TV blog: The Trial

Benjie Goodhart / 18 May 2017

A five-night exploration of the British legal system is unexpectedly compelling viewing. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.

The Trial: A Murder in the Family, Sunday 21st May, 9pm, Channel 4

I’ve been binge-watching a US legal drama, The Good Wife, on Netflix recently. It’s tremendously good, but I’m not sure how true to life it is. Are all major trials in America fought by exceptionally good-looking lawyers who leap to their feet every few seconds and passionately yell “Objection, Your Honour: Badgering the witness,” before smouldering a little as the camera comes in for a close up? Maybe that’s exactly what it’s like, but in the UK, it’s more likely to be a bored barrister with halitosis defending a teenager who nicked a bottle of Thunderbird and some Jaffa Cakes from Budgens.

The courtroom is not a theatre of high drama. Nobody shouts, or breaks a witness, or saves an innocent defendant thanks to the power of their soaring rhetoric. Instead, it’s a place where people in daft wigs and cloaks delve into facts in painstaking detail.

On the face of it, then, Channel 4’s new factual series, stripped across the next five nights, isn’t destined to be classic TV. The concept sees a (fictional) case tried in a real court, with a real judge, real lawyers, and a real jury. The defendant, and some of the witnesses, are actors, but everyone else is real. Simon Davis, a middle-aged university lecturer, is accused of killing his estranged wife. As the lawyers battle the case, the jurors must wrestle with the facts, and each other, to reach a decision.

Ostensibly, this sounds like a shocking idea. Legal dramas are watchable precisely because they represent a heightened version of reality, with more drama, intrigue, emotion and passion. Real life legal trials are riveting because they are so significant – because they are real. This series would seem to embody all the unexceptional realism of true life with the lack of gravitas of a fictional drama. In other words, the worst of both worlds.

Certainly, this isn’t high-octane, rocket-propelled, seat-of-your-pants, adrenaline-filled, rapid-fire action. Instead, there is something of real value here. This is intriguing television, a fascinating look at the legal process, and at how juries reach a verdict. After a gradually diverting first episode, the case becomes increasingly compelling, and viewers can expect their commitment across the week to be rewarded in spades. It turns out you don’t need gorgeous American superstars with perfect teeth and a dramatic flourish to make a good courtroom drama, you just need a good narrative, well told.

Broken, Tuesday 23rd May, 9pm, BBC One

Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) is a Catholic priest in an urban parish. Which parish in which city, we’re never told, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say it’s not Kensington. I mean, for a start, everyone’s northern, which is something of a clue. But also the houses all look a bit run down, the cars all look ready for scrap, everyone is totally skint, and people are fighting down at the bookies. And that’s just the employees. It’s grim, all right.

Mind you, this is the new six-part drama from Jimmy McGovern, so what do you expect? McGovern is like the Ken Loach of the small screen. Not for him the high-end, flashy drama set in glass-and-chrome penthouse apartments overlooking Paris or New York. You’d be more likely to get Arthur Ransome writing about crack dealers in The Bronx.

Christina Fitzsimmons (Anna Friel) is more skint than most. A single mum with three kids to support, and earning a scrap over the minimum wage, just getting through the week in the black is a Herculean task. Her life is a constant struggle, almost impossibly hard. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

But it’s okay. Here’s good old Father Kerrigan. He’ll cheer us up a bit, with his unshakeable belief and his faith in human nature. Only that would be the same Father Kerrigan who regularly undergoes flashbacks to a brutal and traumatic childhood. The same Father Kerrigan who has a deeply complicated relationship with his mother. A mother who just happens to be dying.

Jeepers, Jimmy! Chuck in a bit of light with all the shade, why don’t you? We’re not expecting the Chuckle Brothers to pop up on the next street corner, but maybe just show someone smiling every now and again!

Mind you, we don’t come to Jimmy McGovern for knockabout fun. We come for serious, thought-provoking, eye-opening and sobering drama, told in a gripping, gritty and realistic manner. And we’ve got that here all right. It might be light on giggles, but this is characteristically punchy stuff. It offers a vivid illustration of how people can fall through the cracks of society, and how bureaucracy, recession, and a couple of bad decisions can ruin lives.

Bean is excellent (when is he ever not) and Friel’s performance is riveting. But this is McGovern’s show, filled not just with his frustration and rage, but his humanity and his nose for seriously compelling drama.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 21st May

Flat Pack Mansions, 7pm, Channel 4: Documentary covering the growing phenomenon of people building huge, luxury homes from prefabricated, flat-pack kits. Blenheim Palace this ain’t.

Cabins in the Wild with Dick Strawbridge 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: TV’s most impressive moustache travels to Wales to see eight teams transform cabins into spectacular, luxury tourist accommodation.

Inspector George Gently 1/2, 8pm, ITV: Martin Shaw takes the trusty inspector out of the box for two final cases, concentrating tonight on correcting a miscarriage of justice.

Monday 22nd May

RHS Chelsea Flower Show, BBC One and Two, throughout the week: At the time of writing, the exact transmission details are to be determined. Suffice to say, there will be a lot of it. If agapanthus, fritillaries and herbaceous borders are your thing, get in a good supply of non-perishable foods and plump up the cushions.

The Andrew Neil Interviews 1/6, 7pm, BBC One: Did you hear? Apparently there’s an election on. The veteran journalist’s new series will see him interview the party leaders in Britain, starting tonight with the leader of a little-known outfit called the Conservative Party.

The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: Another documentary about Crossrail.

Prince Philip: 70 Years of Service, 9pm, ITV: The recent announcement by the Palace that the D of E is to step down from public duties sees ITV racing out of the gates with Alan Titchmarsh’s tribute to the great man. Not many of us, after all, expect to work up until our mid-90s.

Tuesday 23rd May

Secrets of Our Favourite Snacks, 8pm, Channel 4: We’re told never to meet our heroes, lest they disappoint us. I would advise not watching a programme that promises to tell us what goes into our favourite snacks. Ignorance is bliss – and so is a nicely salted crisp.

Horizon, 9pm, BBC Two: Looking at volcanoes on other planets.

Wednesday 24th May

The Met: Policing London, 9pm, BBC One: Hurrah. The 6000th police documentary series of the millennium is upon us.

White Gold, 10pm, BBC Two: New comedy series set in a double-glazing showroom in 1980s Essex.

Thursday 24th May

Paula 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: New thriller about a teacher (Denise Gough) whose messy life gets a whole lot messier thanks to a one-night-stand and a missing boyfriend.

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