Sunday sees a powerful new drama from the wonderful Jimmy McGovern. Common stars Nico Mirallegro as seventeen year old Johnjo O’Shea who finds his world turned upside down when he gives his friends a lift for a pizza. The consequences of that one act have a disastrous outcome for Johnjo and his family as McGovern explores the injustice that surrounds the UK’s controversial Joint Enterprise Law.
I was lucky enough to speak with Jimmy about the new drama and what has drawn him back to the screen.
How did Common come about?
It came about because I got a letter from a woman whose relative was serving a sentence for murder. I phoned her and I was sucked in. I met with Jan Cunliffe whose son is in prison and he is completely innocent. It’s a work of fiction but it is informed by a lot of real cases. We want to remind people that this is a real law that is affecting real people.
With Common it struck me that the lead character Johnjo doesn’t actually have that much dialogue. Was that a concious decision?
Yes, that was always going to be the way with Johnjo. He’s never actually doing anything. Things are happening to him and around him. That’s typical of joint enterprise you just need to be there, you don’t do anything but things happen to you because you were there.
Obviously the point here was to draw attention to the joint enterprise law. Is it important that it never becomes too preachy?
Having watched it last night I was concious of it. I think we perhaps used Joint Enterprise once or twice too often, but if so it’s a minor offence because its heart’s in the right place.
Is there ever a subject matter you think is too sensitive for TV drama?
I once started to write a drama that had amazing echoes of the murder of James Bulger and I abandoned it and gave the money back to the BBC. Anything that impinges upon another person’s grief for no real reason I don’t think is right.
You’ve said before that you’re proudest of Priest, Sunday and Hillsborough. Is that because they are real stories that you’ve adapted so they mean more?
Yes. I say that when I’m at the pearly gates they’ll say to me “what did you do?” and I’ll offer those up. Those three were stories that were trying to help people. I met a Priest absolutely tortured by his sexuality and I know I helped that man. I can tell good stories and help people at the same time that seems to me a no brainer.
Do you enjoy TV as a viewer?
I love watching TV when it’s bad because then I can smile, but even when it’s good I can put jealousy aside.
I spoke to Nicola Shindler (founder of Red Productions) and she says there seems to be a sort of snobbery amongst new writers that they don’t want to learn on the job and aim for the first ever series or film. What do you think about that?
It’s interesting that. I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild and they have a magazine. It’s crap. It’s really badly written. They did an interview with this guy who’d written an afternoon drama and in passing he said, of TV drama, It’s not Chekov. I emailed him and said what does this mean? I think it speaks volumes about the mindset of people working in TV. How dare they? When you set out to write a TV drama or an episode of a soap you should want it to be a masterpiece. If you don’t want it to be a masterpiece you shouldn’t be in the business.
Do you still feel a sense of pride in your work?
Oh yeah, I want people to read it and think Jesus this is good! When I was at my peak and had masses of energy I loved having written. I loved it when it got to five or six at night and I had written.
Are you someone who can just sit down and write?
No. I lay awake just thinking. When you’re at your desk that’s not writing, that’s typing. Writing is when you’re walking through the park or lying in bed at night.
On most recent series like Accused and The Street you’ve worked with other writers. Is there a reason why you’ve gone solo with Common?
Well Alice Nutter dropped out. I didn’t want to write it on my own because I hate writing page one.
There are big scenes that feature a lot of arguments. How do you write those?
Even if it’s happening off camera you have to stay true to the character. I always use the analogy that I’m a lawyer. Every time I write a character I am that character’s best lawyer. I’ve got to be fair to them and represent them well.
I imagine there are bits of you in all of your scripts. Where do you think you are in Common?
Oh I’m probably the feckless dad. There are elements of me in the two mothers as well.
Is there one of your dramas that people talk to you about the most?
I think these days it’s Hillsborough because this year is the 25th anniversary. Hillsborough changed my life. The fact that it was allowed to happen changed my attitude to life really. I’ve made some very good friends through writing that.
Are you keen to do more episodes of Accused?
Last time the BBC only asked for four which was a blow. I know the BBC have asked for more but we’ve put it away for now because we’re doing a drama based on the first British prisoners in Australia.
Common can be seen Sunday 6th July at 9.00pm on BBC ONE.
The audio version of the interview where Jimmy talks more in-depth about Common can be heard on Sunday night.