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.
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.