Trial by media
Director Zara Hayes and executive producer Simon Heath discuss the themes and ideas behind Showtrial, a five-part BBC legal drama that takes a stylised approach to a story that mixes murder and the media.
While it’s unfair to label every new series from World Productions as ‘the next Line of Duty’ or ‘the new Bodyguard,’ those titles have cemented the producer’s reputation for making heart-stopping dramas that generate huge word-of-mouth buzz as each episode is released across a weekly schedule. Earlier this year, World struck gold again with Vigil, the BBC submarine thriller that became the UK’s most watched new drama launch in three years – after Bodyguard in 2018.
But as shows such as Save Me, Born to Kill and upcoming Hillsborough drama Anne contest, World isn’t defined by one genre, and with its latest series, the producer is mixing up the formula again. Showtrial is a legal drama that centres on the trial of a young woman accused of murder, but it comes with a heightened, edgy visual style that elevates it from other courtroom-based stories. Notably, it is also World’s first series for terrestrial television that will be released as a boxset, with all episodes being made available on BBC iPlayer simultaneously when the show debuts on BBC One this Sunday.
“Vigil is a tough act to follow but they’re completely different shows and I hope people recognise that,” World CEO and Showtrial executive producer Simon Heath tells DQ. “There’s some crossover appeal, particularly given how broad the Vigil audience was, but I like to think every show we make is quite distinctive.”
The five-parter opens with police officers and members of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) discussing an apparent missing person case, until the body of Hannah Ellis is discovered. Talitha Campbell, the snobbish and arrogant estranged daughter of a wealthy property developer, is then charged with conspiring to murder Hannah, her fellow university student – and the trial that follows takes place in the full glare of the media spotlight.
Refusing her father’s help, Talitha turns to duty solicitor Cleo Roberts to lead her defence against a prosecution that uses Talitha’s gender and her social privilege against her. But is she a damaged scapegoat or a cold-blooded killer?
Throughout, the story picks up multiple perspectives – from Talitha (Celine Buckens) and Cleo (Tracy Ifeachor) to DI Paula Cassidy (Sinéad Keenan) and CPS caseworker James Thornley (Kerr Logan) – as each strand of the story comes together before a final verdict is reached.
It was after the second season of Line of Duty, which famously follows members of a police anti-corruption unit, that Heath first began to think about the idea of a story that goes beyond the moment police dramas traditionally end – when a suspect is arrested or a confession is offered.
“It struck me that the process was really only starting there. What happens after that?” he says. “The lawyers get involved. The police collaborate with the CPS to build the case. The defence team is put together to fight that case, and it’s a process that goes on for quite a few months until you even get to the trial itself. I thought there would be a great show in that kind of battle between defence and prosecution.
“We start with the arrest of the first person of interest and you end it with the verdict of the jury, I thought that if you could tell that over five or six weeks, it would make compelling viewing. It feels like we haven’t had a huge number of legal dramas in this country, at least over the last few years. It felt like there was a gap to tell an interesting story and do something slightly different.”
Heath took his idea to writer Ben Richards (Cobra, Strike). The pair had worked together 15 years earlier on BBC drama Party Animals, which dramatised the political battle between Labour and Conservative MPs, and Heath thought Richards might enjoy a similar face-off between prosecution and defence in a legal series where the trial at the heart of the story captures the imagination of both the public and the media.
“If that was going to be the case, then we also had to show how the media, particularly social media, gets involved in reporting that case, commenting on that case and the line that gets drawn by the judge to stop anything that potentially jeopardises a fair trial,” Heath says. “All those things played into the story that we chose to dramatise for this first season.”
Directing the series is Zara Hayes, who has a history of working in documentaries and was looking for a television script “I could get my teeth into” when she picked up the first three scripts for Showtrial. Hayes’ interest in telling personal stories that are wrapped up in bigger events aligned with the series, while she was also immediately drawn to the show’s pace and energy.
“Because I’m from a documentary background, a lot of drama producers say to me things like, ‘We want this to be really gritty, grounded and authentic,’ and I think, ‘You’ve never watched anything I’ve made,’ because actually all of my documentaries have been quite stylised, even with real situations and real people,” she says.
“In docs now, there are no rules for how you put something across, and we talked about how we could explore and experiment while keeping it tethered to the real world. That’s what we were always trying to do. We felt like if we played into the completely grounded, realistic version of that, it wouldn’t necessarily be as exciting as it could be. We wanted it to feel slightly heightened.”
Hayes says the first 10 minutes of any project are the most difficult, but that proved to be especially true with Showtrial, which opens by introducing numerous different characters and jumping to different times to set the scene for the story to come.
“You have to show the audience what they’re going to get from the get-go and make that exciting, but also not confuse people,” she says. “We also didn’t want to set the show up solely as a ‘missing girl drama,’ which we felt would be a false promise to people because that’s not the show. We’ve all seen that show and we know how that show starts. This is going somewhere very different, and you need to know that you’re going to get to a place where it’s about the courtroom and the legal process, so we wanted to weave those elements in too.”
