LAST night, BBC ALBA broadcast a documentary about Donald Merrett, described as “one of the most colourful and daring criminals of his time”.
The BBC blurb, for All That Lies Behind Me – Sgeulachd Donald Merrett, begins: “In 1927, Donald Merrett began a 12-month sentence for forgery. A charge of murder had been found Not Proven. The killing for which he had stood trial, was that of his mother … and he was just 17.
“Born in New Zealand in 1908, Merrett moved with his mother Bertha to Edinburgh, in 1926. After she died and on his release from prison, he married 17 year-old Vera Bonnar and went on a 30-year spree across Europe. He spent a large inheritance, consorted with countless women – and traded on the black market during WWII.”
It was made by STV Productions, whose programme producer, Jackie Maclean, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the series?
This documentary-drama is part of a strand commissioned by MG ALBA for broadcast on BBC ALBA, and produced by STV Productions.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’
The strand has developed an unique way of visualising these historic murder stories by intercutting short dramatised scenes, with commentary from expert interviewees who have studied each case.
In the latest productions, presenter, John Morrison, reveals the stories from various well-known Edinburgh locations, where the murders took place.
Scenic and highly appealing views of Edinburgh bring home the fact that these horrific crimes took place in a beautiful city, known the world over.
Particular care was taken in casting for the drama reconstruction scenes. Physically, these have to be credible, to support genuine archive materials which are also featured throughout. As the drama elements were filmed mute, it was therefore very important to choose talent who could carry the scenes without using dialogue.
It’s a subtle and unusual approach to drama reconstruction of true crime. The production team wanted to avoid heavy-handed, ‘literal’ depictions while still retaining an atmosphere of suspense and intrigue.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
All the team are freelance practitioners hired on short-term contract.
Each member of our drama team was recruited for their experience and expertise in this genre;
Set designer and prop master, Mike Ireland, has over 30 years’ experience in his profession. His attention to detail and knowledge of period props has been central to the look of the programmes.
Costume designer, Robert Leop Macfarlane, worked tirelessly on the tricky period costume required to achieve an authentic feel to the drama. Robert’s innate knowledge of period clothing was fundamental to the production.
Carlo d’Alessandro is a gifted director of photography with a wonderful manner when directing cast. His eye for the perfect shot has continually made these programmes stand-out.
Working closely with executive producer and scriptwriter, Patsi Mackenzie, we collaborated on the final shooting script, and in choosing the most visual elements to dramatise on screen. Craft editor and fluent Gaelic speaker, Marion MacDonald, has also greatly helped shape these drama documentaries in post-production.
What kit and software?
The majority was shot on the Canon C300. Various lenses were used to achieve certain effects when filming ‘general views’ and interviews with programme contributors. Lighting was key to achieving the moody feel of the drama, so there was little work to do in terms of grading in post-production. Both offline and online edits were carried out on Avid, and Pro Tools was used by the Sound Dubber.
What were the main production challenges?
Working historic crime stories carries many challenges, especially when it comes to accuracy and detail where often, there is no pictorial reference and almost nothing available online. Research has therefore to be carried out in the traditional sense, and in a thorough and dedicated manner from the outset of pre-production. Old newspaper articles and trial notes were painstakingly cross-referenced to ensure that the accounts told within the documentaries were as accurate as possible. Certain books also proved invaluable; most of them out of print and hard to obtain, but extremely rich in detail. The same goes for contemporary newspaper accounts.
It could have been very easy to get carried away with these long lost events – especially with the romance of the Victorian stories. However, it was important to us as a team, to remember that these are true stories of horrific crimes
During production, attention to detail on set was a constant challenge. Getting the look and period right with set, props, costume and hair made filming a very delicate process with a lot of tweaking and compromising to ensure authenticity.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
Bringing these stories to the screen has been a fascinating experience. Personally, I’ve learned a great deal about the history of both Glasgow and Edinburgh, and have gained an understanding of society, and class structure in Scotland at the time. I would have had far less insight without the first hand research carried out for these projects. Overall, I find the collaborative process really gratifying – turning multi-layered, historic crime accounts into an hour of television for consumption by a very broad audience.