TWO sons. Two mothers.
“I thought they were going for a pizza…”
If you have plans for Sunday night, cancel them now.
Common (BBC1, 9pm Sunday) is yet another classic drama by writer Jimmy McGovern.
Matched by the talents of a cast including Nico Mirallegro, Susan Lynch, Daniel Mays and Jodhi May, plus director David Blair.
The 90-minute film tells the story of Johnjo O’Shea, played by Nico, who gives his cousin and two mates a lift to get a pizza.
But Johnjo is unaware his three passengers are going to “have a word” with a local loudmouth.
As he sits outside waiting in the car for his pizza, one of the trio takes offence to a young innocent bystander and stabs him.
What happens next is an eye-opening look at the UK’s controversial Joint Enterprise Law.
Which means you can end up serving life in prison, even if you had nothing to do with a murder and weren’t even at the scene.
If you’re thinking “grim and worthy” think again.
Common is a brilliant drama of twists and turns with award-winning performances from the ensemble cast.
Susan and Daniel play Margaret and Tommy, the divorced parents of murder victim Thomas Ward (Harry McMullen).
With Jodhi May and Andrew Tiernan as Coleen and Pete, the parents of 17-year-old Johnjo.
The LA Productions drama was screened at BAFTA in London yesterday (Wednesday).
My transcript of the post-screening Q&A is below, edited to remove content that would result in major spoilers.
Although I have left in the discussion around a searing scene of grief involving Susan Lynch and Daniel Mays as Margaret sees her son’s body in a mortuary.
Once seen, never forgotten.
Common is on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday (July 6).
BAFTA Q&A with Jimmy McGovern (writer and executive producer), David Blair (director), Daniel Mays (Tommy), Andrew Tiernan (Pete), Robert Pugh (DI Hastings) and chaired by LA Productions boss Colin McKeown (producer and executive producer) who asked the questions before opening it up to the audience:
Q: Jimmy – do these subject matters find you or do you find them? And if you could tell us how it all started in the first place?
Jimmy McGovern: “This one found me, actually. I’ve just received a message, ‘Jimmy, don’t know whether you want to mention this at the Q@A but we’ve just heard in Liverpool today, those five lads have been sentenced.’ This is one about a group of lads who chased a boy up to a launderette and there was a stabbing in the yard. It’s a typical case of Joint Enterprise. The eldest aged 19 – this is just today – jailed for life with an 18 years’ minimum term. Two 15-year-olds got life with a minimum of nine and 12 years and a 14-year-old got life with a minimum of nine years. Another, who was only 13 at the time of the incident, received a six years’ minimum sentence. And that’s only today on Merseyside.
“This came about because I opened up a letter and it was a woman explaining that this person she loved was inside and he was totally innocent. I was just about to write back and say, ‘Sorry, I’m too busy, too tired, too lazy…’ And then I looked and it was written four months previously or something. She’d put the wrong post code on the envelope and it had taken months to get to me. And so I didn’t want her to think I had sat on her letter for months while this precious boy was inside. So I snatched up the phone and phoned her. And as soon as I got a human voice at the other end of the phone, that was it. I was sucked in. You can’t say no to a woman, pleading. So that was the reason. This one did find me, yes.”
Q: David – I was shocked when I saw the rushes, particularly over the Susan Lynch scene. I wonder if you could just describe how that came about? Tell us how it happened?
David Blair: “It was a strange one, actually, because the early part of it wasn’t in the script. What Jimmy had written originally was the main scene that follows. And I was a bit worried that we were going to come into something feeling that we’d missed something. At that point there wasn’t a scene with Susan seeing the body. She’d passed that responsibility on to Danny (playing Tommy) earlier in the scene. Really it was a belt and braces moment when we shot it, to be honest, because I just wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t be sitting in the cutting room thinking what I felt before. We rehearsed it but kept the body out of the room until we shot it. So that kind of raw reaction that she gives there is absolutely spontaneous and indeed is Danny’s also. We had spoken to the guy who ran the mortuary before we shot the scene and he said the really most difficult circumstances involved estranged couples. Because everything that you would spontaneously do in such a circumstance, you couldn’t. You couldn’t put your arm round somebody or share in that grief. It was a strange…two separate griefs. And that made it a challenge and I thought, ultimately, made it worthwhile having it in the film.”
Q: Daniel, if you were one of these actors who did a page count and said, ‘I don’t think I’ll take this part because I’ve only got whatever the quantity is to say’…if you were weighing up the amount of your contribution in those ways, you might well have been put off and said, ‘There’s not a phenomenal amount on paper for me to do.’ But in reality there was an enormous amount to do. What drew you into it?
Daniel Mays: “First and foremost, it’s a Jimmy McGovern drama. I did an episode of The Street in the past. I know the quality of the stuff. So that immediately sparks your interest. But in the audition was the reconciliation speech that you see. That in itself is just a phenomenal piece of writing. Just to be a small part of the cast and to contribute means the world to me, really. Watching it again, what strikes me is it truly is an ensemble piece. Every actor, no matter how small their part, contributes massively. You just want to be a part of it, really. I can recognise good quality writing and the message behind the drama I think was a really important thing to be part of.”
Q: Andrew – what attracted you?
Andrew Tiernan: “I’ve worked with Jimmy before and it was just straight away, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to do this.’ And obviously then researching into Joint Enterprise and what was going on there. And obviously gone out and spoken about it, it’s just surprising that the general public out there and family and friends don’t actually know about this thing. So it’s a very important film to be a part of.”
Q: Bob – did you do any research or feel the need to do any research? All of the cast, when I spoke to them, they hadn’t heard about Joint Enterprise at all.
