This Week in TV: Common, The Honourable Woman, Murdered by My Boyfriend and The Secret Life of Students

This week we have three very different dramas and one horrible factual offering from Channel 4.

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We start on a positive note with Common, the latest offering from Jimmy McGovern which explores the problems with this country’s Joint Enterprise Law. McGovern’s most recent BBC One drama, Accused, dealt with characters who’d stepped outside the boundaries of the law even though most had a good reason for doing so. Common’s protagonist, likeable Johnjo Kerr, is very different in that he gets involved in a crime without realising the he’s done so. Agreeing to take his cousin and friends to a pizza parlour, Johnjo unwittingly becomes the getaway driver for three lads who have committed a murder. Although the passengers in the car were originally trying to intimidate one of their rivals, it was bystander Thomas Ward who ended up as the victim. McGovern brilliantly convey the parallel between Thomas and Johnjo as both were people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, Johnjo’s mother Colleen and Thomas’s mother Margaret are too very similar women who are both attempting to gain justice for their sons. Margaret in particular is an incredibly sympathetic character who is forced to reach out to her ex-husband in order to pay for her son’s funeral. Meanwhile, in an attempt to do the right thing, Johnjo goes to the police to hand himself in and unwittingly gets himself in more trouble than he could’ve been. As Johnjo comes up against the cold DCI Hastings, who has previous history with Margaret, it appears as if he could be send down under the Joint Enterprise Law. As the trial progresses, McGovern attempts to convey the problems with Joint Enterprise and the fact that an innocent youngster like Johnjo could be sentenced to many years in prison.

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As we saw at the end of the drama, McGovern had used examples from several real-life cases in order to craft the story of Johnjo. Due to this fact I felt that McGovern got a bit carried away in his campaign against people being tried under the Joint Enterprise Law. Every time a character came on screen to complain that Johnjo’s potential conviction was unjust I felt like I was being preached at and it briefly took me out of this drama. Luckily this was the only gripe I had in a drama that held my attention for its entire ninety minutes which I have to say is no mean feat. Part of the reason for this is the compassionate, realistic lead character in Johnjo; who was brilliantly portrayed by Nico Mirallegro. After supporting roles in The Village and My Mad Fat Diary, Mirallegro demonstrated that he had the ability to take the lead as the softly-spoken Johnjo. Miallegro portrayed Johnjo as a regular lad who found himself in over his head after making the wrong decision. As Common was also the story of the two mothers I felt that Jodhi May and Susan Lynch were fantastic as Colleen and Margaret respectively. Lynch was particularly strong as the mother who was forced to deal with the unexpected death of her son and the financial problems she found herself in. I felt the scene in which Margaret was told of her son’s death was incredibly well done as Lynch played her character’s gradual realisation beautifully. Director David Blair’s camera was well-utilised throughout as he got us involved in the action and made us feel for Johnjo, Colleen and Margaret. But this was ultimately McGovern’s passion project and I felt that he’s once again proved why he’s one of Britain’s best TV writers. Though at times McGovern’s approach was heavy-handed, for the most part I found Common to be an emotional rollercoaster which was extremely engrossing and had a worthy central message.

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BBC Two also presented us with some heavy duty drama this week courtesy of The Honourable Woman; an eight-part drama created by Hugo Blick. Any long time readers of the site will know that I was a massive fan of Blick’s crime saga The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman looks to be as intriguing as that 2011 drama. Our titular heroine is Nessa Stein, who is ennobled in the first episode for her services to improving life on the Israeli/Palestine border particularly for laying down high-speed internet cables on the Gaza Strip. On the surface Nessa’s life is perfect as we see her delivering a pitch-perfect speech and handling herself well in an interview with John Humphries. But privately things are very different as Nessa is still dealing with memories of a fateful trip she had to Gaza eight years ago. The Honourable Woman is definitely a programme that is based around mysteries as we see the murder of a businessman and the kidnap of a young boy both happen in the first episode. The young boy in question is the son of Atika, the nanny to Nessa’s nieces, who has a long history with Nessa herself. Whilst I didn’t find the first episode of The Honourable Woman as compelling as the opening instalment of The Shadow Line, Blick still provided me enough to keep coming back for more. One way he did this was by punctuating the episode with two spectacular set pieces, the first of which was a harrowing moment in which Nessa witnessed the murder of her own father. Meanwhile the final scenes focused on the aforementioned kidnap of young Kasim which was beautifully set at an opera house and featured an atmospheric moment where all the lights in the arena dipped. The Honourable Woman’s other ace in the hole is a fine central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal whose British accent is completely convincing. Gyllenhaal gives a multi-layered turn as an outwardly confident character who in fact is completely fragile behind closed doors. Gyllenhaal is ably supported by a fine cast of actors most notably Andrew Buchan as her brother and Stephen Rea as a wise-cracking MI5 agent. At the end of the first episode of The Honourable Woman I was definitely left wanting more and I’m hoping that Blick doesn’t disappoint over the next seven episodes.

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As much as I enjoyed both Common and The Honourable Woman; the drama that stuck with me the most this week was BBC3′s Murdered by my Boyfriend. Just like last year’s The Crash, Murdered by My Boyfriend was another drama-documentary that I felt should be watched by young people everywhere as it told a realistic tale of domestic abuse. Inspired by a real-life case, Murdered by Boyfriend’s protagonist is Ashley; a likeable seventeen-year-old whose head is turned by the charming Reese, a guy who she thought was out of her league. Initially, Reese is presented as an average guy but gradually we start to witness his controlling behaviour as he pesters his girlfriend about who she speaks to on the phone and make sure she dresses appropriately on nights out. Eventually the abuse starts to get physical as Reese punches Ashley, who is pregnant with his child at the time, but she decides to go back to him as she feels she can change him. However the audience realise that things can only get worse for Ashley and Reese’s control over her worsens as he buys her a mobile phone so she can take a picture of who she’s with at any one time. The drama does depict Ashley’s attempts to leave Reese but his constant barrage of harassment eventually wears her down to the point where she agrees to marry him. As the title suggests, the final graphic scenes sees Reese murder Ashley by attacking her with an ironing board and leaving it two hours before ringing for an ambulance. I was glad to learn that parts of Murdered by My Boyfriend are to be aired in schools across the country, as I feel that youngsters need to see how easy it is to be trapped in abusive relationships. Director Paul Andrew Williams’ focuses in on the more harrowing aspects of the story with close-up shots of Ashley’s bruises becoming a recurring sight. Regina Moriarty’s script also doesn’t paint the two characters as clichés instead making both Ashley and Reese feel like the real characters they’re based upon. Praise must also go to Georgina Campbell and Royce Pierreson whose portrayals of Ashley and Reese were spot on. More than anything else; Murdered by My Boyfriend demonstrates the good work BBC3 does at presenting contemporary dramas aimed at a young audience. Additionally it made question why a channel that produces relevant programming such as Murdered by My Boyfriend will soon leave TV altogether and become an online-only network.

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Although they’re both trying to appeal to the same audience, Channel 4′s woeful The Secret Life of Students is the complete antitheses to the brilliant Murdered by My Boyfriend. The programme tracks a number of students as they begin the next step of their academic lives at Leicester University. Not that you’d know that anybody actually did any studying if you followed the antics of two of the three subjects featured in this first episode. Uni life for the despicable Aiden seems to feature endless nights of getting drunk and sleeping with girls. Aiden is one of the worst subjects for a documentary as he is completely unlikeable and learns nothing after contracting an STD. I did have some sympathy for one of Aiden’s conquests, and another of this episode’s central figures, Josie whose lack of self-confidence contributed to her sleeping around. At least Josie had a moment of clarity at the end of the episode and decided to go through a period of celibacy. However the only character who I had a modicum of interest in was nervous Lauren; who actually seemed to be going to uni to learn. Lauren didn’t drink and found a lot of what her fellow students did to be disrespectful although she did find a friendship with fellow first year Daniel. However, as time went on, Lauren’s behaviour started to become a little stalkerish and Daniel rightly ended their relationship before it got weird. A major part of The Secret Life of Students was the focus on social media and the messages that the central trio send become a key part of the narrative. At the same time it appeared as if the production team behind the programme had simply used the students’ Facebook profiles to conduct as much research on them as possible. The result was a lazily-constructed piece of factual programming that offered nothing in the way of insight into the way that students behave. Instead it simply enforced the negative stereotypes that are given to our country’s youngsters and I fail to believe that The Secret Life of Students comes from the same channel who offered up the sublime Educating series.

Next Time: Utopia, Nick and Margaret and Glasgow Girls

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