Justice, or the lack of it, is hardly an unfamiliar subject for writer Jimmy McGovern. From the creator of many of the UK’s most searing social dramas of the last few decades, Common (BBC ONE – Sunday 6th July, 10pm) follows in the footsteps some of the most affecting television ever produced. With Hillsborough, Sunday, and Dockers as antecedents, not to mention the superlative The Street and Accused, Common was always going to have a high standard to maintain.
For the most part, the 90 minute ‘single drama’ quite easily holds its own. The premise centres around the notion of Joint Enterprise as told through the story of Johnjo O’Shea (Nico Mirallegro), a seventeen year old who drives his older brother’s friends to a pizza place one night only for them to run out shortly afterwards as one of them – Kieren, played with bravado and menace by Andrew Ellis – stabs an innocent bystander who soon dies.
Johnjo finds himself charged with the crime alongside his friends despite the fact that he was sat waiting outside and had no idea that they originally intended to beat up another boy from their estate. This doesn’t matter to DI Hastings (Robert Pugh), who at one point during the interrogation of the group revels in the fact that he doesn’t have to prove who was holding the knife. If they all stick together, they’ll all go down.
The inevitability of this outcome in Common is at once a strength of the drama yet also one of its few weaknesses. It is easy to predict that Johnjo will be discovered as the driver of the car and that his so-called friends are hardly the type to rally round when he tries to protest his innocence. The inevitable threat of a murder charge is one made all the more unfair because of how assured the audience are it will happen. But there’s a thin line between inevitability and predictability; one makes for great drama and the other simply confirms our expectations. McGovern delicately tightropes the two although occasionally the story teeters into the latter.
There is enough that is unexpected for the 90 minutes to feel fresh and pacey, whereas the more predictable elements are less noticeable due to the exemplary performances and the inimitably powerful Jimmy McGovern dialogue, as well as David Blair’s strong direction which encourages the audience to linger on what matters. Whilst the plot may revolve around Johnjo’s innocence, the real heart of this story is captured in the mothers who are affected by everything that Common becomes: from the genuinely heart-breaking grief of Margaret Ward (Susan Lynch) at her son’s death, to Coleen O’Shea’s (Jodhi May) passionate belief in her own son’s innocence – the scenes in which these two women are centre-stage are when Common really starts to shine.
There is so much to commend about this feature-length drama. It is able to get to the heart of a complex issue and make the audience reconsider their previous preconceptions. Unlike some of Jimmy McGovern’s earlier masterpieces, the social and political arguments raised in Common aren’t as balanced – the writer has always been a firm believer of putting the strongest arguments in the voices of those the heroes have to battle – and I think that this is something the drama honestly lacks in this outing.
However, that said, Common achieves everything it sets out to; it carries an important message and gives a voice – even as the credits roll and reveal the real-life mothers in the same awful position – to those ‘justice’ would otherwise deny.
Contributed by Jane Harrison