True Crime Tuesdays: Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming
Hubris of the accused8
Memorial to a forgotten life8
Helen Archer | On 21, Jan 2020
Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
Director Matt Pinder’s previous work for BBC Scotland includes Murder Case: The Disappearance of Julie Reilly, a boldly sombre documentary which got underneath some grisly headlines to focus on the grief of a murder victim’s family, with remarkable access to the police and the work they do. Now, that access has been granted by the court system – and it’s something of a landmark for true crime programming, it being the first time cameras have been allowed inside the Scottish high court to film a murder case.
This two-parter tells the desperately sad story of Margaret Fleming, who, by the time she finally became an official missing person in 2016, had not been seen in 17 years – since she was 19 years old. A vulnerable young woman with learning difficulties, she had been put in the care of Edward Cairney and Avril Jones, who find themselves in the dock on the charge of murder – even though Margaret’s body has never been found.
One of the few missteps in this riveting documentary occurs right at the beginning, as sweeping shots of the glorious scenery take us to Seacroft, the waterside home of Jones and Cairney, to the score of Whispering Grass by the Ink Spots. The juxtaposition of the idyllic nature of the setting with the darkness at its heart is reminiscent of the opening of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but here, it comes off as glib and jars with the tone of the rest of the programme.
What follows is a film so quietly paced it almost echoes the shock of the community at finding out someone could so thoroughly slip through the cracks as to not be missed for almost two decades. In the courtroom, and in the interviews intercut with the proceedings, a picture of Margaret emerges in a way it didn’t throughout the reporting of the case, thanks in part to the very few pictures that exist of her. Here, she is humanised by the memories of her teachers and former classmates. They paint a picture of a happy, well-looked-after, but vulnerable girl, who loved singing and whose “smile lit up her whole face” – someone who would occasionally come to the support teacher’s office in need of a cuddle.
Her childhood friend John likens her to Lennie from Of Mice and Men: “Very, very easy to take advantage of – far too kind, gentle and loving”. Some of the hell she must have suffered after her beloved father died and she moved from Port Glasgow the run-down Seacroft in Inverkip is hinted at here, mainly through police interviews with the accused, and in the ill-advised testimony of Cairney himself. When police first visited, he claimed that they had just missed Margaret, and that she had left via a back door on their arrival, although no signs of her living at the house were found – the bed in which she was meant to be sleeping was covered in a layer of dust. On returning to the house with the camera crew for this documentary, a policeman who initially attended finds a small drawing of a stick figure on the wall, the word ‘help’ next to it. Though they can’t tell when it was drawn – before or after Margaret had disappeared – it’s an eerie sight, as is the photograph of Avril Jones in which Margaret is captured in the background like an apparition. Other photos recovered from the house show her unrecognisable from her schooldays, with apparent dramatic weight loss and her hair shorn to look like Cairney.
The scorn with which Cairney saw Margaret is evident in an interview he gave to a BBC reporter, who is called as witness in the trial, in which Cairney claimed that she had become a gangmaster. Asked to describe her, he says “she was short, fat, and dirty”. At this point still a missing person, Avril Jones is asked a generic question: “If she’s watching, what would you say?” Jones is silent, with a stunned, blank look on her face, which would be replicated in both police interviews and in the dock. Jones had filled out a claim for Personal Independence Payment – which ultimately brought the police to their door – in which she described Margaret as eating out of the dog’s bowl, and making ‘jam sandwiches’ using her own menstrual blood. In court, Cairney admits to duct-taping cardboard tubes to her arms at night to stop her self-harming.
Though the couple attempted to cover their tracks – writing a letter allegedly from Margaret on the stationary of the London hotel they themselves stayed in – they are ueventually undone by their own hubris. Towards the end of the documentary, Cairney takes the stand, only to contradict himself, calling the prosecutor a “clown” before telling him “away and bile yer heid”.
What ultimately happened to Margaret, we may never know. Hopefully, the upcoming inquiry into the agencies who were meant to look out for her will shed some light on their failings. As one of her primary schoolfriend says: “How sad is that – that a life’s just disappeared, and nobody’s missed her.” More than anything, this documentary succeeds in memorialising Margaret Fleming, and restores some of the humanity stripped from her by the very people who were meant to care for her.
Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming is available on BBC iPlayer until 7th February 2020