EXCLUSIVE: Nick Holt is a BAFTA-winning documentary maker who has made a name for himself exposing the inner workings of Britain’s criminal justice system with shows like The Murder Trial.
Produced by Kudos and 72 Films, Responsible Child tells the story of a 12-year-old boy named Ray who is put on trial for murder, thanks to an arcane English law that means children as young as 10 can go through the rigors of an adult courtroom case.
Holt spoke to Deadline about how Responsible Child was conceived, the differences in directing documentaries and dramas, and the boom in scripted projects being anchored in real-life stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jake Kanter: Tell me how Responsible Child came about?
Nick Holt: I was up in Scotland making The Murder Trial, probably for about 18 months in total, looking at various cases, and it was whilst I was up there that I saw a very young child, and I asked one of the lawyers, “Was that a witness?” She was incredibly young to be in a courtroom. And the sister of the accused, said, “No, actually that’s the accused.” I was quite taken aback by that. This child doesn’t look older than 10. And then I was told that actually, yes, there are trials for children of 10. And they’re put on trial as adults and they’re put on trial in front of juries, and they’re not part of the youth courts.
And that was a bit of a sort of a revelation to me really, a bit of a shock. So I then looked into what’s called the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the age at which we say children are old enough to stand trial for these sorts of serious crimes. And then I saw a headline in a newspaper, a tiny little story saying there were two brothers on trial for a murder in Guildford.
And that’s what led me to being able to go to a trial and see one of these. It was extraordinary to see, and then I became very close to a legal team involved in that case, and started understanding all about what it’s like to work on these cases, what it’s like to work with young accused.
So when you look at all these cases, you realize there’s so much context behind it, there’s so much story behind it, that such a [young] life is brought into the sort of forces at play. And that’s what led me to say, “Well, look this could be a good way to bring this to a wider audience.” Because you get involved emotionally with the story, emotionally with the child.
And that could be the best way for an audience to understand the challenges that a lot of these children go through. Because they have a lot in common, these young children. They’re all from certain sorts of background, they’ve all been around, they’ve got various challenges in their lives and their upbringing and needs that haven’t been met.
So you watched Ray’s case play out in real-time. That must have given you a real sense of what the child was going through at the time and how the legal team was supporting him?
Absolutely. I’m no stranger to sitting through murder trials. I’ve sat through a great many in my time. But there was just something extraordinary seeing the focus of the entire room on a small child. There was just something so potent about the image of a child who could barely see over the witness stand, and subjected to examination, cross-examination.
And of course, you wonder about children, in general, is how much do they understand about what’s going on. How much of the case they understand, how much do they understand of what they’re saying, the consequences of what they’re saying, what’s being really asked for in what they’re saying? It’s an incredibly stressful situation and so, yes, it was extraordinary to see it first hand.
At what point did you think this would better as a scripted proposition rather than a documentary?
Well, I think that the big problem with documentary is that you would never be able to get behind the eyes of the child. And it [a drama] felt like it was the only way to get an audience to really engage with the emotional story. To get them to really engage with what it must be like for a child.
And to make it sort of intimate and close. So that you could really understand all of the challenges that children like this go through. And a lot of these children, because they’re from traumatic families or have traumas, they’re sort of quite voiceless in a way, they’re sort of quite hidden. It felt like a drama would be an extraordinary way to do that, and to give these children a presence if you like.
Once you’d made that decision was it then that you approached Kudos in 72 Films?
I was working with a documentary company at the time, and we came up with the story and we said, “Well, look, this is interesting, it highlights a lot of the relevant issues about this piece of law, and how might we be able to get this to a wide audience?” And then it’s like a drama seems the best tool for the job really. The documentary company I was working for at the time was part of the Endemol Group which Kudos was a part of and so we were encouraged to speak to them.
So it’s a bit of cross-pollination. And that’s when I went to Kudos and they said, “Great it will work.” And then we started to write it. It was important that this was well researched, so everything from the legal aspects to the child psychology aspects were thoroughly looked at. And that’s when I met [writer] Sean [Buckley], and Sean just immediately engaged with the story.
This is your directorial debut in drama, how has it compared to your experiences in documentary making?
It’s been fascinating. I really enjoyed working with the actors and Billy [Barratt] in particular. That’s a boy who had just turned 12. His twelfth birthday was, I think about 10 days or two weeks before we started filming. So he’s extraordinary and it was really extraordinary.
It was fantastic being able to go to places that the documentary lens could never quite get to. It could never quite take you into the moment of being with Ray behind the doors, his bedroom, and with him on the way to murder, or in the courtroom. It meant that you could access all of the story, all of the character, all of the time. And that was really enjoyable.
And you were surrounded by a crew I would imagine?
It’s lovely having a crew. We shot in a way that was great actually, I was concerned that the filming wouldn’t get in the way of process and we kept ourselves, we had a very small crew, and we sort of shot it in quite a documentary way, sort of minimal lighting and we used real locations. I mean the courtroom is a real functioning courtroom. There are no sets or anything like that. I wanted to keep it as close to the character’s experience as possible.
And the action that we see in the courtroom, how faithful is that to what you witnessed yourself?
Pretty much. It’s very faithful really. I was keen to do it in a contemporary court because I didn’t want this to feel like some sort of Dickensian story in the Old Bailey. There’s only one court that looks like the Old Bailey, that’s the Old Bailey and it was important to me that people felt that this was a modern phenomenon.
It feels like there’s quite a boom in factual drama at the moment. Why do you think that is?
I suppose it’s always story-led. I mean we all love a story and I think there’s a particular type of story that people might be already familiar with or have sense of but haven’t really got behind. And I think when we know that this is something that has actually happened or happens to real people, I think it just pulls us closer to the story. To know this has happened to real people just makes it more compelling.
What do you hope the film achieves? Is your hope that it will provoke change?
It’s a complicated story, like for all these cases, there are no yardsticks, but I suppose the main thing really that is to sort of highlight the issue really, and start a discussion. I think it’s interesting that very few people know that the criminal age is 10. I think that even fewer know that this is from a piece of law since 1963. If you or I had a mental age of a 10-year-old, we’d be deemed unfit to try. It’s an extraordinary, extraordinary hangover from a very old piece of law.
You’ve assembled a very good cast, a well-known cast in internationally, if you look at people like Michelle Fairley and Owen from Killing Eve of course. Have you managed to secure any interest from broadcasters or streaming services in the U.S.?
I’d be delighted in any interest that he may have, but no, I don’t know what’s happening.
What about your next project?
I’d love to do another drama, I really would. So we’ll see, but then again, it doesn’t mean I’ll never do another documentary. I suppose it’s all, in a sense, the story isn’t it? A story can grab you from either a documentary or the drama world. So yeah, I’m not fixed.