British television has a tradition, all the way back to The War Game, of using science fiction as a way of debating current events – it’s always controversial, and means a lot of announcements throughout that this is not a real news program but a fiction set in a parallel world.
The premise here is that, after the Soham murders, the UK parliament has bowed to public pressure and reintroduced the death penalty – for murder and the rape of a child. Paul Francis Gadd, aka Gary Glitter (Hilton McRae), is repatriated to Britain after serving a sentence for child sex offences in a Vietnamese jail, and finds himself on trial at the Old Bailey on what is now a capital offence. It’s presented as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but is less insistent about it than many other efforts in the sub-genre: there are lengthy scenes of Gadd talking with his defence lawyer, John Carter (Adam James). The title pretty much tells you where it’s going – and the issue of capital punishment is reduced to a pair of mad-eyed, fanatical women sloganeering on either side of the fence outside Pentonville. The details of the process are credible, with a just-promoted warder (Alan Brent) explaining ‘I’m called officially “a hanging technician” … words like “hangman” come with too much baggage’ and a set-up whereby a false wall in the death cell turns out to be a sliding door to the gallows. It draws on Ann Widdicombe, Miranda Sawyer and Gary Bushell as talking heads about pop and execution: a problem I have with the issue is that – though I know it’s wrong – I can’t find it in me to hate convicted sex offender Glitter (who I didn’t like as a singer) any more than I loathe and despise Widdicombe or Bushell, neither of whom I really think should be hanged.
McRae is surprisingly persuasive as a Mandarin-bearded, jail-canny, unforthcoming Glitter, though writer-director Rob Coldstream isn’t interested – and probably couldn’t get away with – an actual extended trial that hashes over whether or not he’s guilty enough to deserve the death penalty under the (let’s not forget) made-up legal system which obtains in this imaginary country. A believable development has a remix of Glitter’s old hits with snippets from his testimony being a download hit on the day he is hanged – he gets the news that he’s number one again, then is furious when he hears what’s been done with it.