'Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut' - Pat Stacey reviews BBC drama 'Common'
Jimmy McGovern doesn't really do understated these days. The Liverpool-born writer, who cut his teeth on Brookside, has given us some of the most memorable TV dramas of all time, including Cracker, Hearts and Minds, The Lakes and HIllsborough.
But more recent works like The Street and Accused, while entertaining, have tended to jettison the grounded, gritty realism of McGovern's best work in the 1990s in favour of something close to stylised melodrama.
McGovern has always been a socially conscious, politically-engaged writer (nobody is as concerned with showing the lives of the working class). I'm all for that; far too much mainstream British television drama these days bears the bland stamp of something confected by a committee.
Sometimes, though, McGovern - one of British TV's true auteurs, who can practically write whatever h wants and be guaranteed it will make it to the screen - can let his strident side get the better of him, to the point where the message he's trying to impart overpowers the storytelling.
The one-off, 90 minute film Common found McGovern in full sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut mode. The nut in this case was the UK's shocking Joint Enterprise Law, which has an inbuilt potential for massive injustices.
Joint Enterprise, also known as Common Purpose, has been on the statute books since the 18th century and at its most extreme can lead to an innocent person being convicted of murder, even if they have no direct involvement with the crime.
The unfortunate cog caught in the crushing wheels of the law where was naive, borderline simple-minded 17-year-old Johnjo, played by Nico Mirallegro from The Village and My Mad Fat Diary. Johnjo agrees to vive his cousin and a couple of his mates a lift to a pizza parlour, unaware they're going there to beat up a local loudmouth.
As Johnjo waits outside with the engine running to keep warm, one of the three, a violent thug called Kieran (Andrew Ellis), knifes an innocent youth to death on a whim. Thus Johnjo, completely ignorant of what has happened, becomes an unwitting getaway drive and accomplice.
The whole thing is captured on CCTV. Ignoring threats from Kieran about what will happen if he "grasses up" him or the others, poor Johnjo tries to do the right thing by turning himself into DI Hastings (Robert Pugh from Game of Thrones). When Johnjo refuses the offer of a lawyer, Hastings, a ruthless career copper, uses him as leverage, manipulating him into giving up the others and, in the process, putting him in the frame for a Joint Enterprise murder charge.
Joint Enterprise is an issue that cries out to be highlighted and McGovern is clearly passionate on the subject. But that passion often translated into a drama painted in increasingly broad strokes.
Johnjo was so sweet and trusting he was positively angelic, while Hastings was so one-dimensionally nasty and manipulative he stopped just short of pantomime villainy.
What redeemed Common were the performances by a top-notch cast. Susan Lynch was superb as the victim's mother, struggling to scrabble together the cost of his funeral. So whats Jodhi May as Johnjo's shellshocked mother.
Daniel Mays, one of the most interesting actors working today, put more meat on the character of Lynch's guilt-ridden ex-hsuband than there was in the script.
By the overwrought final act, though, you felt bludgeoned by righteous anger and were left wishing McGovern had traded his sledgehammer for a more subtle instrument.