Grace Dent on TV: Common and The Honourable Woman are clangingly depressing, predictable television

Come awards season half of the voting committee will admit sheepishly that these shows left them a bit cold

Two mighty and important pieces of television this week: Jimmy McGovern’s Common, and the second part of Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman. When I state “mighty” or “important”, I don’t mean I was blown sky-high by either, but I watched both wholly aware that when TV-award voting season trundles around, both these offerings – about judicial reform and Israel – will be mightily discussed in a very important fashion.

Several artisan pastries and pots of coffee will be consumed and half of the voting committee will admit sheepishly that these shows left them a bit cold, but they’ll be in the running for a gong nevertheless due to the noble ambition of the writers.

There was an excellent sketch on the long-since defunct comedy half-hour The Kevin Bishop Show where he lampooned this sort of drama in a harrowing mock-trailer called “Gritty Bafta”. Two solid, wrinkle-making minutes of police interview suites, Samantha Morton being badgered by a bent copper, bereft howling in a northern morgue, and prostitutes pulling each other’s hair to a score ripped from something like Ludovico Einaudi’s Nightbook.

We do this sort of television so beautifully in Britain that even when one is bored and the plot diversions are as thickly and  regularly signposted as a bank-holiday motorway, it’s impossible not to be proud of it.

McGovern’s Common spent an hour dealing with the “joint enterprise” law which convicts groups of people for a crime that perhaps one or two present at the scene had commited. If one had never heard of joint enterprise before watching Common, one would find it an educational hour with all one’s relevant heart-strings tugged. If one was already aware of the law and didn’t need educating, Common felt as broadly hewn as a school’s video warning year 11s of the dangers of hanging with the wrong crowd.

Nico Mirallegro, playing Johnjo O’Shea, is a nigh-cherubic, wholly endearing actor, and therefore cast as a poor soul who had popped out for a pizza with the big lads, remained in the driver’s seat of the car during a fight in a pizza shop, and was now facing six years for murder. It was impossible not to be depressed by Johnjo’s calamity.

Not only did Common paint him to the viewer as unequivocably innocent in thought, word and deed, leaving no room for the viewer to doubt him, but everything else on the Gritty Bafta Estate in which he lived was so clangingly depressing too.

Common: Johnjo O'Shea (Nico Mirallegro) Common: Johnjo O'Shea (Nico Mirallegro)  

From the sociopathic snarls of Johnjo’s so-called friends, to his haemophilia that caused copious nosebleeds, to the estranged relationship of the deceased victim’s parents, to the cruel bank’s refusal to grant a funeral loan, to the blank-faced cowardice of the pizza-shop worker now claiming to remember nothing, Common was relentlessly, one-note, top-yersel’ sad.

In truth, not a massive amount happened during the hour, if one picked aside all the mothers’ tears, the explanations of what happens to “grasses” and the parts where Johnjo stood about looking doomed but adorable. However if one wanted to be furious at “the state we’re all in” then this hit the spot. Common closed quite abruptly with Johnjo being given five years and cheerfully asking his parents at visiting time if his lawyer would be getting him out early. No.

Of course, Common felt like watching the Chuckle Brothers carry a pane of glass around compared to Blick’s The Honourable Woman, in which Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a confident yet annoying British-Israeli businesswoman sitting in the House of Lords, avenging the sins of her murdered arms-dealer father by supplying the West Bank with fast wi-fi.

I could do a Mastermind round on episode one as I watched it four times to work out what, if anything, was happening. Shadowy figures appeared at public appearances to shake Nessa’s hands and wish her well in tones dripping with promised malice. Nessa’s niece and nephew kept giving their nanny the slip despite grave warnings of kidnappers in every broom-cupboard.

Spies met in dining rooms to discuss Nessa’s business activities and elevators for spy-style chunterings. Business agreements resulted in instant suicides. Every scene was painstakingly and budget-bustingly shot, every moment was gorgeous, billowing, sumptuous and swirling with symbolism.

The main thrust was: if one is going to meddle with the Middle East, even in a do-gooder fashion, prepare to be stabbed, blown up or shot. Oh, and trust no one. Not even one’s brother, husband, nanny or that amazing haughty doctor from Nurse Jackie who seems to talk sense.

The Honourable Woman began with a scene in a plush London hotel’s breakfast room which will make me re-evaluate the calm ambience of a dull, business-focused breakfast for ever.

Beware smiling waiters armed with a basket of delicious bread rolls, a smiling face, a joke and some lethally sharp serving tongs. The Honourable Woman made being stabbed to death in front of one’s children look as gorgeous as a Grand Designs big reveal. Mighty, important, but ever so slightly “meh”.

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