“IT’S not about innocent or guilty, it’s about getting working-class scum off the streets,” is the caustic opinion expressed of Joint Enterprise Law, the legal theme at the heart of Jimmy McGovern’s TV film Common.
Set in an unnamed northern town, McGovern’s riveting (and timely) feature-length BBC drama is an intricate story about the convolutions of British justice and the nature of individual responsibility.
McGovern, now 64, has spent decades creating biting narratives on gritty subjects. His high points in TV drama are too many to mention, but they include successes like The Lakes, Cracker and The Street.
His work in cinema includes screenplays for Antonia Bird’s Priest (1994) and Stephen Frears’ Depression-set melodrama Liam (2000). McGovern always claims that his post-War Liverpudlian upbringing fuels the fire of his dramas.
That he was raised in an Irish-Catholic household — one of nine children — in a poor, working-class area of England helps to inspire his narratives with aspects of struggle, injustice and personal guilt.
He emerged as a TV dramatist in 1982, writing for Phil Redmond’s popular soap Brookside. Both McGovern and Redmond (also of Irish descent) followed on from tough northern scriptwriters like Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Jack Rosenthal.
His scripts are shaded with simple, everyday familiarity and there’s a sense that McGovern knows his characters personally. When he wrote the screenplay for the award-winning Hillsborough (1996), about the 1989 football stadium disaster, he originally became involved at the request of the victims’ families (two bereaved mothers literally knocked on his door). The families felt their side of the tragedy was being ignored by the media, but they trusted McGovern to fully tell the unacknowledged story.
McGovern insists that the themes in his work should be researched exhaustively. He took two years to clarify the detail surrounding the Bloody Sunday shootings for his documentary-drama Sunday (2002), repeatedly interviewing witnesses, friends and families. He used expert researchers to cross-reference official records.
The political and social nature of his writing deliberately arouses controversy, but McGovern likes to be certain of his own ground before stirring up uncertainty in anyone else’s. These days he uses former World in Action producer Katy Jones as his editor, to keep him “calm and objective,” so he says.
McGovern’s diligence and his eye for unexpected complexity now reappear in Common.
Highlighting frailties relating to Joint Enterprise Law (sometimes termed Common Purpose Law, or “Common”), the drama offers insight into how people’s lives can be cruelly affected if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The story turns on a fatal stabbing in a pizza parlour, a sadly familiar enough act of futile violence. Common follows the tragic misfortune of two ordinary families ensnared in the aftermath of events — the Wards, whose teenaged boy Thomas is the victim, and the O’Sheas, whose 17-year-old son Johnjo becomes inadvertently implicated in the crime.
As McGovern’s expertly-spun plot unfolds, it’s the pressures forced upon these two households that give the film its richly ironic and bitter flavour.
When Johnjo is casually asked for a lift by some local tough guys, he is entirely unaware that their intention is to attack a member of a rival gang. After the actions of his mates lead to murder, Johnjo’s obligations are split between giving information to the police or staying silent through a sense of loyalty.
The twisted ethos of his home district sees being a “grass” as anathema but, as Johnjo’s conscience grows more troubled, he sees cooperation with the police investigation as the stronger duty.
However to his appalled astonishment Johnjo finds cooperation entangles him in Joint Enterprise Law, a legal device that heaps suspicion on all individuals connected to a crime — whatever their involvement.
People on the periphery of events get sucked into the middle, along with those responsible. Johnjo’s position becomes complicated and risky. He gets drawn into shady plea-bargaining and deal-making with the authorities, as his lawyer acidly informs him that his cooperation has no value and that he naively “gave it away for nothing”.
Meanwhile the pressure builds on Johnjo’s mother Colleen (the superb Jodhi May), who strives to protect her son but also questions his motives.
Colleen is counterpointed by Margaret (the equally excellent Susan Lynch), mother of the victim whose grief is so intense she vents her long-held resentment at the boy’s father, her estranged and wayward husband Tommy (Daniel Mays): “Don’t you dare cry,” she scowls at him.
In one searing scene Margaret identifies her son’s corpse and it’s hard to recall a more powerful portrayal of the raw pain felt by a grieving mother.
Indeed, in a drama that reveals uncertainty at every turn, the interaction between the two mothers conveys the most acute moral and emotional dilemmas. Though Colleen and Margaret are outwardly antagonists, McGovern somehow convincingly gives them an unlikely shared empathy.
Common is essential viewing (BAFTA nominations must surely follow). It resonates with Johnathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988) or John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988), and even Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), where characters are tried for crimes where their guilt or innocence is ill-defined and unclear.