Warning: contains spoilers for the Showtrial finale, available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
In episode four, BBC courtroom thriller Showtrial includes an exchange that handily lays out the drama’s premise for anybody snoozing at the back. On the deck of his luxury lakefront villa – in the Cotswolds just outside Cirencester if you fancy it – billionaire property developer Sir Damian Campbell [James Frain] tells the solicitor defending his daughter Talitha in an impending murder trial, “This is a showtrial. It won’t be decided on the evidence, but on her and on us and [gesturing at the opulent setting] this.” Solicitor Cleo [Tracy Ifeachor] somehow restrains herself from slapping him on the forehead and replying ‘Ya think?’ to say that it’s the jury and not the media, who will ultimately deliver the verdict. The problem with that, says Sir Damo, is that 99 percent of people who meet his daughter absolutely hate her.
With good reason. Talitha Campbell, played by Celine Buckens, does not have an endearing personality. A student at Bristol’s fictional Avonmouth University, in the well-chosen words of one detective she’s “a rude, entitled little cow.” Expelled from an elite girls’ school and rejected from Oxford, Talitha’s smart-mouthed, smirking and obnoxious with an ‘I could buy and sell this place’ attitude. She finds just about everybody risible, thinks they fancy her, and wants them to know that her heirloom bracelet is worth more money than they’ll make in their entire life. She also appears to take nothing seriously, even being arrested on suspicion of the murder of a fellow student.
When Hannah Ellis – a popular state school-educated high-achiever Talitha fell out with and sent threatening texts to – is found strangled to death and dumped in a river, suspicion falls on ‘Lady Tease’ (the name Talitha uses for her webcam and escort work). It’s nothing to do with her, says Talitha. But then the murder weapon is found to be the green scarf she wore on the night Hannah disappeared. And then best friend Dhillon [Joseph Payne] says that Talitha did it during a sex game gone wrong and they disposed of the body together. Dhillon’s very sorry but it was all her fault.
Who to believe? Flippant, grating Talitha or contrite, traumatised Dhillon?
The Jury’s Verdict
In the finale, Showtrial’s jury delivers a verdict. Instead of hating Talitha as her father predicted, they actually quite enjoyed her quick wit and humour on the witness stand. And when she reluctantly revealed her history of childhood sexual abuse by her mother and her mother’s cronies, they also felt for her. Dhillon on the other hand, lost sympathy by erupting angrily under questioning. He was also shown to have a history of harassment and sexual assault against women, and Hannah was threatening to bring a stalking complaint against him to the police. The DNA evidence against Dhillon conclusively placed him at the scene of the murder (unlike that against Talitha), showed that he’d had sex with Hannah before (or possibly after) she was killed, and he was discovered by police burning items of clothing including the murder-weapon scarf. The same police were also found to have withheld evidence that could cast doubt on Talitha’s guilt, which suggested an unfair, possibly class-based bias against her.
All of which added up to the jury’s verdict: guilty for Dhillon, not guilty for Talitha. Vindication! Until, in Showtrial’s very last scene, Talitha goes to visit her solicitor before leaving for Paris. “We did it,” she tells her, “we so totally fooled them.” Then she laughs, winks and says “Your face! Gotcha.” It’s another tasteless joke in a long line, but one that plants a seed of doubt in the mind of both Cleo and the viewer. Has Talitha had us all on? Could Dhillon actually have been telling the truth?
In a word: no. However much ‘or is she?’ chin-stroking energy writer Ben Richards spoons into Showtrial‘s final scene to get people talking, the drama builds a much more convincing case for Talitha’s innocence and Dhillon’s guilt than for the reverse. Mostly through its characterisation of both and the drip-feed of information that emerges over the five episodes to support it, but also through the use of flashback.
