Common, BBC1, TV review: Jimmy McGovern’s harrowing crime drama is another cracker

  • @MsEllenEJones

An action-packed opening is all very well, but as 17-year-old Johnjo (Nico Mirallegro) sped down the road in his brother’s car, you did wonder how he got himself into this mess. Unwitting or not, he’d become the getaway driver in a fatal stabbing.

Why did he allow himself to fall in with such a bad lot? Surely any person who associates with criminals, must be in some way culpable? I should have known better than to think a writer of Jimmy McGovern’s quality would leave these questions unaddressed. They were at the very crux of Common (Sun BBC1), his one-off 90-minute drama on the Joint Enterprise law.

As Johnjo’s barrister later outlined in court, a 300-year-old law first used to stop aristocrats duelling has recently been revived to tackle gang violence. Prosecutors no longer need to prove that a defendant wielded the weapon to convict. It is enough that he or she was witness to it and sometimes, as in Johnjo’s case, even that is unnecessary.

“It’s called Joint Enterprise, y’know, and I love it,” purred the investigating officer played by Welsh actor Robert Pugh. A bed of sinister music underneath Pugh’s actorly voice invested this speech with a little too much pantomime villainy, but that was the only false note struck in an otherwise excellent drama.

From left: Patrick O'Shea (BENJAMIN SMITH), Coleen O'Shea (JODHI MAY), Karen O'Shea (FINN ATKINS), Johnjo O'Shea (NICO MIRALLEGRO), Peter O'Shea (ANDREW TIERMAN)

McGovern’s writing got the blood pumping at the injustice of this discriminatory law, but it never forgot that Joint Enterprise is an attempt, however flawed, to deal with a far greater injustice:the loss of a life. As the bereaved parents, Daniel Mays and Susan Lynch didn’t have as much to work with in terms of stirring, campaigning dialogue, but their harrowed faces were an important reminder of this context. The dead boy, his killer and the witnesses may have come from the same working-class community, but they all had their own stories that deserved to be heard. 

Common devastatingly revealed how Joint Enterprise has taken the class prejudice that treats every kid off the council estate as indistinguishable – or “common” – and made it law. Here, it was Johnjo’s enraged aunt (Michelle Fairley from Game of Thrones, getting to do some proper acting for once) who dealt the fatal blow: “It’s not about guilty or innocent, it’s about getting working-class scum off the street. That’s how they see our kids – scum, scallys...”

ITV is usually more Downton than Motown, but the channel ventured  onto the streets of Detroit last night  to tell the stories behind The Nation’s Favourite Motown Song, a culture documentary with a surprisingly effective populist slant. It was, after all, Berry Gordy’s hit factory that introduced black music into the British mainstream.

The format was a Top 20 countdown based on “an exclusive ITV poll”. The methodology of this poll was suspect – no one polled me, did they poll you? – but it did allow us the pleasure of hearing the likes of Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves discuss some of the greatest music ever recorded. Shane from Boyzone was also on hand to... er... actually I’ve no idea what Shane was doing in a Motown documentary.

If you could sift the stream of similarly inexplicable interviewees (see also: Michael Bolton), there were some interesting insights. Listening to the harmonies of The Temptations is a kind of religious experience, isn’t it? Although hearts may be broken by the shockingly unchivalrous approach Holland-Dozier-Holland took to writing their impassioned love songs.

“Stop! In the Name of Love” apparently originated in something flippant Lamont Dozier said to a girlfriend during a row. I hope she got a royalty cheque.