Simon Davis is a university lecturer and an estranged husband to Carla Davis, who has been murdered. Strangled to death in her home, Simon is the main suspect in her death, with a jury of 12 set to decide his innocence or guilt. If that sounds like the beginnings of a typical true crime documentary, there’s one twist to Channel 4’s five-part series, The Trial, that makes it different from the rest: Simon Davis does not exist.
Played by Michael Gould, Simon is the centre of a case that is entirely fictional: all the evidence, details, people and motivations are made up. The courtroom, though, is real, from the barristers and judge to the jury, which comprises 12 members of the public. It’s there that the programme places its real focus, offering an eye-opening insight into the workings and processes of a criminal murder trial – and the difficult deliberating process that the jurors must go through.
It’s a intriguing premise for a series, which Channel 4 meted out night after night for most of a week – and the end result more than delivers on that promise. The trial itself is a twisting, turning affair that keeps your attention hooked and your certainties shifting – over the course of several episodes, we move from the apparent anger lying underneath Simon’s calm surface, which has led to violent outbursts in the past, to the introduction of Carla’s boyfriend, Lewis. Did Simon snap after being pushed one step too far? Why can’t Lewis explain his whereabouts at the time of Carla’s murder?
Our sympathies are toyed with expertly by the barristers on both side of the court, with half of the fun coming from just watching the silky smooth John Ryder QC in action as Simon’s defence. Alongside junior barrister Lucy Organ, they make for the kind of double-act that TV dramas – and, now, TV documentaries – are made for. Both have presumably watched Making a Murderer, but both are also unafraid to explain for the camera exactly how they go about planning their strategy, guiding their client on the importance of saying little and appearing the right way.
Director Nick Holt (who also made The Murder Trial in 2013) and co-director Kath Mattock dive between the convincing court dynamics and the behind-the-scenes-style observations with just the right balance of pace and patience – something that manages to offset the occasional lag in suspense caused by the not-always-brilliant flashbacks to the events in question. All these interruptions do is serve to mislead us (or not), teasing new possibilities and revelations that take us out of the reality of the courtroom and remind us that this is, in part, fictional.
If that’s the show’s weakness, though, its finale more than hammers home the horrifying truth about just how common domestic violence is today, with two women murdered each week in England and Wales by a partner or former partner. Watching the jury discuss the case in a closed room, an environment where such statistics loom even larger, has all the weight and unspoken tension of 12 Angry Men – an important reminder that the legal justice system runs its course day after day over such cases without most of us considering it.
Some jurors draw on real life experiences to inform their judgements – one explains that they were abused as a child, then goes on to talk about their sixth sense about other people and their ability to glean the truth from gut instinct alone, while another recants the shock of discovering that a former co-worker had been killed by their husband, despite him never seeming capable of doing so. There’s a visible bias in the way that people try to make up their mind, something that is made even more compelling by the fact that they are all striving to be as objective as possible. The case’s truth via a closing flashback nearly undoes the work that goes before, thanks to its protracted length and almost cheesy dramatics – you almost wish they never told us, instead restricting us to the point of view that the jury would have, relying solely on their insightful vox pop interviews. But the understated believability of the trial in action (compared to, say, Broadchurch Season 2), and the surprising final reveal of how strikingly different each juror voted, has its own powerful story to tell about the way we each perceive domestic violence. Order in the living room: there’s a lot to unpack here.
Available until: 24th June 2017