Dhillon’s Unreliable Flashbacks
The audience is never shown the act of Hannah’s murder, only elliptical flashbacks to the night of the student ball after which she was killed. Director Zara Hayes and her editors show the same scenes of the ball multiple times, framed either as Talitha’s or Dhillon’s memories, or as third party video or CCTV footage: there’s Hannah serving drinks, Talitha and Dhillon dancing, both of them on the Ferris wheel, and Dhillon filming Hannah from a distance without her knowledge… all featuring Talitha wearing her incriminating green scarf.
One video – that DI Cassidy attempted to bury – shows the scarf wrapped around Dhillon’s neck, but doesn’t show him return it to Talitha. He may have done off camera, of course, which was DI Cassidy’s point in withholding the footage – why give Talitha’s defence the chance to cast doubt on her having been in possession of the murder weapon all night when the nasty cow almost certainly did it? That’s the trouble with prejudice interfering with process, says Showtrial. A jury has to convict on evidence, not instinct.
In Showtrial, the viewer is the jury, and the flashbacks are part of our evidence. In those flashbacks, we repeatedly see Talitha and Dhillon’s walk home from the ball, both from their memories and in CCTV footage. In all of the walking home scenes, Talitha is wearing Dhillon’s velvet jacket over her dress, and no visible scarf around her neck. However, when Dhillon gives his second police interview, in which he spins the story of the boatyard drinking, the “peace mission” to Hannah’s, and the subsequent deadly threesome, Talitha is shown wearing the scarf tightly knotted around her neck.
Why is Talitha only seen wearing the scarf (which would have been visible even under the jacket) post-ball in this one version of events? Because those scenes – the boatyard, Hannah ruefully forgiving the pair and inviting them inside – are pure inventions by Dhillon. They’re the story he spins to the police, not real memories. We can say this because at the start of episode two, we see a sequence in which Talitha (no scarf) and Dhillon walk across the bridge, spliced with Cassidy and Thornley following the same route in daylight. That sequence isn’t framed as either Talitha or Dhillon’s memory, it’s presented as an objective event. And in the objective not-filtered-through-anybody’s-drug-and-drink-fuelled-memory version, the scarf isn’t around Talitha’s neck.
Dhillon Harwood: Guilty
If you’re thinking that Talitha – who says she must have lost the scarf at the ball – could easily have put it back on, and therefore need more to convince you that Dhillon was the sole killer, there’s plenty. Unlike Talitha, he’s proven to lie repeatedly and acts suspiciously after Hannah is reported missing. He lies about knowing Hannah to his mother, and then watches videos of Hannah he covertly took on his phone. He takes his clothing from the ball and the murder weapon scarf to the New Forest to burn. And unlike Talitha, he appears nervous in his police interviews, in the first of which he tells a pack of lies to the police about having had sex with Hannah prior to her leaving for work that night, before changing his story.
Then there’s Dhillon’s history of stalking and sexually harassing women. Even Talitha said that he was relentless and obsessive if she didn’t message him back immediately. He twice sexually assaulted previous partner Lucinda Bright by initiating sex when she was asleep, and by lying about wearing a condom during sex. He repeatedly filmed Hannah without her knowledge, and was scared that her complaint would see him kicked out of university – no small deal for the son of a shadow cabinet minister. Dhillon’s predatory behaviour was covered up by his well-connected middle class parents, and so went unpunished until this violent escalation.
The real evidence though, is that fantasy ‘flashback’ sequence of Dhillon’s. Having witnessed the fight between Hannah and Talitha at the ball, knowing about the threatening texts and Hannah’s complaint about Dhillon to Dr Vendler, how likely is it that Hannah simply forgave all and invited those two in for a chummy drink? That never happened, because Talitha was the one telling the truth. The real story is that Dhillon left her house after she fell asleep, went to Hannah’s, where he possibly drugged her (Hannah had GHB in her system, though could have taken it recreationally) raped and strangled her before dumping her body in the water. And when he was caught, he tried to shift the blame onto his oldest friend, whose brash and personality he knew would do her no favours in court.
All episode of Showtrial are currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer.