Showtrial has barely finished and already the Beeb is doling up another courtroom drama about an unreliable suspect. How much justice-under-scrutiny is enough for one autumn schedule? I realise the format is well established for a reason, but it feels a bit unimaginative.
In defence of You Don’t Know Me (BBC One), it is more than a companion piece to the earlier programme. Adapted by Tom Edge, who wrote Vigil – does the man not sleep? – from a novel by Imran Mahmood, a criminal barrister, this four-parter explores the latent prejudice in the justice system. The defendant in Showtrial, Talitha (Celine Buckens), was unlikable but otherwise privileged in every other way, a rich, connected, good-looking white woman.
Here the opposite is true. Samuel Adewunmi stars as the accused, known only as “Hero”. As a young black car salesman from south London, he has less going for him in the privilege stakes. At the start of this opening episode, it appears he is going down for murder. A drug dealer, Jamil (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva), is dead and there is a pile of evidence incriminating Hero. He had motive, method and opportunity. The jury appears set to find him guilty, but then he stands up. His barrister had advised him not to speak, he says, but he wants to tell his story. Although he has done some bad things, and we will hear about them, he is not guilty of this murder.
The action turns back to the start. We see how he meets Kyra (Sophie Wilde) on a bus and pursues her, respectfully if perhaps a little over-solicitously, before she agrees to a date. They bond over The Great Gatsby and the correct way to make carbonara. The courtship is given enough breathing room to be believable. It is a timid, sensitive affair. Then she vanishes. In hunting her down, Hero comes into contact with Jamil. He might want a favour, but Jamil will want something in return. Soon Hero is buying a gun, and generally getting a long way from the showroom. “These people are not like you,” he tells the jury. They are not responsible citizens who turn up to court.
It would be too simple for this to be a case of racially inflected injustice. What’s clever about the way You Don’t Know Me is set up is that we are never allowed to shake off our nagging suspicions about Hero. Even his name comes with the implication that he might not be one. Why has he saved this testimony until the end? If he is truly innocent, surely he would have made his case to his barrister before now. Is this simply a final act of desperation from a man trying to get out of a life sentence? Either way, his story keeps you watching. The supporting cast are uniformly strong, especially Nsengiyumva as a gangster with a few surprises up his sleeve, but the whole thing revolves around Adewunmi. He is in practically every scene, walking the line between trustworthy and suspicious. It is testament to his warm, canny star performance that we keep guessing. Guilty or not, this Hero makes a very plausible case.