Radio Review

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The Independent Culture
If there's anything more satisfying than a good murder trial, it's a really bad one. At any rate, that's presumably one strand of thought behind the plethora of television programmes dedicated to exposing miscarriages of justice (let's not be cynical and exclude the possibility that concern over a possible injustice comes into the equation).

Genuine concern can't have a great deal to do with Radio 4's series Beyond Reasonable Doubt, though: the six "possible miscarriages of justice" investigated in this series all happened too long ago for any wrongs to be righted. Last Friday's programme had even less excuse than usual, since the case of Oscar Slater wasn't a possible miscarriage of justice, but a bone-dry certainty.

Slater was convicted in 1909 of bludgeoning an elderly Glasgow lady to death, on the flimsiest evidence - a series of dubious identifications, made after his photograph had been published in the Glasgow papers. He had an alibi, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime; he was, however, a German Jew with convictions for living on immoral earnings. At the trial, the judge directed that no presumption of innocence could be made for "a man of his kind".

The unsatisfactory nature of the trial may explain why the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment: if the authorities really thought he was guilty, there weren't any extenuating circumstances. His conviction was eventually set aside and Slater freed, in 1928, after a long campaign by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This was a ripping yarn, far more clear cut than any modern miscarriage of justice. It's hard to account for the muddled way it was presented, though. The programme fell into three parts, each working on a different level of realism. First, Robert Kee lent his considerable gravitas to a straightforward narration; within this framework were dramatised extracts from the trial - words that were actually spoken, but here acted with a cheesiness rarely heard on radio (sneering lawyers, hissing judges). Within those extracts were dramatic flashbacks to the crime and subsequent investigation - words that nobody ever spoke, again cheesily acted, and adding no kind of dramatic impact whatsoever.

For all its failing as drama, though, this is vastly entertaining - which is, in the end, the point. For all its solemnity, what we're getting in Beyond Reasonable Doubt is murder and injustice used to provide a fairly pure form of titillation.

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