Aidan Smith's TV week: The Jury: Murder Trial (Channel 4), Prisoner (BBC4), Darren McGarvey: the State We're In (BBC2)

Aagh, you silly old goat! You’ve given the game away! This is my reaction as Channel 4’s The Jury: Murder Trial nears its end and the judge solemnly intones: “Ladies and gentlemen, you must now retire to consider your verdicts.”
The Jury: Murder Trial has two groups of 12 decide the accused's fate. Will they reach the same verdict?The Jury: Murder Trial has two groups of 12 decide the accused's fate. Will they reach the same verdict?
The Jury: Murder Trial has two groups of 12 decide the accused's fate. Will they reach the same verdict?

Yes, verdicts plural. He’s addressing two juries although they don’t know of the other’s existence, and aren’t supposed to know that in a soundproofed, glass-fronted box right next door there are 12 more members of the public who’ve been weighing up all the evidence. This is the show’s extremely neat trick and, in a gripping social experiment, how it’s testing whether our jury system is still fit for purpose when apparently wrong verdicts are returned in a quarter of all cases.

Like the barristers and the accused, the judge is played by an actor for the re-enactment of a real trial, word-for-word. Has the bewigged buffoon blown it? No, I think everyone’s too wrapped up in what’s to be the fate of “John Risedale”, the decent-seeming sculptor charged with bludgeoning his wife “Helen” to death with a hammer. They go off to their separate rooms in an unused courthouse to deliberate, presumably entering and leaving by different doors and not bumping into each other in the pub across the road or at the bus stop because, well, who starts up conversations with strangers anymore when we’ve got smartphones?

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It’s been quite a week for justice on the goggle-box, how Britain dispenses it and how we might learn from other countries and those clever Scandi types in particular. In Denmark, reports a legal eagle watching C4’s show, jurors are trained and paid a wage - it’s a job. Elsewhere Darren McGarvey, the Pollok polemicist, contrasts the creature comforts available in a sleek Norwegian jail with the crumbling Barlinnie. But Sofie Grabol’s new drama illustrates how prisons across the North Sea can still be controlled by the crims.

Sofie Grabol in Prisoner.Sofie Grabol in Prisoner.
Sofie Grabol in Prisoner.

Normally I might have regarded the four-night commitment required of The Jury: Murder Trial as a challenge, if not a chore, but as the brother of a Scottish judge I’m up for this. Also, I’m part of the Crown Court generation. That is, when we skived school there was virtually nothing else to watch.

The professionals are up for it, too, never before having been able to study how juries come to their decisions. They see, and are slightly perturbed by, how a juror’s own life experience can influence, although presumably the personal stories of the 24 are why C4 selected them. The KCs and academics also note the cliques and power play, how some voices can dominate. One such is Ricky the shaven-headed building tycoon who’s dripping with gold. You might look at him and think: he’ll be for murder. Actually he’s manslaughter from the start, never wavering.

Details emerge about the victim, how she came to the marriage having had three children by different men. “Couldn’t keep her legs shut, could she?” is heard during one tea break, which appalls student Josie. Another student, Oliver, is convinced it’s murder only to be chastised over his youthfulness. Bus driver Aaron, in the other jury from Ricky, is maybe closest to the Henry Fonda character in 12 Angry Men, believing that others have decided the accused is guilty as charged far too quickly.

There’s evidence of Helen having been controlling and cruel and stay-at-home mum Jodie remembers when she felt like a female version of John and was taunted for being fat. Meanwhile retired school caretaker Gary admits to a spell of being a male version of Helen, provoking arguments on a whim until eventually his wife Amanda cracked and drove the car at him. The process of coming to unanimous agreement - required in England but not here - is intense. There are tears and dramatic handbrake turns. I reckon only one juror never speaks, seemingly bereft of opinion - ironically this is Liberty. And at the end Richard admits he’d hate to have his fate decided in such a manner.

Darren McGarvey investigates The State We're In.Darren McGarvey investigates The State We're In.
Darren McGarvey investigates The State We're In.

Was it really 13 years ago that we first glimpsed the caption “DR”, beginning our obsession with Nordic Noir? In The Killing Grabol covered a range of expressions from A to B and back again. But for Prisoner (BBC4), from the same production house, she turns into Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies.

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No, I’m kidding. She’s just as emotionless as before, possibly with even more reason this time, playing a guard in a men’s prison in Denmark threatened with closure. This is Falster - not Johnny Cash’s Folston - and it’s under-performing with not enough seizures of drugs and phones. The capitalist urge to always be measuring things - it gets everywhere!

Prisoner focuses on four guards, what lives they have away from the cells and how they view the inmates holding sway. Henrik, who’s all for it, has probably been brutalised by the system. He’s married with a son but hooks up with men for sex when he’s supposed to be playing badminton. Gert is the boss with a husband suffering from dementia and instigates a crackdown. Sammi is new, insists on wearing his tie and wants to “make a difference”. His arrival rouses Grabol’s Miriam who says: “It’s outrageous we are not in charge here. You should be able to do time without being extorted.”

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Sammi is a hunk which doesn’t go unnoticed by another female guard who’s abrupt, no-messing approach to the potential for carnality might have you recalling Saga from The Bridge. And remember Borgen? A rival jail competing against shutdown is called Nyborg. In tribute to PM Birgitte? Perhaps.

The guards refer to Falster as the “Big House”. Between themselves and when addressing the jailbirds the daily greeting is: “Have fun.” I wouldn’t say I’m having fun exactly, watching Prisoner. It’s as violent as you might expect. One minute the inmates permitted to cook are concocting something interesting with crayfish; the next they’re strapping a snitch to the oven with the rings blazing. Everyone here is a prisoner, screws and cons. I can walk away but this is grimly gripping.

With Darren McGarvey: the State We’re In (BBC Scotland and BBC2) our man goes network for a punchy examination of the public institutions, beginning with a hurl in a cop car (“Bit of a flashback for me personally”). He has a consultation with a barrister, her wig perched on the table (“I’ve seen these up close, that’s all I’ll say”). And the Bar-L doesn’t seem like an alien environment either (“F****n’ hell, Rab, how you doin’ wee man?”).

But it’s not all banter. “Our creaking justice system is failing both victim and criminal,” says McGarvey, who hears about huge case backlogs, cuts to Legal Aid and the prison staffing crisis. Does Norway have the answers? Life sentence doesn’t exist there, a warden telling the rapper-activist: “We’re really forgiving people. We don’t believe in punishing people for the rest of their lives.” The UK has twice the rate of re-offending compared to Norway who spend twice as much on every prisoner - £90,000 a year. It shows, with McGarvey comparing the jail he visits to a budget hotel. He manages to avoid bumping into anyone else he knows.

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