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Christopher Eccleston standing with his arms crossed in front of a blue brick background

'People power is always fascinating': Christopher Eccleston on 'The Guilty Innocent'

Christopher Eccleston is exploring some of history’s biggest miscarriages of justice in a gripping new series on Sky HISTORY.

Image: The Guilty Innocent with Christopher Eccleston

Fronted by the EMMY award-winning actor, The Guilty Innocent presents a contemporary investigation into two of the world’s most infamous cases of apparent wrongful convictions.

Featuring the cases of George Davis and James Hanratty, these fascinating stories are brought to life in an exploration of how the justice system may have got the wrong person and what it says about our world today.

Ahead of the series beginning on Tuesday, 14th May at 9pm, Sky HISTORY spoke to Christopher Eccleston about why these stories are so powerful, what it was like meeting the family members of those affected, and his memories of the cases.

What can viewers expect to see from The Guilty Innocent and why was it a project that you wanted to be involved in?

I'm hoping that the viewers will feel that their intelligence is respected. We're asking them to make their own decisions and we're not spoon-feeding them. With my interviews, we're trying to not make a dry documentary. We're trying to give the subjects their own voice rather than treating them as specimens. I want a level of intellectual and emotional engagement.

Miscarriages of justice have always been dramatised, so there's a very strong narrative here. And for people - my generation and older - there's already an awareness, but there's an opportunity here for younger generations to understand that corruption can happen at very high levels, and it's a reminder that we need to be eternally vigilant.

We want viewers simply to think their time – intellectually and emotionally - was well spent.

What was it about these two cases that made them worth exploring and so compelling for viewers?

George Davis was clearly innocent of the offence. The James Hanratty case is more problematic. We must step back with the Hanratty case and I think there are grounds for a follow-up programme where we speak to the forensic scientists who have argued about the DNA evidence.

It gives us an opportunity to look at Britain in another time. Certainly, with the George Davis case, it was the Britain of my youth. I remember the graffiti but never imagined that one day I'd meet the subject of the graffiti.

These cases divided the nation at the time, the entire nation was focused on these two cases. Both of them gave rise to un-politicised, voiceless people challenging the establishment. That's always dramatic and always satisfying. It's a lazy phrase, but ‘people power’ is always fascinating.

What memories do you have of the George Davis protests that were happening while you were a young boy?

I was just a child so just seeing the graffiti. Usually, the graffiti I saw was about football allegiance or the name of a pop star. I remember thinking ‘George Davis’ was not a particularly exciting name. It's not ‘Jimi Hendrix’, it's not ‘Marvin Gaye’, it's not ‘MUFC’, so what is that? Of course, my mother and father would have known but I had no idea it was the tip of this working-class grassroots movement of rebellion and challenge.

When I played Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It, it was inevitable to be led to Hanratty because they are no longer around to speak for themselves because of the capital punishment issue. So I was glad to reengaged with the whole debate about capital punishment. I’m hoping that the Hanratty documentary does make viewers meditate again on capital punishment.

Why do you think these cases gained so much attention at the time, from ordinary, working-class people all the way through to the likes of John Lennon and Roger Daltrey?

In the 1950s and 60s there was a growing sense that our public services, be it the police or the judicial system, that we could be misserved, that corruption did go right to the top and that the world wasn't a nanny state. We couldn't trust our elders.

This was a period when we were beginning to question. With these cases, there were great demonstrations and it started to seep through that all was not what it seemed with the establishment.

Rose Davis leading a group of people protesting George Davis' conviction
Image: Rose Davis ardently protested against her husband's conviction | The Guilty Innocent with Christopher Eccleston

What was it like meeting Peter Chappell’s daughter and speaking to her about her father, a man who campaigned so passionately on behalf of his friend?

It was very emotional. It was very moving for his daughter and grandson to speak about him. We did the interview in the house that he lived in which is still within the family and just down the street is a site of one of the original pieces of graffiti.

Peter became a very popular and loved local figure. To me, it was fascinating speaking to family members while making this programme. I wanted to give a voice to people who perhaps had not had one. That's the attraction for me, interviewing people.

You also spoke to James Hanratty’s nephew and found out how the family is still affected by the case all these decades later.

That was very powerful. They said as soon as they give their surname they are dealing with suspicion. I hope in the interviews that I'm asking the questions that the viewer would want to ask. I'm there for the viewer. What would you say to these people? I’m kind of a conduit for the audience.

Are there any other cases of miscarriages of justice that you would like to explore in the future?

Stephen Lawrence. The Guildford Three. The Birmingham Six. I'd like to look again at the Bentley case and the Hillsborough case. The 97 people who died at Hillsborough are the ‘Guilty Innocent’, they were smeared.

I think the recent Post Office scandal, it would be good to speak to the individuals involved in that. It’s great to see them dramatically represented, but there’s nothing like seeing the people themselves and hearing their testimonies. There's nothing more powerful than that. No matter what actors and directors do, there’s nothing more powerful than hearing it from the horse's mouth.

This is your first television presenting role, so how did you find the transition from being an actor on stage and screen?

I found it kind of seamless and easy. I've interviewed a really wide variety of people on Radio Four. I don't like to talk about myself or my career when I get in cabs or when I go to cafes. I'll always turn it around.

I talk to people a lot and the skill to do that on camera is to be natural, have your questions and your plan, but be willing to move with what happens. One of my great heroes is Michael Palin and his ability to speak to people on camera, relax them, and disappear. My job is to disappear and I enjoy that. I loved it.

The Guilty Innocent with Christopher Eccleston starts Tuesday, 14th May at 9pm on Sky HISTORY.