The story behind BBC drama The Trick

THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

man holding a globe sat on a leather sofa in a timber framed house

Prof Phil Jones at home in Norfolk. The tapestry behind him reads 'Veritas Vos liberabit' - 'the truth will set you free'

Prof Phil Jones at home in Norfolk. The tapestry behind him reads 'Veritas Vos liberabit' - 'the truth will set you free'

It’s been 12 years since the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit was hacked. Twelve years since those stolen emails and documents were crudely misrepresented by climate deniers. And 12 years since a global media storm, which came to be known as Climategate, focused its attention on one man – Professor Phil Jones.

As the BBC prepares to air its landmark dramatisation of those intense months in the spotlight, the real people behind the fictionalised characters in The Trick tell their story. And today’s climate researchers, influenced by the CRU’s trailblazing role, tell us why they’ve picked up the baton to ensure that science remains at the core of humanity’s fight against climate change.   


It is a rainy November in 2009 – the UK’s wettest on record – and thousands of emails and documents have been hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

Cherry-picked extracts are being published via climate sceptic blogs in the US in an apparent attempt to derail the imminent COP15 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. Media and political focus on UEA and its community of pioneering climate scientists is at fever pitch.

“We were bombarded,” says Prof Phil Jones who lives with his wife south of Norwich. “Reporters arrived at our house and even questioned our neighbours. We had vile, threatening and abusive mail and emails from complete strangers.

“Some had death threats to me and my family,” he adds. “It was very shocking and frightening for all of us.

“All my working life it has been very important to me to be a good, ethical scientist. When I was called a fraud or a charlatan, I felt attacked to the very core and I floundered and did not know how to respond. I found it difficult to sleep and relaxed only when watching mindless television or doing jigsaws. I closed down.”

man in a blue and white jumper holding a cup and looking out the window

Prof Phil Jones, photographed at home

Prof Phil Jones, photographed at home

Climategate

The BBC drama The Trick tells the story of the impact that cybercrime had on the climate scientists caught at the centre.

The historian Prof Edward Acton had been appointed UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor just months before Climategate. He will not easily forget the way “reason was drowned out by the din from the climate change deniers’ echo chamber and their fellow-travellers in the media".

“UEA was in the firing line only because its work was of such immense significance, helping in effect to redefine the human predicament,” he says.

“There was a sense of menace. Of malign, partly anonymous, but well-funded figures determined to discredit science and undermine UEA.”

UEA has been at the forefront of ground-breaking climate science since the CRU was established in 1972; it constructed its first Global Temperature Record ten years later. The University has played a pioneering role in uncovering, analysing and defining humanity’s impact on the climate and, today, the evidence that UEA's environmental scientists have compiled is at the centre of our understanding of the climate emergency – and our response to it.

Though partially retired, Prof Jones remains in the top 1% of the world’s most highly-cited researchers. He continues to be involved in the UEA research that feeds into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports underpinning negotiations in the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. But despite being at the centre of research that had an influence in decision-making worldwide, you can bet he never expected to be played by actor Jason Watkins in a primetime BBC drama.

“It was a very strange and surreal experience seeing myself and my wife portrayed by Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton,” he says. “It is remarkable how they not only understood us but were able to observe and portray our mannerisms and quirks - some of which came as news to me!

“To see Jason become me and then to watch ‘me’ at this most difficult time of my life has been very odd. The Trick does feel very real. It reflects how it was.”

newspaper clippings

Newspaper clippings taken at the time of Climategate

Newspaper clippings taken at the time of Climategate

newspaper clippings

Clipping from the Guardian: 'The UEA's climate science chief has been cleared: he was provoked beyond endurance. It was unfair to call for his resignation'

Clipping from the Guardian: 'The UEA's climate science chief has been cleared: he was provoked beyond endurance. It was unfair to call for his resignation'

"The science establishment should have had faith in the scientific method and - in the early days of the 'scandal' - directly attacked the ludicrous claim that a hoax had been perpetrated on the world, over many years, orchestrated by a small group of climate scientists centred in Norwich..."

The world reacts

As the world’s media gathered around the columnar form of the CRU, the UEA community united around the scientists.

“UEA did come together,” says Prof Jones. “It had to for the sake of the science – and I got a lot of support.

“I had many very supportive letters, cards and emails from a wide range of people – friends, colleagues and strangers. A letter came from a local school where the pupils sent supportive messages. That was very moving.”

“I think what enabled the University to cope with the strain was staff loyalty to UEA, an extraordinary esprit de corps,” adds Prof Acton. “And it has been great to see how our research has continued to power ahead in the decade since Climategate.”

Prof Edward Acton and Prof Trevor Davies

Prof Edward Acton and Prof Trevor Davies

He remains saddened and surprised at the “pusillanimous behaviour of so much of the British establishment” in the face of the media and political storm. 

“In fact, the part of the establishment that behaved best were the police,” he adds. “I was impressed by the courage and good judgement of DCS Julian Gregory of Norfolk Police who immediately escalated the hacking investigation to Gold status. I remember a visit by two gentlemen from Scotland Yard who earnestly told me they would be using Holmes. I had a momentary sense of time-warp - until they spelled out they meant the Home Office Large Murder Enquiry System (HOLMES).”

a column-shaped building with trees in the foreground

Climatic Research Unit at UEA

Climatic Research Unit at UEA

Even so, UEA’s then Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Prof Trevor Davies, says it was an isolating experience.

“In particular the Trick evokes the strong sense that we felt rather alone,” he says. “Although parts of the science ‘establishment’ did defend climate science publicly, there was a hesitancy to publicly defend CRU climate research.

