17:28, May 21 403 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-21 17:28:02
Last night's TV  The Trial: A Murder in the Family review – an intriguing courtroom experiment

A man sits in court, accused of murder. Simon Davis, a university lecturer, strangled his estranged wife in the family home, the prosecution maintains. They – the lead prosecutor, Max Hill QC, and his team – are real. As are the lead defence barrister, John Ryder QC, and his lot. The courtroom is a real one (albeit decommissioned), in Newbury, Berkshire. Likewise the judge, Hon Brian Barker QC.

But the defendant, Davis, is played by an actor (Michael Gould). As are the witnesses. And the case is fictional: a made up case, tried in a real court. I’m not usually a fan of documentary-drama hybrids but The Trial: A Murder in the Family (Channel 4), which started today (Sunday) and runs daily until Thursday, is an intriguing experiment.

The case is a good one, with loads of emotional appeal, twists, another man, possibly another suspect, an unborn child, now never to be born. It would stand up on its own as a drama. Ryder understands the fascination with murder. “It is the absolute end for someone,” he says. “A completely unique individual, a unique sensibility exists no more, and another human being is charged with having done that.”

Ryder is good value – posh, confident, eloquent, how you would expect and want a TV QC to be, a slick silk. He does little to dispel the idea that it is all just a big game for them. “You have to start from the position that you’re a goal or two down,” he says about defending in general.

Hill, now Britain’s new terror watchdog incidentally, which doesn’t surprise me, is quieter but seems to be dangerously effective; you wouldn’t want him trying to prove your guilt.

As for Judge Barker, well, he hasn’t said or done much yet, except to suggest breaks. “Let’s break for lunch!” “Shall we have a break?” “Yes, we’ll have a break now, members of the jury.” “I think we’ll have have short break …” Quite a fan of the break, aren’t you, Your Honour?

Anyway, between them, they bring legal authenticity, authority and wiggy rigour to the story, which is already a good one. A light is shone on to the inner workings of the legal system, and not just in the courtroom, but in the barristers’ offices and in the jury deliberation room, too.

The jurors – are real as well – randomly selected we are told. I would like to have been told a little more about the jury selection process. Obviously, there was no obligation, no summons, so these people must be happy to be here, for whatever reason – maybe an interest in the law, perhaps a desire to be on TV. Regardless, they are switched on and motivated. And it shows.

I did jury service quite recently and the experience left me, weirdly, both a little bit appalled but also reassured. Appalled at the lack of engagement by some of my fellow jurors, the lack of understanding of some of the things they were being asked to consider, and the baggage they were bringing to the table. One woman wanted to acquit the defendant on the basis that she had never liked the police. And the reason she came round was not because she had been persuaded, but because she wanted to get out for a fag. And that was – I thought – a relatively straightforward case; what happens in a long and fiendish one? But I think we reached the right verdict, in that one and in the two others on which I sat. So, it probably does mostly work.

I have more faith in this jury. There are a few hunches being had, a bit of looking into the defendant’s eyes, for clues. But most are taking it seriously, and doing it properly, studying the evidence. Already some interesting things have come up. Such as the juror who thinks that one witness, because she is a woman, will be have preconceptions about a domestic violence crime. And another who thinks that the defendant’s repeated reply of “no comment” at his initial police interview implies guilt. That’s what Davis, was worried about at the time: that saying “no comment” after “no comment” would make it look as if he did it. But still, that’s what the lawyer advised. Maybe they can learn something from this, too.

Anyway, it is all utterly absorbing, and we are still a long way off the big deliberation in the jury room. I’ve no idea what the verdict will be, but I think they will get it right. I know I will be there to witness it.