts featuring real people are equally enjoyable for documentary fans. The jury deliberations feel entirely authentic, sometimes chillingly so, as, during meal-breaks, jurors big up their gifts of intuition (“Everyone at work is, like, ‘You’re a witch!’. I trust my gut so much”), or measure the deceased against their own history: “I wouldn’t accept that in a relationship!”
The problem is that the combination of two styles results in sudden lurches of tone, as if a Broadchurch fan has accidentally switched to Panorama.
One of the toughest tricks in drama is to merge actors with different performance styles. A single movie star can unbalance an otherwise lesser-known cast and, most weirdly, celebrities appearing as themselves can seem less real than actors around them pretending to be someone else.
In this case, Michael Gould is an accomplished stage and screen actor, his credits include Wallander, Waking the Dead and Silent Witness, and so he performs in that register, making actorly calculations about what Simon Davis would know and show at any given point. But in actual murder trials, the defendant often scarcely reacts at all.
In another part of the screen, judge, QCs and jurors are behaving as if in a documentary, which, in their terms, they are: Hill at one point seems truly exasperated with Ryder’s tactics, while an eye-roll from the judge after one revelation also looks un-acted.
Yet, even from the real people, there is sometimes doubt about the status of what we are seeing. Ryder spends a striking amount of time brushing his luxuriant grey hair in front of a mirror in the lawyers’ quarters, but there’s no way of knowing if the director asked him to do this.
Another oddity is that Davis appears, unusually for a murder defendant, to be on unrestricted bail, walking in and out of the court building on his own, presumably because it would be ethically and technically too complex to show him being held in a fake remand wing and brought to court by mock prison officers.
The great revelation of the experiment, though, is the insight into how a defence barrister operates. It’s fascinating to watch Ryder stripping the initially confident evidence of prosecution witnesses down to the few non-contestable facts their testimony contains. And, against the inevitable cynicism of viewers that the defendant’s team is tripping up honest witnesses to get killers off, the QC makes an eloquent case that the testing to destruction of the prosecution case is a vital brake on the power of the state.
But, in a final flight from reality, flashbacks in the last episode show what “really” happened. While this is the right decision in terms of narrative satisfaction for the audience, it misses one of the most brutal realities of the legal system, which is that real-life jurors often never know if they have made the right decision.
However, despite these doubts, my final summing up is that The Trial: A Murder In The Family is a judicious and gripping attempt to get round the visual restrictions on court reporting, even if the basis on which some jurors reach their conclusion is alarming. A Channel 4 prime-time crowd is probably pretty law-abiding, but from this day forward viewers are likely to be especially careful not to risk putting their lives in the hands of a dozen strangers.
The Trial: A Murder in the Family is on Channel 4 at 9pm every night from 21-25 May.