Robert Pugh: “Same here. I don’t think I needed to do research. Initially again, like the lads said, it’s a Jimmy McGovern script and that is incredibly appealing in itself with the bonus of David there. The research came afterwards and during, actually, talking to the mothers particularly, who were victims of this…and it was quite eye-opening. I don’t still quite understand the minutiae of it. But the general message of it, as we’ve seen here, it is quite a bad thing. And the fact that it hasn’t gone through Parliament, it’s all set by precedent, is an iniquitous thing, actually. It just indicates the more and more police state that I think we are heading for. And the people who are the most vulnerable are the people who are the most ignorant of it. IE The kids on the streets.”
Q: Jim – I know you feel a big responsibility to all your dramas but in particular dramas like this which affect so many people. What we all feel about a lot of your writing is, there’s not much of it. The words are very, very thin and there always seems to be a tremendous space there. Is that something really deliberate from your point of view?
Jimmy McGovern: “It’s a strange thing, that. There was once…I tried to shorten the scene. You’ve come across this David, haven’t you? I took words out. And what was left became even more pregnant. And the scene was longer. It was just strange. That’s what aim for as a writer. It’s not always there.
“But on that point Bob made before, just think of the enormity of getting sentenced to life imprisonment on a ‘law’ that has never been passed by the British Parliament? That’s extraordinary. Your democratically elected representatives have had nothing to do with this law and yet it sends you to prison for the rest of your life. It’s extraordinary. It’s a doctrine, a concept.”
Colin then opened up questions to the audience:
Q (From me, as it happens) Jimmy, we saw the information flash up on screen at the end about the Commons’ Select Committee looking into this. What are the prospects for some action being taken, as far as you can see?
Jimmy McGovern: “I don’t know. I just hope maybe there’s a question asked in Parliament or something like that. It’s a TV drama. It might just pass. You never know. I’m never optmistic about changes to British law.”
Colin McKeown: “What we can say, though, it has been seen by the Select Committee. It’s the first gig I’ve ever been to in my life where the Houses of Parliament have watched a movie before the public have.”
Q: And did you get any reaction from them?
Colin McKeown: “They’re not there to give reaction, really. But I think they did genuinely appreciate that it was done.”
Q: (Still from me) Can I ask Danny to talk about filming that searing scene with Susan in the mortuary?
Daniel Mays: “It was exhausting. Full on. Susan Lynch in an absolutely phenomenal actor. It was quite spaced out, my days of filming. So to work with someone as good as Susan, she was so ‘in it.’ Even off camera. I’m not saying method acting or anything, but you could see that she was completely focused and concentrated. So when you work with someone as brilliant as that, it helps. I don’t know, you just have to embrace it and give it your all. But we were aided every step of the way with the brilliant direction of David. He dropped in fantastic notes along the way so you’ve got to be able to respond to the notes that you get and try and lay down a performance. But that’s true…when she ‘smashed’ the glass, that was never scripted. She kind of just did it in the wide shot. And I can remember I just wanted to put my arm around her. I actually found it so upsetting. And yet when you’re in character it completely makes sense that he is unable to do that. That’s the great thing about the writing again, is the fact that they are in this horrendously fractured relationship and somehow these two people have to connect again through the loss of their son. It’s a really interesting dynamic that relationship and to play it out was thrilling. You just want to do stuff like that as an actor.”
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you while working on this film? That’s a question for Jimmy and for the actors as well.
Jimmy McGovern: “Me, personally, I wanted to be even-handed. The enormity of murder has to be addressed. There is no greater injustice than murder. Every other injustice pales into insignificance besides having your life snatched away from you. So that was the main one from me. Even-handedness was the main challenge.”
Andrew Tiernan: “I think it was just having the responsibility of meeting the mums from JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) and hearing all their stories. So obviously representing that and trying to get the reality of that over.”
Daniel Mays: “We did the read-through at Liverpool Town Hall and all the mothers were there and they heard the script for the first time. It was the most profound experience to go through because as it progressed they were getting more and more upset. You could just feel the emotion in the room that was pouring off of them. It just fuelled that responsibility that you had to bring it to life.”
Robert Pugh: “Absolutely. When you saw that response from the reading in Liverpool Town Hall, you were a part of this, it was going to be a tremendous privilege to be a part of it and to fight for the truth of it. And great responsibility, definitely. And therefore a great challenge. It was very moving during it. And the whole thing of talking to the mothers was a bit of an immense experience.”
Q: How do these prisoners serve time and be guilty for something they didn’t do?
Jimmy McGovern: “The awful thing as well, is part of the process of getting out of there is to acknowledge your guilt. If you don’t acknowledge your guilt, you don’t get out. So how can you acknowledge your guilt when you’re not guilty? There are people languishing in prison. That guy from Liverpool, an awful murder in Lodge Lane. Everybody knows he’s innocent. He’s been inside for 33 years and he’s totally innocent. (Having been given a 15-year tariff).
Q: What effect do you think the film will have on bringing attention to Joint Enterprise, in the sense of making more scared of it or to go against it and stand up to it and not accepting it as a given?
Jimmy McGovern: “I don’t know how it will be received. I’ve never thought about it would frighten people more. I’ve never thought about it in those terms. It will be changed by people like Glo (JENGbA Campaign Co-ordinator Gloria Morrison). In my experience that’s how laws are changed. People campaign against them and get them changed. Look, I could give you chapter and verse on Jack Straw, a Labour Justice minister. And he was an absolute disgrace. He let people languish in prison knowing they were totally innocent. Never lifted a finger to help the Hillsborough families. In fact, went out of his way to hinder them. He and Tony Blair. That’s a Labour guy. They won’t do anything. It’s people like Gloria campaigning. That’s how you get laws changed.”