Playing for cameras

After his experiment in Scotland, a director aims to bring the drama of an English trial to television. He is not being altruistic.
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The television director and producer Nick Catliff is almost evangelical in his belief that real-life courtroom dialogue can make exciting TV drama. It was this conviction which in 1994 led him to the doors of the Scottish courts and the first filming of a UK court. The finished product, called The Trial, took two years to make and was a critically acclaimed piece of television which won reasonably high audience figures. Now, three years later, Nick Catliff is back on the trail and has just completed filming an English court in action. The only difference this time round is that Trial by Jury, due to be screened on BBC2 in early June, isn't a real trial at all. Catliff has had to overcome the English prohibition on cameras by creating his own trial in an Oxford coroner's court. To make it look as realistic as possible he has recruited two leading criminal silks, Anthony Thwaites QC and Joanna Greenberg QC as well as Judge Gerald Butler QC of Southwark Crown Court. The whole trial is run by lawyers as if it is the real thing.

Catliff is a talented television director with an established reputation for getting inside difficult subjects. He was responsible for Airport, the highly acclaimed fly-on-the-wall documentary of Heathrow Airport. He also directed Inside Story's Megan's Law which looked at what happens when paedophiles are released back into the communities in which they committed their crimes.

Perhaps part of the reason Catliff is so committed to real-life courtroom drama is his family background and association with the legal profession. Tony Hetherington, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, is one of his uncles, while another uncle is a judge in Canada, and his brother- in-law is a barrister. Catliff, who left the BBC in April to form his own production company, 13 years after joining the corporation as a graduate trainee journalist, says: "I know a lot of lawyers and I just find that world very interesting."

Nevertheless, he rejects the idea he has somehow missed his calling as a barrister. "There're a lot of things about the Bar that I wouldn't have particularly liked. It's such a gentleman's club. There are a lot of frustrations which would have made me feel uncomfortable working there."

As for any suggestion that he is on a mission to get cameras into court, he says: "I'm not obsessive about it. I just think journalistically it's worth doing. I don't want to give the impression that I'm somehow stalking the judiciary."

The courtroom drama at the heart of Trial by Jury is a murder in a railway carriage. Two youths and two businessmen get involved in a fracas which ends in the fatal stabbing of one of the businessmen. As the conflicting evidence emerges the jury's perception of the case twists and turns but all the time staying well within the bounds of possibility. It is this courtroom credulity which Catliff has worked hard to capture and is so keen to project on the screen.

To this end he has recruited Mark Ashford, a solicitor specialising in juvenile crime, who not only acts as the briefing solicitor to the defence during the re-creation but also advises Catliff on the realism of the drama. That includes instructing the actor/defendant in juvenile delinquent behaviour in court, such as yawning during the judge's summing up or "kissing his teeth" so as to make sucking noises at the counsel for the prosecution, Joanna Greenberg.

Even the jurors, who responded to local newspaper advertisements, were vetted to make sure they were willing to give the evidence proper and serious consideration. Any who hinted that they were more interested in appearing on television than in a murder trial re-creation were rejected. Since the audience will be allowed to play the same role as the jury this is a crucial part of the drama. Catliff is confident that the final version will be much more than just a legally accurate episode of Kavanagh QC.

But Trial by Jury is also trying hard not be a more sophisticated version of the popular afternoon courtroom drama, Crown Crown, where, like Catliff's production, a jury's unknown finding of guilt or innocence presented the drama with that vital cliff-hanging ending. Catliff says of Crown Court: "It was marvellous. But you had actors trying to beat each other at being lawyers. We have two QCs who are at the top of their trees; behind them there is a real case and no script. So I hope it won't be like Crown Court."

Catliff of course could dispense with the whole elaborate construction, and cut costs in what he admits has been an expensive way to televise trial action, if he was allowed to bring his cameras into English courts. That, he admits, could take time. The Scottish experience showed him how slow and frustrating it can be when you have to get all the participants' permission. "If you want to get anywhere with either the English or Scottish legal establishments you have to play it by their rules - it's their court," he says. Catliff and his team were allowed to use the indictment to contact potential witnesses. But they could only write one letter and if permission was refused or there was no reply they were not allowed to contact the witness again. It involved a painstaking patience that most TV producers simply do not have.

But Catliff does not pretend that the ultimate goal is an altruistic one.

"The idea that TV producers are going to go in there [to court] and save the day and open it up for democracy is such hypocrisy. We want to get there for our own reasons."

Those reasons do include democracy in the context of the public's right to see justice being done. "Television is the main news medium and the fact you can't report the courts properly and you have poor old Joshua Rosenberg standing outside court with silly chalk drawings is absurd," he says. "It makes the court look very fusty."

But aren't courts suppose to be fusty places? A court does not concern itself with trifling matters; it deals with some of the most important matters individuals ever have to face. Surely for that reason a trial tends to move at a slow, pedantic pace which simply does not lend itself to television drama? No, Catliff says. "It's the only place where you get frank dialogue. You do get 'm'lud I'm obliged' but you also get 'you're lying!' It's the only place where people can talk that way. Even when it's slow and plodding there is inherent human drama. You've got that fundamental narrative of did he do it, didn't he do it?"

Catliff also believes the public and the courts have much to gain from a court television service. He cites inaccurate film portrayals and incomplete media reporting for creating a public misconception of how the courts work. "In Scotland they actually had school children visiting courts and asking to see the judge's gavel. But we don't have gavels over here, that's only in America"n