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Outside The Court: Filming the stories behind the court cases

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Fiona Wickham Fiona Wickham | 17:26 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

Film-maker Marc Isaacs spent three months on the steps outside Highbury and Islington Magistrates' Court in London, talking to the people who were coming in and out. The result is Outside The Court, a documentary that is part of BBC Four's Justice season.

Marc told the BBC TV blog about how he filmed the stories of the people involved in the court cases.

Mark, on the steps of Highbury and Islington Magistrates' Court

How did you decide on the subject for this documentary?
The idea for this film came from the controller of BBC Four, Richard Klein. He wanted, as part of the Justice season, to have a film featuring ordinary people.

He asked me if I would be interested in this subject because he knows I am drawn to the lives of ordinary people. [Marc made All White In Barking, as part of the BBC's White season, and Calais: The Last Border.] The rest is history, or recent history.

Did you have any sort of security while on the steps or was that not necessary?
No, just my colleague Guy King, who was my researcher and second camera person. But he's soft too, so we were totally vulnerable, but that's the best way.

Did you feel intimidated by any of the people you needed to approach for the film?
No not at all. I run a mile from intimidating people. I go for the ones with soft centres. The ones who are willing to open their hearts and tell of the deeper reasons why they regularly find themselves in front of the judge.

The court deals with all of the usual cases that any magistrates' court would see on a day to day basis, from drug and drink-related offences to violence and motor offences.

Mark [who was in court for breaching bail conditions] and Michel, the Frenchman, were just two of the characters who were more than happy to share their lives with us.

Who were you most interested by, of all the people you met on the steps?
Each for different reasons but Michel stole my heart.

He was in court for carrying an offensive weapon because he wanted to exact revenge on a security guard who he claims had been violent towards him.

On the way to commit this crime, Michel changed his mind and called the police to hand.

The best moment in the film, for me, is when Michel opens his heart to us in the cafe. This is the centre of the film, in my view.

Michel, the Frenchman

Were people hostile to you at first? What did you say to open the conversations and bring them round?
I approach people in a non-threatening way and just try to treat them as an equal and then act instinctively from there.

Is there a culture of people like journalists and paparazzi waiting on court steps? Did you get friendly with any of the other people waiting outside?
Every time the paparazzi turned up we went home. I despise those people, they are like vultures and I didn't want to be associated with them.

Did the programme turn out how you expected?
Film-making is a discovery. There are always surprises and thank God for that.

Most TV today eliminates the element of discovery in documentary. I want to fight to keep this idea alive. These kinds of films thrive on freedom and spontaneity.

What was the worst moment?
Waiting in winter for hours with nobody interesting turning up at court. I am not good in the cold.

Did you make any friends in the process of the programme?
I will stay in touch with a few of the characters but our relationship will always be defined by the experience of filming together. It's a friendship of a particular kind.

What was the most interesting thing that happened, or that you learned?
I learn something new in every film but, for me, I am pleased that we managed to make a film like this without moving too far away from the court itself. We tread a fine line but pull it off hopefully.

Presumably the story would be ever-changing - would you like to do it again or was once enough?

There is no story until you as the film-makers create one. So yes, if I did it again it would be very different but once is enough of course. I am ready for the next film now.

Outside The Court is on BBC Four at 9pm on Monday, 31 January.

Outside The Court is part of the Justice season on BBC Four.

Fiona Wickham is editor of the BBC TV blog.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    As a legal practitioner, though it is many many years since I appeared in a Magistrates' Court, I found this programme hugely rewarding. Kind, insightful with perceptive and gently insistent questioning from Marc Isaacs. One was allowed to draw one's own conclusions about the variety of interviewees. I, too, had my soft spot for the muddled Michel. May he find a place where he can thrive.

  • Comment number 2.

    these are the people the Tories will have representing themselves when they get rid of legal aid

  • Comment number 3.

    Marc, I watched this as a repeat on BBC4 at midnight...an inspiring piece of work, as a BBC TV producer myself I know all about stading around in the cold...but your time was well spent. This is up there with 'Cathy Come Home' in my book in showing the wider public a side of life they don't know is there - or more likely care to ignore.
    Well done...I hope all your subjects are okay...I did genuinely wonder if you would intervene when the chap missing his son took an overdose and laid down on the bench....amazing stuff... and Marcel deserves a much better life for himself.....keep up the good work....enter this for any award going and lobby hard to get it shown on BBC1 where some people might see it !!!

  • Comment number 4.

    As a news photographer,and ex-alcoholic,I take issue with Mr Issacs' programme and his comments here.Due to press complaints commission guidelines,photographing or interviewing people with mental issues or drug or alcohol addictions are strictly off limits to the print media....they are vulnerable people,and especially when are 'on' their drug of choice could be viewed as not having entire responsibility over their comments or actions....can you see where I'm going with this Mr Isaacs?...the makers of this programme will do well from it,the subjects,unlikely to.'I despise those people, they are like vultures and I didn't want to be associated with them.' I think the real vultures outside the court weren't the paparazzi.They were the cosy middle-class guys who have and will benefit from these vulnerable individuals.I was hoping , as the programme went on,that Mr Isaacs would have some guts and go for the 'hard-cases' one sees at courts..but no...nice and safe.yawn.I liked the programme's editing though,and must commend it.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Colin,

    I just read your comment. Myself and my production team took great care to maintain a lengthy and close relationship with some of the vulnerable people we filmed and this included speaking to family members and relevant friends in detail. The people in the film get alot out of the filming process as Michel states in the film himself. It isn't a one way relationship. I have made numerous films of this kind over many years and whilst the relationship between the filmmaker and the contributor is a complicated one, it usually has many benefits that go far beyond what appears on screen. My comment about the paparazzi is one that I stick too having witnessed their behaviour and total lack of concern for anything other than grabbing the image. The hard cases you mention didn't interest me in the slightest. I wanted to show how these vulnerable people you speak of clearly need more help in their life than a magistrate (however sympathetic) willing to dish out endless fines and short term prison sentences. Thanks for watching the film and commenting.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great report, very disturbing ! It clearly shows us how people can be destroy by the society, just because they don't have the help they need. Thanks for having opened my eyes ! These people, as Michel said, are, alas, excluded from our world ! Good luck to them !

    To react with what Colin said, I think that this kind of report is just vital for all of us : we forget that these people are human, but something in their life transformed them. Actually, I understood, with this report, that we are a part of their troubles, acting in the society as we are doing in the every day life. To not have dealt with hard cases was a good choice, because we can see that these people, although they have not kill, have their life destroy as much as criminals. They just need help, and people to listen carefully to them. Did anybody in the court have heard their stories with such objectivity?...

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Marc

    I just wanted to commend you on a truly insightful production that brought engaging ideas and diverse characters to the forefront, whilst giving them a voice. I viewed the first broadcast on the 31st January, and became enticed in the structure of the documentary. The dialogue flowed naturally, the camerawork allowed a bigger perspective of the environment of court life, as well as providing a fitting soundtrack that summarised the whole atmosphere. The lack of documentaries featuring ordinary people truly baffles me as there is such a purposeful reasoning for broadcasting, through originaility alone. These kind of documentaries are of particular interest to me and as a media culture student in my second year at University, I would be something that I would enormously want to be involved in. If you have any tips or advice on how to engage audiences through these types of documentaries, I would be very thankful. A true, immensely thought provoking programme, that covered a wide range of topics and derservedly provides enough footage to be broadcasted on bbc two, if not on one.


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