A (fictional) trial of life and death for Gary Glitter

Capital punishment is back in Britain in a new TV drama. Rob Coldstream, its creator, explains the idea behind it

It's 6.30am and my crew are setting upfor the first location shoot for The Execution of Gary Glitter.

We're on Elstree High Street and there's the familiar ambience of camaraderie as our extras huddle round the catering wagon chomping bacon sarnies. Members of the public are loitering, drawn by the arc lights and the paraphernalia of a film shoot.

But when Hilton McRae appears on set in full costume, complete with plucked eyebrows, shaven head and goatee, the change in mood is immediate and startling. 'Hssss...' The mutterings and grumblings rapidly turn to abuse. The atmosphere is distinctly uncomfortable and McRae beats a hasty retreat to the safety of the costume department. When we start filming an hour or so later, it's only because our assistant director has convinced the crowd that no, it's not the real Gary Glitter.

When we'd decided to make a film exploring how society deals with its most reviled offenders, we hadn't expected it to be an easy ride. But this was confirmation that we were tapping into a raw nerve. A year or so earlier, it was a comment in a national newspaper that had first stopped me in my tracks. 'If Gary Glitter was to be strung up in Trafalgar Square tomorrow, nobody would turn a hair,' opined the writer. Glitter was approaching the end of a jail term in Vietnam for child sex offences and speculation was growing about what would happen to him after release.

By the time he stepped off a plane at Heathrow a few weeks later, that remark didn't seem so far from the truth. An army of police officers and officials escorted Glitter through the terminal as he was whisked off to a secret location for his own safety - pursued by a mob of journalists, television crews and jeering members of the public. 'Evil flies in' was a headline. One paper urged readers to report sightings of the 'fugitive paedo' to a special hotline. There was a monster in our midst. The manhunt - or was that witch hunt? - had begun.

It made Glitter the perfect starting point around which to frame a drama exploring that great taboo of British public discourse: the death penalty. Given how rarely capital punishment is debated in the media, you might think most Britons are happy to see the back of the death penalty.

The statistics show otherwise. A Harris poll in September found that 54 per cent of Britons want to see the death penalty reintroduced. An Ipsos survey for Channel 4 in June reported even more strongly in support of capital punishment. The time was right for a thought-provoking and compelling drama that would confront viewers with the consequences of the death penalty. As Britain's most high-profile sex offender, Gary Glitter has become a lightning rod for public fears over child sex abuse. Not only is he an instantly recognisable figure, but here was a man who had once been a hugely popular family entertainer - somebody we already had a relationship with - transformed by his crimes into the epitome of evil.

Placing such a personality in a fictional Britain where the death penalty had already been restored was a powerful dramatic proposition. The idea was to force viewers to explore their own impulses - as individuals and communities - over how we deal with society's most reviled offenders in a way that was challenging and disturbing. We wouldn't have been able to achieve that with a new, fictional character.

Imagining a real-life persona in a fictional scenario is nothing new: Channel 4's Death of a President played the same trick to brilliant effect with an imagined assassination of George Bush and Tony Blair tried at The Hague for war crimes. Nevertheless, we thought long and hard before going ahead. Would we merely be adding to the hysteria surrounding the former pop star?

Much of the news coverage of the real Glitter had painted him as the personification of evil. It was crucial that our film created a three-dimensional character with shades of light and darkness. It was also important that the fictional Glitter's guilt or innocence is never made entirely clear in the film. He defends himself strongly in court and maintains his innocence throughout -maybe he is being set up? To take viewers on a powerful emotional journey we didn't need them to like our fictional Glitter, but we needed them to believe in him. Thanks to an extraordinary performance by McRae, viewers of our film will find a complex, nuanced and even sympathetic treatment of a deeply flawed personality.

The experience of shooting the film confirmed that we were tapping into a genuine raw nerve. When we covertly filmed an actor outside the Old Bailey displaying a banner reading 'Honk for hanging', the cacophony of car horns was sobering. Then there was the time we approached members of the public to stand in as extras. 'Glitter? Executed? Should have done it years ago, mate. Count me in.' And we're not talking about hooligans with H.A.T.E tattooed on their foreheads, we're talking about business people, dinner ladies and door-to-door salesmen; in other words, us.

The film doesn't set out to win the case for or against the death penalty, somuchas to explore the wider theme of public morality and change in society. Many of us tend towards a complacent assumption that society is on a steady march of progress. History proves us wrong: the ground rules governing what is morally acceptable in any particular society are subject to sudden shifts during periods of social convulsion. What is striking is how easily individuals and communities adjust to the new morality once it has been sanctioned by authority.

In the US, calls are being made to extend the death penalty laws to include sex offenders. In a landmark ruling last year, the Supreme Court narrowly defeated the move. The first person to attack the US justices for their lily-livered decision was none other than President Barack Obama, passionate advocate for enlightened liberalism... and for the execution of child rapists.

The Execution of Gary Glitter is on Channel 4 tonight, 9pm

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