Murder Trial: The Disappearance Of Margaret Fleming, BBC Scotland, Tuesday and Wednesday

True crime is like folk music: everyone has their own unique version of it yet still it travels well because it has powerful universal appeal. In literary form the true crime genre is long established – see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – but more recent endeavours such as the podcasts Serial and S-Town, and Netflix documentaries like Making A Murderer have brought that same, sprawling forensic approach to the age of stream-able, multi-part series. And boy do we have an appetite for its realness and its drama.

BBC Scotland’s powerful, intense and at times difficult documentary about the Margaret Fleming murder trial had only two parts, but it fitted in to this new true crime genre while also speaking to a subject which has troubled us for far longer than podcasts and streaming platforms have been around: how we protect the vulnerable in society and how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks and disappear from view. One such person was Margaret Fleming.

The documentary also broke new ground thanks to the decision by the trial judge Lord Matthews, the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service to allow director Matt Pinder and his crew to film proceedings, a first for a High Court murder trial. The case itself is well known. Briefly: the prosecution contended that Fleming, a vulnerable young woman with learning difficulties, had been murdered by her carers Edward Cairney and Avril Jones at their home in Inverkip, some time after Christmas 1999. That was the last time she was seen by anyone other than the accused. The case seemed cut and dried – except there was no body and no obvious proof of crime.

Editing hundreds of hours of trial footage into a chronological account of proceedings, intercutting that with interviews with police officers, witnesses and the three QCs involved in the case, and adding news footage and stately drone shots of the picturesque surroundings, Pinder and his team created a compelling 120 minutes of television with some eye-watering moments. One was the calculating and unbelievable trial testimony of Cairney, who at one point called prosecuting QC Iain McSporran a “clown” and told him to “go boil yer heid”. Another was footage of Jones shot by a BBC Scotland news crew when she and Cairney agreed to an interview about Fleming’s “disappearance”. It was in the eyes and the telling silence. A third, most chilling of the lot, was a drawing found hidden behind a piece of furniture in the room Fleming was said to have occupied – a stick figure with a mop of black hair like hers, and the word “Help” scrawled in red capital letters.

Not an easy watch and not one that didn’t have its missteps – Whispering Grass was a bizarre choice for the opening title music – but an important work for a BBC Scotland channel growing steadily in confidence.