The Trial: Television at its best

If you haven’t started watching Channel 4’s The Trial, should you bother?

Yes you should. It is good television, legally accurate and most importantly gripping drama.

For those that didn’t watch last night, what Channel 4 has done is in some ways a homage to the 1970s Anglia TV series Crown Court, the day-time TV show that featured actors playing the part of lawyers, defendant and witnesses, and randomly selected members of the public acting as jurors. For me, Crown Court was one of many perks of being too ill for school, and many current leaders of the profession were enthused to become barristers by watching the programme. The often rather wooden acting, the slightly tacky sets and the trivial nature of most of the cases made the programme remarkably realistic.

But where Crown Court was true to the Poundland end of the legal system – where you would most likely find Barristerblogger plying his day job – The Trial is more Fortnums and Masons. The crime is murder, the set is a real (though decommissioned) court-room, and most importantly the judge and the barristers are not actors but real lawyers drawn from the top drawer of the profession.

The defendant is a university lecturer called Simon who bears an uncanny resemblance to the former Liberal MP Simon Hughes. Rather like the former politician, Simon has so far said very little of significance and has spent most of the time looking gloomy and rather tired. His silence is partially explicable by the advice he received to say “No Comment” in answer to questions in his police interview, although rather confusingly we also saw a flashback of him answering some background questions.

His gloomy demeanour is completely understandable. He is accused of strangling his estranged-wife. The evidence, as far as it emerged on Sunday night, seems circumstantial but strong. The deceased took her children to school and returned home. By ten o’clock she was dead. Simon arrived at the house that morning, either in good time to kill her (the prosecution case), or very shortly after she was strangled by her new boyfriend (which seems likely to be the defence case). Unlike the coolly clinical prosecution counsel Max Hill QC – who confusingly bears more than a passing resemblance to the TV comedian Harry Hill (another good argument for wigs) – I haven’t quite got the timings worked out yet, but they don’t seem at all helpful to Simon’s case.

Harry
Max

 

 

 

 

We saw some of Max Hill’s opening and it was a fine example of letting the facts speak for themselves. Hill … spoke … very … very … slowly and the demands of the advertisers meant that we barely had time for a sentence before it was time for a commercial break; but what a sentence it was. The detail about the poor woman’s neck being “squeezed … so … hard … that … some … veins … in … her … face … burst,” was enough. The warm and affable defence counsel John Ryder QC observed that as a defendant “you always start a goal or two down.” That little detail about the veins – uncontroversial though it turned out to be – was another ball striking the back of the net within seconds of kick-off.

Nevertheless Ryder is certainly not going to roll over and concede defeat. I think there may be something in the latest version of the Criminal Procedure Rules which says it’s the job of defence counsel to bang his client’s head against the wall until he decides to plead guilty, but to his credit Ryder did not do that. Indeed, he has given every indication in his discussions with Simon that he believes everything he says. There were difficulties, he noted to his junior as they tucked into an authentically nasty-looking lunch in the bar mess (a rare example of dramatic licence as there are precious few courts left where any sort of lunch would be available in real life), but if there were no difficulties he wouldn’t be on trial anyway. He hasn’t had much cross-examination to get his teeth into yet, but he did a good job of neutralising the evidence of a police woman who found Simon’s unemotional behaviour shortly after his wife’s death suspicious.

Judge Barker, has so far said even less than Simon. That would demonstrate (if we didn’t already know it) that he is probably a very good judge; the ability to keep your mouth shut ranks right at the top of judicial virtues. I am not quite so sure about his apparent liking for a break every five minutes. I was reminded of Private Godfrey and his weak bladder, though I suspect the editing might have given a rather misleading impression.

There are no doubt many twists to come. Will Ryder be able to paint the boy-friend as a plausible killer? We know already that he once shouted “fuck” at the children, and that he wasn’t particularly friendly with the neighbours, but he’ll need a bit more than that before the jury think he could be a killer.

How will the jury react to Simon’s “no comment” interview? One of them has already announced that “no comment implies guilt,” a false but dangerous myth that Ryder will obviously need to work hard to rebut. A particularly stupid-seeming juror has assured his colleagues that he can “always spot a liar.” Apparently their body language gives them away. Let’s hope the the other jurors ignore him.

Will Ryder call the eldest daughter as a character witness? We have already seen her heartfelt and tear-jerking assessment of her dad as someone who would not be capable of killing her mum. Will the jury be influenced by that, or will they be horrified if the defence drag her into the arena?

For my part I am impatient to see the jury deliberation. It is the most important part of a trial, yet it is one that barristers can never see (unless of course they are lucky enough to serve as jurors, which can happen these days).

