Firecrest Films’ third instalment of its Murder Trial series is The Killing of Dr. Brenda Page for BBC Scotland and BBC Factual. Firecrest secured access to shoot from inside the High Court Aberdeen during the trial for the murder of Dr. Brenda Page, one of Scotland’s longest running unresolved murder cases.
The producer and director, Jack Warrender, explains how the team negotiated the complexities and sensitivities of the shoot.
When the trial date was eventually set for the 1978 murder of Aberdeen University’s leading Geneticist, our hope to include it in this BBC series, ‘Murder Trial’, was absolute. It was, in many ways, the perfect trial to not only show the titans of our legal system tested to the best of their abilities, but also tell the story of a brilliant young woman, a brave family and a mercurial man who claimed to be a victim of false allegations from a woman whom, he says, cannot be trusted.
The priority when filming this, or any of the trials covered, is to make sure our production has no impact or influence on the court proceedings themselves. To achieve this, the cameras (as provided by the Complete Camera Company) are fixed in position pre-trial and then operated remotely. Our room, or ‘gallery’, sits adjacent to the court and resembles something plucked from a spy thriller: eight cameras beaming in real time to a huddle of technicians and production staff listening in on headphones. The cameras give a magnified, all-seeing perspective of the room, one that would have been impossible by any other means. This detail that the court entrust us with, is, (as I hope is evident from the documentary) truly extraordinary. But we must never lose sight of the fact that we are there only by invitation, and as such we do not share or talk to anyone outside our team about anything we see from our unique view.
The trial, as the defence will often say, is not a pursuit of truth but rather a test of the Crown’s case against the presumption of innocence. With this in mind, the premise of the series is not to tell the story of a murder, but rather the story of a trial. To help us navigate this, we film out of court with both Prosecution and Defence KCs, asking them to shed light on what can, at times, be very complex legal arguments.
Spending time with the families, whose lives have been irreversibly damaged by the loss of the victim, proves, by far, the most humbling of the myriad of experiences this series brings. As the Judge reminds the Jury in each trial, there is no place for emotion, sympathy or prejudice in a courtroom … but of course this cannot be said for the brave families, watching on from the public gallery. It is a priority for all of us making this series to build and maintain an open and inclusive relationship with the families involved. The notion that we would present something against their wishes is impossible. Their trust in us is what gives us the confidence to tell the story in the first place. It is also true to say that including the family does, from a purely storytelling point of view, add a much-needed tenderness and empathy to what can otherwise seem an emotionally cold and academic arena.
Finally, for those who, like me, enjoy thinking about the look of a documentary, filming in the court threw up a few challenges. One being that we all, whether we’ve been in one or not, draw on a mental image of what a High Court ‘should’ look like. Images conjured by many a blockbuster: elegant mahogany-panelling; a judge up on high, under a gilded coat of arms; leather-bound books … alas, for the most part, the reality is somewhat different. We often find ourselves in modern rooms with white walls and strip lighting. To add to this aesthetic challenge are the limitations of the rig cameras, that trade cinematic value for anonymity. Nevertheless, we counter this with angles that are at, or even below, the eyeline, giving the viewer a feeling of being present in the room and a part of the trial, rather than looking down from on high. Choosing to place cameras in these lower positions brings an added anxiety: it was always possible that someone might mask the shot by leaning across an angle at a critical moment. So far this has been a risk worth taking, but we are always watching nervously.
I hope this series will stand as an accurate and engaging account of an extraordinary trial. But more than that. Our aim is to present an insight into the exceptional people and Judicial System that, together, underwrite the safety we take for granted.
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