Saturday, 12 July 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 12th July 2014.

Common: Sunday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

This much you know: we live in a society where the working class are persistently demonised by our right-wing government and complicit portions of the media. If this were the 1970s – I've checked, it isn't – then our TV's would be crackling with hard-hitting plays angrily decrying this situation.

Unfortunately, we no longer have forums such as Play for Today in which compassionate dramatists can vent their concerns. Those days are gone.

So hats off to the BBC for allowing Jimmy McGovern (Cracker; Hillsborough; The Street) to hijack 90 minutes of prime-time with Common, in which he railed against the UK's disgraceful Joint Enterprise Law. One of the last remaining firebrands, McGovern is a fiercely moral polemicist who, at his best, projects his social conscience through the prism of accessible human drama.

Granted, his desire to make an angry point often gets the better of him, and there were moments in Common where his argument was rather bluntly stated. But I can forgive him his excesses when the overall results are as impressive and, yes, important as this. It was like being punched in the guts for 90 minutes, which is precisely what McGovern intended.

The protagonist was Johnjo, a teenager with no prior convictions who unwittingly became a getaway driver after a “friend” stabbed and killed an innocent bystander during an altercation. Completely innocent of any wrongdoing – he had no idea the other boys had agreed to confront a rival that night – he nevertheless fell victim to Joint Enterprise, whereby more than one person can be charged for the same offence.

Unflinchingly, McGovern plunged us into simultaneous nightmares, as we followed Johnjo's plight in tandem with that of the murdered boy's family. Special mention must go to Susan Lynch, who was extraordinary as a mother struggling with abject grief. The scene in which she viewed her son's corpse for the first time was harrowing yet entirely, horribly believable.

Despite his occasional lapses into tub-thumping, McGovern is an economical writer who taps into the human condition with devastating ease. The judicious use of silence in this scene – Lynch's screams were muted by sound-proof glass – made it all the more effective. As the murdered boy's estranged father, Daniel Mays' sad pudding face has rarely been put to better use.

A predictable ending is usually anathema to good drama, but not in this case. It was inevitable that Johnjo would eventually be sent down – a happy outcome would've undermined McGovern's point – but I was too busy empathising to care about it playing out as expected.

McGovern was more interested in making us care about these characters so we could care about the insanity of Joint Enterprise. Mission accomplished. When he eventually abandoned any attempts at subtlety with a mouthpiece rant from one of his characters, he'd earned the right to harangue.

Standing on the doorstep of Johnjo's family home, the mother of one of the accused screamed, “Do you know what this law is about, this Joint Enterprise? It's not about innocent or guilty, it's about getting working class scum off the streets! That's how they see our kids!” Point taken and welcomed, Jimmy.

Only on TV can you drag an issue from the headlines and present it to millions with such immediacy. He may be part of a dying breed, but McGovern still bristles with urgent life.

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