Bringing UK real life courtroom drama to TV screens
Two-hour documentary ‘The Murder Trial’ will be shown on Channel 4
A murder trial in a British courtroom is to be shown on television. Six cameras were placed in an Edinburgh courtroom for six weeks last year, capturing the trial of Nat Fraser, accused of the murder in 1998 of his wife Arlene.
The two-hour documentary, The Murder Trial will be shown on Channel 4 on Tuesday, a culmination of a production process that begun in 2009 when Windmill Films began negotiations with the Scottish High Court for permission to film.
The Scottish legal system is unique in Britain in that filming for educational purposes is permitted once the consent of the trial judge and, subsequently, of all participants is gained.
Fraser’s case is something of a cause celèbre in Scotland. The fruit and vegetable seller was first brought to trial in 2003 for the murder of his wife and mother of their two children. Her body has never been found, nor has a crime scene been identified and Fraser has protested his innocence throughout. So in many ways this is stuff of any number of drama police procedurals, the staple of the TV schedule.
Fraser was found guilty in that first trial but the conviction was subsequently quashed in 2011 after he successfully challenged the verdict, arguing it was a miscarriage of justice.
In April 2012, Fraser was sent back to the High Court in Edinburgh and it is this trial that was filmed. During the six weeks, 70 witnesses and 104 pieces of evidence were dissected by prosecution QC Alex Prentice and John Scott QC, defending.
The six cameras are operated remotely – similar to the technique so successfully applied to Channel 4’s other very real reality shows, 24 hours in A&E and One Born Every Minute. These capture birth, the aftermath of death and everything in between with the subjects, whether it’s a labouring mother, a distressed family or a patient in extreme pain, appearing to be behaving completely naturally and unaware of the cameras.
Nick Holt, director of The Murder Trial, has said that “it is like going into Sainsbury’s where you are being filmed by CCTV. It doesn’t affect how you behave when you are in Sainsbury’s” .
Just as in those other reality programmes, context is given for the courtroom events. The Fraser family back story, complete with home movies, is shown. There are interviews with court staff, the victim’s parents and friends, as well as Fraser’s daughter who believes in her father’s innocence. Fraser did not give evidence in the trial and the jury is not shown on camera.
This is, according to Channel 4, only the second time in Britain cameras have been allowed to film a murder trial – and as such it’s newsworthy, though it’s not quite the live action courtroom filming that’s a staple of American TV.
The broadcast phenomenon – and ratings potential – first grabbed international attention with the unfolding drama in the 1994 OJ Simpson trial. After eight months of saturation coverage, even the judge Lance Ito and attorneys Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran were as recognisable as the football-star-turned- actor in the dock.
Even though the process of filming The Murder Trial was long, expensive and uncertain – permission had to be agreed after filming with all participants – Channel 4 has said it hopes to do further court documentaries in the interest of opening up the legal system to greater public understanding. While day-to-day courtroom business is taken up with mundane cases and lengthy legal argument and even longer judicial pronouncements, that’ s unlikely to be the stuff that makes in on to screen – even if it ever were to be permitted.
However, legal affairs commentator Carol Coulter says “it’s a worrying encroachment of reality TV into what is an extremely serious process”, adding that she would be concerned, particularly on the repercussions for witnesses.
Channel 4 ends its publicity bumph noting that a new jury was sworn in for the trial ending with: “Would they find him innocent or convict him of murder?”. It’s the sort of line that could easily end the content description of any number of glossy courtroom dramas from The Good Wife to Suits.