It's been the longest civil trial in English history:
two anarchists against the might of McDonald's.

And now it's a mini-series

John Vidal reports on the televising of the 'McLibel' trial

The Guardian; 16th May 1997

Eleven years ago, a small group of self-styled anarchists hand out some leaflets about McDonald's. Nobody knows. Three years later, McDonald's sues five people. No one cares. Four more years, and two Londoners go on trial. No one pays much attention. Three years are spent in court. Not much media interest. The submissions finish in December 1996. Still little coverage. And then, bang! Within a few weeks there's one mega-reconstruction, a full-length docudrama, a book and an Internet site being accessed at least 1.5 million times a month. And all before the judge has given his verdict.

McHype, the media event of the McLibel trial, began in 1994, around Day 116 of McLibel, when Dennis Woolf submitted a TV outline to Channel 4. He was wise, was Dennis. Had he gone earlier, the conversation with the commissioning editors would have gone something like: "So, Mr Woolf, you'd like 250,000 to tell a fairy tale about two out-of-work north Londoners being sued by one of the world's largest companies? Hmmm. Would three and a quarter hours of prime-time telly be all right? How about a cast of 50, several full-time lawyers and a former head of BBC drama to direct it? You want us to show the film before the judge gives his verdict? Fine. You say that the BBC, Channel 4, the Guardian and dozens of other companies have had to apologise to the plaintiffs? No problem at all."

Woolf - Mancunian and unputoffable - forgets what was happening in the court in those days. Perhaps the burger giant was defending its record on rainforests. Maybe its health experts were in the witness box, or was the company's $2,000 million annual advertising spend under scrutiny? Almost certainly the two defendants, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, were being bamboozled by the British libel laws, and stressed out by the reality of defending themselves in the High Court against one of the best legal teams in the land.

Woolf had spent weeks in and out of court since the early days of the case. He'd watched the David and Goliath tale unfolding, heard the underdogs barking and scoring points against the 6,000-a-day opposition; but he also noted that no one - apart from small magazines like Squall - was seriously covering the trial. The occasional journalist popped into Court 35 of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, but this scarecrow of litigation - what Auberon Waugh was to call "the best free show in town" - was in effect being ignored.

Woolf's nose twitches when he sniffs a meaty case that is structurally all but impossible for the media to follow on a day-to-day basis, either because of its length or arcaneness, its politics or complexity The man who has made a name out of epic reconstructions (Scott Klaus Barbie, the Birmingham Six, Spycatcher; etc) says, "The things which interest me are the subjects that are ignored. I like to dodge between the cracks."

And here, by Day 116, was a real roast-and-two-veg of a case. McLibel the trial was stuffed full of claim and counter-claim, fact and counterfact, but it was also a metaphor for the divisions in society. Here were the grassroots - hacked off, bewildered and stamped on by so much in the eighties - pitted against the corporate select. Parading in front of an arcane British judicial system were some modern myths: fexan ranchers, English chicken snatchers, smooth-suited South Americans, CEOs on half a million bucks a year, to be followed by private eyes, US attorney generals, doctors and admen, burger-flippers, environmentalists and scientists.

Moreover, the personal chemistry between the main characters - the judge, the McDonald's legal team the defendants - was building nicely into a soap opera, full of unstated animosities and private revulsions. Not once in three years did the two sides acknowledge the presence of each other.

Channel 4 backed Woolf over some unknowns who had applied to make a docu-drama of the trial, and, development money in hand, his team began to gut the case. It took years. Two lawyers had to read more than 15,000 pages of court transcripts. Woolf himself read more than 200 of the 313 days' evidence - 20 weeks' solid reading. There were 40,000 pages of witness statements to consider. The McDonald's closing arguments alone covered several hundred pages. He had no contact with either camp.

McLibel was telly heaven but a nightmare to condense, says Woolf. There was nothing remotely normal about it, or the characters. Spectacularly unbalanced, it had no jury and the legally untrained defendants were on a crash course in DIY law. And even as the judge was trying to teach them the legal rudiments, so the defendants were trying to restructure his politics.

It was, Woolf says, two belief systems on trial, with the burger bun being offered as the communion wafer. "What struck me was how similar both parties were. Capitalism and anarchism are both forms of religion. There were times when I could understand and not understand both sides at the same time. What was going on in court was often mutual incomprehension."

Even at 195 minutes. Woolf's film leaves out great chunks of the store For a start, all the 28 pre-trial hearings had to go, as did the appeals to Europe and the House of Lord; Issues like McDonald's PR, anti union relations fell at the first hurdle. There's no evidence of the interminable days spent examining litter and packaging, and the emphasis is on the argument! rather than the characters.

After such a massive sub-editing job, the fllming was relatively easy a week of rehearsals and a few days camera, with the Beeb's former head of drama James Cellan Jones (Forsyte Saga, Fortunes Of War Harnessing Peacocks) directing The actors go for feel rather than looks, says Woolf, and the tensions are nicely caught. And in a fine touch, Channel 4's Sheena McDonald (no relation) plays the linkwoman. Suitably for England's longest ever civil trial, it is the longest ever court reconstruction.

Enter Franny Armstrong, the whippersnapper turned down by Channel 4 even as Woolf was putting on his reading glasses. Her idea of using the real characters but going behind the scenes into the personal lives of the defendants was fresh, but she had no record in television. Oxonian and as unputoffable as Woolf, she persevered, and applied to 16 other commissioning editors. All said no.

Undaunted, her team (she and one other) begged and borrowed a top-drawer BBC director and technicians, and learned fast. The result is One Off Productions' McLibel - Two Worlds Collide. Where Woolf uses actors, Armstrong has interview access to all the defendants' witnesses, but no one in the McDonald's camp. In order to balance the film legally they have recreated the McDonald's evidenre with Steel and Morris playing themselves against professional actors.

If Woolf's "old-time" TV methods (his phrase) work well for the trial's reconstruction, Armstrong uses every trick in the new book of drama documentary making including secret filming at a McDonald's sponsored event. She, too, spent at least 20 days in the courtroom, and McDonald's has promised to talk after the verdicts. "The hardest thing was understanding all the legal bullshit. It was the most contentious of cases. A media lawyer helped."

Armstrong's greatest coup is having persuaded Ken Loach to direct some of the drama spots. The Cannes festival-winner plays down his involvement but, Armstrong says, it is crucial: "I gave a day but it's their film, not mine. I do think it's a remarkable achievement. I really wouldn't want to take the credit."

Perhaps no one will. The verdict will be given in mid-June, and Armstrong is left holding a complete and unique documentary but has still not found a British taker. She has potential foreign distributors (Scandinavia, Australia, most of the rest of the world loves this sort of thing) but it's quite possible the film will never be shown here.

If all else fails, she will create a website and put it out on the Internet for anyone to download. After all, McSpotlight, the site that Steel and Morris's supporters have set up, has now had more than 14 million "hits", a figure any mainstream TV executive would love.

Dennis Woolf's McLibel! begins on Channel 4 tomorrow at 7.15pm.
It concludes on Sunday at 7.30pm.
John Vidal's book McLibel;Burger Culture On Trial is published by Macmillan at 15.99.

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