Michael Collins' Television Review
Thursday 19 August 1999
On the surface, the British courtroom cries out for a camera. It has the costumes, the wigs, and the cut-glass accents of the sort of BBC period drama that has earned the corporation many a BAFTA award. What it lacks are the performances and histrionics of its Stateside equivalent.
Trial by Jury is the closest that British television comes to depicting real courtroom trials on screen. The judge and the barristers are bona fide, the witnesses and defendants are actors, the jury are members of the public, and the law, as always, is potentially an ass. Although the crime was also fictitious, the race theme inherent in this particular story chimed with aspects of the Stephen Lawrence case. Mansfield represented the Lawrence family at the recent inquiry into their son's death. Here the victim, Dean Smith, was Caucasian, and the defendant, Taz Khan, Asian. As the concept of a white victim of a race crime is something relatively alien to the media, there was naturally a twist in the tale. Khan was accused of kidnapping Smith and causing him grievous bodily harm. The latter had been found unconscious in the road having fallen or been pushed from Khan's van. "You don't like Pakis, do you?" asked Mansfield, while cross-examining Smith's white mate, John Kemp. With class and education on his side, the defence repeated the gruff replies of dropped aitches, as though these were confirmation of Smith and Kemp's own guilt. These two characters were drafted from the same school of racial stereotyping that once put Jolson on film and minstrels on jam jars: white, working class, curry- eating, BNP supporters.
Oliver Sells QC, appearing for the prosecution, based his case on the assumption that Khan had taken the law into his own hands. He sought revenge after the white boy had made his family the target of a race-hate campaign. The programme concluded with Khan being found not guilty on both counts.
This series was not the forum to examine the subjects of race, crime and vigilantes, and so these became incidental. Therefore all it succeeded in doing was convincingly depicting the longueurs in a British courtroom, that make it a far from televisual prospect. This whole project could have been condensed into 30 minutes and, like the Seventies series Crown Court, pushed on screen in the afternoon. The performances of the actors and barristers involved were more than adequate. But it was the members of the public cast as jurors that were most convincing. Throughout the proceedings they wore that look common to all courtroom juries - that of a group of people who have wandered into the wrong evening class.
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