A lot of that work had already been done in the script stage prior to Hayes joining the team, but it continued right through production and post-production until the final edit had been signed off. “There was a sense of getting it right for the project and not being cautious about what’s been written or shot or what’s intended,” she says. “There was a real sense of, ‘How do we tell this story best?’ We cut lots of things. We moved lots of things around. It was a process of collaboration because we were all going back and forth, right into the edit.”
Heath says Showtrial was made in a similar way to a documentary, where you might gather a huge amount of footage before sitting down to figure out how the story should be told. “It would be doing Ben’s scripts a disservice to say we put it together in the edit, because we had his script as a very clear guide. But equally, Ben was as open-minded as we were in terms of seeing what the best way forward,” he notes.
“We talked a lot about the running order of that first 10 minutes, and while earlier drafts had started with a glimpse of the trial, by the time we got to the shooting script, that scene had disappeared and then it re-emerged again in a different form thanks to Zara and Steven [Worsley, editor] putting together that opening teaser, which you might well associate with high-end Netflix true crime documentaries.
“But the key was finding the right point to introduce each element of the show. You begin with what’s happened to Hannah, then you see the police, then you see the CPS and you bring in the defence solicitor who potentially could be the saviour for our prime suspect – or not. Once we worked out that running order, it all fell into place in a really good way.”
For the courtroom scenes that arrive in episodes four and five, the production team worked hard to maintain the show’s stylised tone by continuing to follow events from the perspective of different characters, such as with James or DI Cassidy, who aren’t always in the courtroom as proceedings are unfolding.
“You might also get a flash or cut of something that is a little bit elliptical or is illustrating a feeling or a moment with a character that’s unexpected in this kind of propulsive drama, where normally you maybe don’t get those stops or those punctuations,” Hayes says. “We definitely try to keep that going as a rhythm, and we do that right to the end. But World, Ben and Chris [Hall, producer] were very, very committed to it being authentic. There’s a line of heightening it, but not to the point where it’s not real. It’s that same DNA running through the five episodes.”
Heath compares the courtroom scenes to the highlights from a football match, focusing on the brilliant drama that plays out but avoiding the dull procedure. Episode four centres on the prosecution’s case, delving into forensics and the mounting body of evidence against Talitha, while episode fives shifts to the defence.
“But equally, all the time we’re cutting away to see people ‘backstage,’ asking, ‘How did today go? How’s tomorrow going to go? Who we’re going to call next? How are we going to counter this bit of evidence?’ We were influenced by [Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix film] The Trial of the Chicago Seven. We just loved what they did. That was a bit of an influence, as were a bunch of other true crime documentaries. I was looking at some of the high-end true crime documentaries and thinking that their storytelling is more sophisticated than a lot of drama. We need to catch up. Hopefully we’ve done that with this show.”
Hayes and DOP Matt Gray filmed those scenes by following the mantra that the less you do, the more powerful it is, keeping the camera neutral as witnesses are questioned on the stand and leaving the viewer to make up their own mind about who may be innocent or guilty. It is in earlier moments, particularly with the police, that the camera feels more wild, capturing the frenetic pace at which officers move from location to location as they investigate Hannah’s death.
“We wanted that world to feel the most personal at a human level, and maybe the messiest,” Hayes says. “In the CPS, we used mainly steadicam because we were trying to suggest a sense of being more rational and restrained. But the first time you meet Cassidy, that is gritty handheld. That is literally Matt running with a camera trying to keep up with her. But we don’t stick to that. We tried to choose the appropriate technique for the situation. Some scenes we definitely had two handheld cameras, but that’s not how we approached it across the board.”
With production delayed by the pandemic, Showtrial achieved the admirable feat of starting filming and being on air in the same year. Shooting in and around Bristol began in April, and although the schedule was tight in places, Showtrial benefited from requiring minimal VFX – a far cry from the underwater submarine shots needed for Vigil.
“It’s a classic script-and-performance drama in many ways,” Heath says of the new series. “It’s nice to do one of those. There’s a great thrill in the technical challenge of something like Vigil, but it’s nice and fun to get back to a show like this, which is really all about script and performance.”
Showtrial, he hopes, will have a “talk about” factor that will lead viewers to discuss what they think of each character, whether Talitha is guilty and, perhaps more topically in the age of social media, whether she’s getting a fair trial amid the blaze of coverage the case receives.
“Maybe they’ll just be fascinated and want to binge the whole lot in one go, because this is a first for us,” he says. “It’s the first time on terrestrial television we’ve made a drama that’s available as a boxset immediately. It will be fascinating to see how that works. There are very clear staging posts in the legal process, and that culminates in a trial and with the jury’s verdict. That’s very tempting for an audience to just go through all five hours in one sitting. We’ll see.”
Heath’s hope is that Showtrial, which is distributed by ITV Studios, can become an anthology series in the same vein as shows like American Crime, in which each new season contains new characters and a new story. For now, Hayes believes this instalment features a case that isn’t clear-cut and could leave viewers wondering if the right verdict was reached.
“The whole greyness of it, that’s what I really like,” she says. “It’s really unusual and sophisticated to do something so morally ambiguous. It’s bold to do that and go there, especially at 9pm on BBC One. We want a clear world to navigate and we want to know at the end that the bad guy’s been found, but life is richer than that. That’s definitely what’s kind of unusual about this.”