Judging by the first episode The Trial is television at its best: dramatic, informative and compelling viewing. It’s just a shame about all the ad-breaks.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

17 thoughts on “The Trial: Television at its best”

  1. “His gloomy demeanour is completely understandable. He is accused of strangling his estranged-wife.”

    Nobody will believe his story about the one-armed man, but it’ll make for a great second series…

  2. Obviously anyone who has served on a jury can’t discuss it, except in very general terms, and I don’t propose to do so. However having been there, I am really not so sure how realistic this TV jury is. The ones I served on were much more scrupulous about restricting their comments to the evidence presented in court, and much more reluctant to speculate, or descend into generalities.

    The “jury” here are in a very different situation to a real one, partly because the defendant’s future isn’t really in the balance, and partly because their views are being heard by millions, whereas real jurors are reluctant even to discuss what has been said with their nearest and dearest. Also, whereas the barristers in the case have experience of being barristers, and thus know what is realistic and what isn’t, the jurors may not have any prior experience of being jurors. I suspect that this is distorting the picture being presented, and it is possibly a bit of a shame, because it doesn’t give a fair picture of the rigour with which juries actually judge evidence, and stick to the rules that the judge gives them about what they can say – and under what circumstances they can say them – in the jury room.

      1. Thanks for both of your comments. Having seen the second episode I think this jury contains quite a good mix. I’m not quite clear how they were selected though. I do allow links unless they look dodgy & I trust Moor!

        1. Thanks. I do my best. The other angle to this, that DavidS highlights, is the TV Company presenting “Edits” that suit them. Recall commentary about Big Brother in it’s prime that the “highlights” shows often created a whole different perspective of the situation, in order to make it seem “exciting”. I have already seen commentary disparaging the “jury system” on the basis of what has been viewed. It’s easy to see how an editing team could pursue their own agenda in this regard. The court-room process is easily vouched for by professional lawyers, but this blog could serve a useful place for “ex-Jurors” to challenge the narrative.

          1. I would be delighted for the views of any ex-jurors. I once received a summons to do jury service at the Old Bailey but in those days barristers were banned. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to jury service. Nowadays of course you get all sorts: lawyers, judges, vicars, police, you name it.

          2. “The other angle to this, that DavidS highlights, is the TV Company presenting ‘Edits’ that suit them.”

            That’s a perfectly good point, and I would have been glad to have made it, but it wasn’t really what I was trying to say. My point was more that this TV jury’s deliberations are very public, whereas a real jury’s deliberations are very private, and that would have an affect on what they say (even if it were not edited). Another way in which the TV company are skewing things is by encouraging the jurors to deliver little biographical snippets to camera. I suspect that this will encourage them to view the case through the lens of their own experiences, whereas a real juror would (I hope) deliberately avoid it.

            If your jury experience was anything like mine, I suspect that the early days of the trial would have made rather boring TV. We were all conscious of the fact that we had only heard part of the evidence, and so tended to hold off from discussing it.

            The one thing that did resonate a bit, was the conviction that some of the TV jurors had that they could draw inferences from the “body language” of the defendant or the witnesses. I deliberately tried to avoid looking at witnesses or defendants, out of a conviction (I think backed up by psychological evidence) that “body language” is largely woo, but I don’t think this attitude was shared by my fellow jurors.

          3. “If your jury experience was anything like mine, I suspect that the early days of the trial would have made rather boring TV. We were all conscious of the fact that we had only heard part of the evidence, and so tended to hold off from discussing it.”

            Absolutely concur.

  3. An interesting overview. Small point: are you suffering from a mild case of hyperhyphenosis?

    Court-room. Estranged-wife. Boy-friend. Ad-break.

  4. My wife was once summoned for jury service at the Bailey. She had been living in Scotland for years.

    She wondered whether she could vote “not proven”.

  5. I don’t understand why the defence is so keen to limit the potential culprits to the two men they know about – Simon, the victim’s husband, and Lewis, her lover. Even if you assume, as the defence seem to, that she must have been killed by someone she knows, this would not restrict the possibilities as much as they seem to think, because we don’t know who she knows. What we do know is that she was, at various points, sleeping with Lewis behind Simon’s back, and with Simon behind Lewis’s back, that she has had other affairs (the builder who gave evidence for example) that neither Simon nor Lewis knew about, and that she had often been out all night without anyone being really sure where she had been. Why do the defence not raise the possibility of her being killed by some third, unknown party?

  6. I just watched the last episode and, without giving the end away, I can report that the shark has been comprehensively jumped! The makers of the series decided to put in an epilogue in which they reveal what “really” happened, and then listed the juror’s verdicts, with an implication that some were “right” and some were “wrong”.

