TV review: Time to let Luas after two hours of a gripping, real-life murder trial

A courtroom documentary about a man appealing his conviction for killing his wife was compelling viewing

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 06:00

The filming of a real murder trial in Scotland brought with it the clear and obvious danger that the resulting documentary The Murder Trial (Channel 4, Tuesday) could easily have slipped down the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding route. It’s reality TV, and it’s groundbreaking. The cameras were let into the Edinburgh courtroom for the six-week trial in 2012 – in English or indeed Irish courts they’re not allowed in at all. It could have been trashy, exploitative and sensationalist but it wasn’t. Instead, it was measured, educational about how a real court works, and gripping, which for any two-hour documentary is rare enough.

The case concerned the murder in 1998 of Arlene Fraser. Her husband Nat was convicted and served time and this trial was his appeal. There was no body, no forensic evidence and her husband had an alibi. He looked sure of himself in the dock, smiling, taking notes and he didn’t give evidence so we never heard him speak. The jury weren’t shown but the witnesses were and viewers at home on the sofa became a second jury, weighing up statements and trying to unpick evidence.

Fraser’s daughter, five at the time of the murder and with no recollection of her mum, is convinced that her dad’s friend, a farmer called Hector Dick, did it. And he’s a curious character, red-faced and shifty looking, contradicting earlier statements but adamant that Nat told him Arlene was dead, she’d never be found, and that her teeth were ground up so she couldn’t be identified.

In one of the few startling moments, the defence QC came right out and accused Dick of the murder. Us sofa jurors scribbled furiously when farmer Dick admitted burning out a car days after her disappearance and agreeing he had a rendering plant on his farm which can reduce animal carcasses to dust. Director Nick Holt did a superb job cutting down six weeks of a trial to two hours of TV but also of making sure that the victim was a real presence, with the use of home movies and interviews with her parents and sister.

The summing-up by the defence and prosecuting QCs were quiet, methodical and without any theatrical flourishes – nothing like the typical TV courtroom drama. I won’t say if Nat was convicted – many won’t have wanted to spend a fabulous summer evening indoors and will have recorded it for later – but I wasn’t surprised at the verdict. Channel 4 has said it wants to film more trials – this one took three years of pre-production negotiation. This would be fine if they have the thoughtful integrity of The Murder Trial.

Because it’s summer and viewers are supposed to like this sort of thing, the inevitable series involving RTÉ people doing something different kicked off this week. This year it’s Great Irish Journeys (RTÉ One, Sunday) – an interesting idea – whereby each week Gráinne Seoige, Evelyn O’Rourke, John Creedon and Dáithí Ó Sé tell the story of a famous historical journey.

Seoige broadly followed the route taken by Thomas Carlyle and Charles Gavan Duffy in 1849, from Dublin to the west. Newspaper man and nationalist Duffy commissioned the famous Scottish writer Carlyle to come on a road trip with him to document the suffering of the Famine-stricken Irish. But the Victorian Calvinist was famously unsympathetic to the starvation and destitution he saw at every stop, writing scathingly about the Irish Famine victims, “the undeserving poor”, and reckoning that, if they weren’t so lazy and worked harder they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this predicament. “In Kildare, one of the wretchedest wild villages I ever saw ... with beggars everywhere, like winged harpies,” he wrote.

This was an accessible way to tell a part of the Famine story and bring it to life. Seoige talked to passionate and knowledgeable historians and archivists and, as usual in these popular history shows, they could be the stars if they were let off the leash a little. As the presenter, Seoige may have been interested in all she saw. It’s always hard to tell, though, as she has the same dead-pan tone of voice and facial expression, whether she’s talking about a mass grave of famine victims or introducing a Bonnie Tyler wannabe in The All Ireland Talent Show. That’s either massively disconcerting or utterly professional depending on your point of view – either way, it creates a chilly distance.

Still, though, this great Irish journey had me thumbing through a couple of history books to find out more about Duffy and Carlyle – a TV history show should pique your interest in finding out more, and this one did.

“People read the newspapers on their pad on the Green line, they read the floor on the Red line,” said a cool-looking commuter (Luas: A Tale of Two Trams, RTÉ One, Tuesday) who uses both lines every day to get from one side of the city to the other. The very definition of a lack of joined-up thinking means he has to walk 15 minutes through the city centre to get from one line to the other, but this well-made film didn’t dwell on that planning fiasco, moving swiftly on to the 24-hour-a-day business of keeping the trams on the tracks.

On the Red line, he says, he stands facing the door, sleeves rolled up with his tattoos on show, to look a bit hard. On the Green line, which goes through Dublin’s more affluent suburbs, he relaxes.

This sharp-looking and very smartly edited film highlighted the difference between the two lines, mostly by talking to the drivers, tickets inspectors and fearsome-looking security people. All agreed that the Red line was more dangerous. Last year 1,000 “incidents” were recorded, such as robberies, anti-social behaviour and the like, and three-quarters of them were on the Red line, which links the city centre with Dublin’s sprawling westside.

The documentary captured many aspects of contemporary Irish life, not all of it something to make you beam with pride, particular the cretinous racism. Black ticket inspectors get it worst. One after another they told stories of being called “monkey” or told to go back to “their own country”. An Indian female inspector said she is regularly called a “Paki”. The documentary spent a disproportionate amount of time with a recovering heroin addict who rides the Red line with his free travel pass for something to do. The suggestion was that he was a typical passenger on that line, which can’t be true.

As a slice of live documentary though, this was a good journey to go on.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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