“This was perhaps inevitable since it was difficult for many to understand the cunning in the cherry-picking of emails. But the science establishment, more than anywhere else, should have had faith in the scientific method and - in the early days of the 'scandal' - directly attacked the ludicrous claim that a hoax had been perpetrated on the world, over many years, orchestrated by a small group of climate scientists centred in Norwich!"

a man and woman stood in a timber framed house with a clock between them

Prof Phil Jones and his wife Ruth

Prof Phil Jones and his wife Ruth

The Trick

A personal frustration of Prof Davies' had been that so much had been written about Climategate with little or no input “from those under the crashing wave”. As a climate scientist and former director of CRU, he was delighted to be interviewed at length by Owen Sheers as he developed the script.

The drama gives some idea of the hysterical nature of some of the media coverage, and the difficulty we had in coping with the strident demands for interviews with Phil Jones – who was perceived as the central villain in the ‘scandal’ – and the unfair accusations that he was being gagged.

“The Trick makes it clear why the University found itself in this position. We had a duty of care to distressed staff.” It is, in some some ways, an opportunity to make sense of such extraordinary events – and to set the record straight.

“For those closest to it,” says Prof Davies, “Climategate quickly grew into something more intense, unpredictable, uncontrollable and dark than anything we are likely to experience again.

“It was probably more daunting than any university had ever experienced, and so complex that I wondered how a 90-minute drama could do it justice. But it does accurately capture how it was at the time – the dialogues and personal events, and a feeling of being beneath a perpetually-breaking tsunami.”

Played by Aneirin Hughes, Prof Davies found the actor’s careful preparation reassuring:

“He took care to understand how I had found Climategate and to explore the nature of my relationship with the other ‘characters’. He also asked how I would feel being played by someone who finds it hard to supress his Welsh accent. I have roots in Wales and rather like the idea of sounding more Welsh!”

Prof Acton, an admirer of the work of The Trick writer Owen Sheers, was supportive of the idea of a “truth-telling” drama about this important historical and personal moment. He was “much tickled by the casting”.

“I couldn’t be there when Ade Edmondson was filming but I was struck by the care he took to brief himself fully before filming began.”

actor getting out of a car on set

Victoria Hamilton on the set of The Trick. She plays Prof Jones' wife, Ruth

Victoria Hamilton on the set of The Trick. She plays Prof Jones' wife, Ruth

two people wearing facemasks chatting

Prof Davies speaks to Aneirin Hughes, who plays him in The Trick

Prof Davies speaks to Aneirin Hughes, who plays him in The Trick

actor on set, filmed getting into a car with camera in the foreground

Jason Watkins, as Prof Phil Jones, on the set of The Trick. Filmed at UEA

Jason Watkins, as Prof Phil Jones, on the set of The Trick. Filmed at UEA

three people posing for a photo, trees in the background

Prof Edward Acton, UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor, with Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton

Prof Edward Acton, UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor, with Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton

camera crew filming in the boot of a car

On set of the Trick at UEA campus

On set of the Trick at UEA campus

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actor getting out of a car on set

Victoria Hamilton on the set of The Trick. She plays Prof Jones' wife, Ruth

Victoria Hamilton on the set of The Trick. She plays Prof Jones' wife, Ruth

two people wearing facemasks chatting

Prof Davies speaks to Aneirin Hughes, who plays him in The Trick

Prof Davies speaks to Aneirin Hughes, who plays him in The Trick

actor on set, filmed getting into a car with camera in the foreground

Jason Watkins, as Prof Phil Jones, on the set of The Trick. Filmed at UEA

Jason Watkins, as Prof Phil Jones, on the set of The Trick. Filmed at UEA

three people posing for a photo, trees in the background

Prof Edward Acton, UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor, with Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton

Prof Edward Acton, UEA’s eighth Vice-Chancellor, with Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton

camera crew filming in the boot of a car

On set of the Trick at UEA campus

On set of the Trick at UEA campus

Into the future

Twelve years on the story behind The Trick continues to inspire young people across the world to pick up the baton from Prof Phil Jones and his colleagues at the CRU - and help the world tackle climate change.

Aayushi Awasthy is a current economics PhD student and host of the climate change podcast 'Why haven't we solved it yet?' She says she knew "research at UEA must be critical if climate deniers wanted to target them.

"When I applied to UEA that was always a part of the story," she adds. "To me, the fact that colleagues and the scientific community mobilised around them was a very powerful story of hope and resilience."

Aayushi Awasthy's climate change podcast features a number of climate researchers and graduates of UEA

"Research output here is not driven by competition, but instead by a genuine curiosity that is supported within and between research groups," adds Elise Droste, an environmental science PhD student who last year travelled to the Arctic as part of the MOSAiC expedition. "People are interested in each other’s science and work, which is apparent during, for example, the various weekly seminars given by professors, postdocs, and PhD students.

"This personal aspect is what inspires me to work at the School of Environmental Sciences and it’s the inclusiveness that makes me feel like I’m contributing to UEA’s efforts around climate science with my little nugget of research."

UEA PhD students Aayushi Awasthy and Elise Droste: it's a "very powerful story of hope and resilience"

UEA PhD students Aayushi Awasthy and Elise Droste: it's a "very powerful story of hope and resilience"

Prof Davies feels sufficient time has passed for the scars of those most affected, including the “immensely brave” Phil and Ruth Jones, to have healed. And for UEA to overcome reservations about “re-opening it all again”. 

“The Trick is being broadcast at an important time – just before COP26 and following years of extreme weather events ravaging the globe," says Prof Davies. "A personal hope is that it will help viewers understand the importance of a strong outcome from Glasgow. It is the strength of public opinion which drives most politicians to action.”

“I would like all politicians to go into COP26 with open hearts and open minds,” says Prof Jones. “as they can make a powerful and meaningful response to the difficulties the world faces and change the future for our children and grandchildren.”