    Obviously I don’t want to be responsible for any spoilers, but without any such risk I can reveal that, as in many such cases, the victim was killed by a current or former partner. The fact that this is *not* a spoiler has a significance that appears to have been completely lost on the makers of the programme.

    The last episode turned what could have been an informative dramatisation of the judicial process into something that bordered on the irresponsible, because jurors in real cases are bound to be swayed, as we all are, by what they see on television and what they read in books. I assume that the barristers, judges, and other professionals who played themselves in the series knew that there would be such an epilogue and, on that assumption, I think their decisions to take part are a little questionable.

  7. WHO WAS WATCHING THE TRIAL?
    I made a note of the following adverts screened on the 3rd episode, (so may include audience survey infor from ep 1 &2)
    This is what the C4 sellers and business advertisers thought the audience would be. Sponsor was Mitsubishi SUV:

    Last seconds before opening credits we had a promo to entice us to watch Holly Oaks, with dramtic scenes and tears revolving around a motorcycle crash. (D/E audience sectors – but maybe students?)

    First commercial:
    EE mobile network (or it could have been for Apple?) – incomprehensible for average, middle age intelligent person to understand who is selling what

    Nuffield Heath Hospitals (private insurance hook for oldies?)

    M&S Dine in for Two for £10 offer

    Renault Megane – presented as ideal car for retirees

    Amex Cards – emphasis on protection suite from fraudsters (oldie vote?)

    Compare the Market – a comparison site but generally incomprehensible for average, middle age intelligent person to understand who is selling what

    TSB Banks

    promo for C4 “yoof” “mouthy” like show called Grace & Perm (sp?)

    CONCLUSION: Over 55 years old, better safe than sorry, comfortable mock tudor-ish, but odd “yoof” demotic hooks for Holly Oaks and Grace & Perm

    SECOND COMMERCIAL BREAK:

    Skoda cars – midlands family, common sense choice, practical for first baby

    Samsung – glorious over the top budget 1980s Fortune 100 company stuff, ostrich accidently wears a virtual reality headset and runs round confused, glossy / ironic for middle age world

    Morrisons – Art director’s, primary colour feast / bright colour semi detached garden, selling burgers, BBQ delicious looking burger on grill is the clay model used for photo shoots – demotic, Tony Blair land

    Kelloggs Cornflakes – more demotic angle, family shots, again bright primary colours, angelic kids smiling with white teeth, morning sunshine, but also with the well known hook all cereal marketing folk know (but deny) that half the cereals market is for midnight students doing their exams (minimal preparation/minimal washing up), so some quirky irony is thrown in for them

    Walker Crisps – a house bound working mum, busy, shades of A-C demographic, goes mad, needs Walker Crisps

    BT Broadband – an American in an English stately home, needs broadband, then final irony behind the scenes shooting it is all a spoof (not sure what the message is?)

    C4 promo for Handmaid’s Tale, series with gothic-hy, dark, sinister lighting, spooky stuff

    CONCLUSION: students (law) & graduated on first job age late 20s, maybe taking some tips to work the show into their exam answers?

    THIRD COMMERCIAL BREAK:

    Lloyds Bank – mortgages, you-can-trust-us stuff (too big to fail etc), prime locations, estate agents now online – angling for 30 something first time buyers / buy-to-let busy folks

    Eterfy.com – internet food delivery service – busy young workers

    Sensodyne – Enamel Pro toothpaste (acid from wine on teeth market) – more Sainsburys and Waitrose than Poundland

    Weetabix – protein edition, unlike Kelloggs above more narrowly focused on the know-but-deny secret use of cereals for midnight exam students (no pretence it is for photogenic children in a clean kitchen in the morning)

    Freeview – jingly / jangly noises and loud shouting in your face stating now 70 channels are free (who is this directed at?)

    Renault Megane – again but this time focused on youth market, set around a pop concert and only £199 /month – young working singleton/couples

    Caffiene Shampoo for men- interesting link to protien Weetabix, more male young targetting

    Samsung – again, but this time the “ostrich” abstract art director has been fired and now more defined student target, MC concert, multi-ethnic, focused on new Galaxy S8 (salesmen have taken a grip on the marketing dept)

    Morrison’s – again, this time flogging their champagne offers (with 80p burgers back to the social night at home with friends paying off mortgage types?)

    C4 Promo for 8 Out of 10 Cats – funky, quirky, comic show “yoof” plus audience

    CONCLUSION: for the post grads too busy for the minutiae of daily life, male centered

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