Another Sunday night, another big drama taking itself very seriously. This time, it’s Showtrial (BBC One), which follows a high-stakes murder case taking place under the spotlight of intense public attention and media scrutiny. Early on, it is called “the trial that has gripped the nation”, and the idea is to explore whether the truth matters or not: will the verdict be based on what actually happened, or on what the jury makes of the defendant? It is a strong premise, and one that speaks to our image-obsessed, issue-led times. And boy, do these characters have issues to navigate.
Showtrial should eventually become a courtroom drama, but the opening episode instead treads familiar cop-show territory. After a student ball in Bristol, second-year English and philosophy student Hannah Ellis (Abra Thompson) is reported missing by her mother. Enter police officers who all have bantering nicknames such as “Cueball” (bald) and “Butch Cassidy” (er, short hair, surname Cassidy), to crack the case. Thanks to the scene that opens proceedings – we see who is in the dock in the first few moments – we already know that Hannah is not about to be found at a friend’s house nursing a hangover. The slow, steady reveal of what we do know, however, is devastating and done with care. The phone call Hannah’s mother makes to the police, insisting that she knows deep down that something is wrong, is surely every viewer’s worst nightmare.
This is the show at its most sober and reserved. Hannah’s phone shows that she was in receipt of some nasty texts from Talitha Campbell (Céline Buckens), the wealthy, plummy daughter of a 90s “It girl” and an unscrupulous property developer (or, as DI Cassidy – who has the pleasure of questioning Talitha – describes her, “a rude, entitled little cow”). Hannah was the first person in her family to go to university, while Talitha was expelled from a fancy private girls’ school and can barely speak to another human being without treating them like a member of staff. Hannah was working at the ball on the night she disappeared; Talitha was partying there. They may have been friends once, but the upstairs/downstairs dynamic does Talitha no favours.
It’s not just class that causes tension. Talitha tells the police that she and Hannah fell out over Talitha’s sex work, and that Hannah accused her of “enabling predators” and covering up sexual abuse on campus. Much like Vigil, made by the same production company, it ladles on idea after idea. There is class, murder and sex, so why not chuck in the political establishment, too? Talitha’s housemate and friend Dillon – who is pretending to know a lot less about Hannah than he clearly does – is the son of the shadow environment secretary. According to Talitha, her own father, the weaselly Sir Damian Campbell, is well known for bulldozing an orphanage with children still inside it to build a luxury hotel, but now he is being welcomed on to a government taskforce. It is fair to say that there is a lot going on.
It’s odd, then, that this feels like such a slow burn. Talitha is arrested, at first, on suspicion of sending malicious communications to Hannah, and as she stews in her cell in a padded jacket, tapping her neon green nails, she decides to go full Veruca Salt. She preens, she yawns, she giggles inappropriately. She is condescending and rude to police officers and her own lawyer, the lucky duty solicitor who is inevitably brilliant and ends up on the case. Cleo (Tracy Ifeachor) wastes no time whipping her client into shape – and stressing just how serious things could get.
There are so many evil property developers, tough northern detectives and shady establishment figures covering up for their kids in crime dramas these days that they are all starting to blur into the same show: is it Bloodlands, or Marcella, or indeed Vigil? For all its promise of something different, Showtrial initially plays the same tune, teasing out 50 minutes or so of steady plot, before walloping the audience over the head with a showy twist or a development that makes next week’s episode a must-see. For a show that is so interested in entitlement, it does feel oddly entitled to viewers’ attention. Still, it knows what it is doing, and it is solid enough that I now need to know how it gets from A to B. As for whether it will be the show that grips the nation, the jury is still out.