It’s been a good year for World Productions. The production outfit has become a reliable hit factory hammering out glossy, twisty dramas featuring a veritable who’s who of upmarket British telly, each episode ending on the sort of teetering cliffhanger that leaves you feeling far more stressed than you should ever be at 10pm on a Sunday night.
Their 2021 success stories include the blockbuster sixth season of Line of Duty (now the UK’s most watched drama series of the 21st century so far) and claustrophobia-inducing submarine saga Vigil, which lured in millions of viewers to become the BBC’s most popular new drama of the year to date — and got the nation talking about whether or not Suranne Jones’ DI Amy Silva would be fired into the North Sea in a torpedo tube to certain death by a Russian spy.
They will doubtless be hoping to pull off a similar feat with Showtrial, although this five part legal drama from writer Ben Richards is, in its opening episode at least, a less showy, more sober affair than those series just mentioned. Many scenes take place in the drab back rooms of a Bristol police station as detectives and lawyers work to establish the contours of a case that seems perfectly engineered to stir up a media maelstrom.
Hannah Ellis (Abra Thompson), a clever student from a working class background, has gone missing after walking home from a college ball (which she attended as hospitality staff rather than as a partygoer). Before Hannah’s disappearance, Talitha Campbell (Celine Buckens), the estranged daughter of a property developer (who spends a lot of screen time muttering into his phone about “nimbys”) and a 90s It girl, had been sending her threatening text messages, filled with big talk about getting her bumped off by a criminal connection. When Talitha is hauled into a police station on grounds of “malicious communication,” she’s assigned on-call duty solicitor Cleo Roberts (Tracy Ifeachor) as her lawyer.
Talitha is, to put it nicely, inherited privilege incarnate (or, to put it less nicely, as Sinead Keenan’s DI Paula Cassidy soon does, “a rude entitled little cow”) and Buckens makes her compellingly awful. When she arrives at the station and is asked to remove her jewellery, she sneeringly informs the desk sergeant that her bracelet is “worth more than you’ll ever earn in your entire career.” Even the way she wears her bomber jacket slung around her shoulders feels indicative of her studied contempt.
None of this, of course, means that she is guilty of playing a larger role in Hannah’s disappearance; at the same time, none of this will play well in front of a jury should the trial go to court, a fact of which her new lawyer is all too aware. Indeed, Talitha appears to have met her match in the quick-witted Cleo, who is not averse to using flagrant distraction tactics (accidentally-on-purpose knocking a full cup of coffee over some paperwork) when her client seems on the verge of incriminating herself in a police interview.
Hints about Cleo’s backstory, both professional and personal, are dropped liberally, ready to be untangled later in the series. Talitha’s proximity to wealth and power, meanwhile, does not stop with her family connections. Her best friend Dhillon Harwood (Joseph Payne) — referred to in Hannah’s texts as “that creep” — happens to be the son of a shadow Cabinet minister (played by Lolita Chakrabarti).
Over in another institutionally beige office, the Crown Prosecution Service team (one of them, James, appears to have a not-so-subtly signposted history with Cleo) are assessing whether there is sufficient evidence to take the case against Talitha to court (“looking for holes,” as one police officer eyerolls). It’s a process we don’t often see in television dramas, where the accused parties are usually rushed into a prison cell in time for the closing credits, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the police investigation.
This additional layer of double-checking and dissecting every assumption inevitably slows down the pace, but also prevents a story with the potential to fall into crime show cliché from doing so — most of the time. There are moments when police officers default to speaking in fluent explication, and one scene in which a detective makes the baffling claim that “Troy is a Brummie name” to link another suspect to the area where Hannah’s bank card was last active sticks out for all the wrong reasons.
Still, Brummie generalisations aside, Showtrial feels like a fresh, considered spin on the usual crime procedural tropes. It might burn slower than some of the BBC’s recent Sunday night fare for now, but this opening episode cleverly lays the foundations for a rewarding watch.
Showtrial continues Sundays on BBC One at 9pm and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer