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Proletarian issue 61 (August 2014)
TV: Common
A drama written for television by Jimmy McGovern. BBC1, 6 July 2014.
Jimmy McGovern is a master of his craft. From the first moments of the drama, before the opening credits begin to roll, the viewer is drawn into the story. And not just superficially, but by becoming deeply engaged with the events, the characters and their fates.

The dramatic tension is felt throughout the drama: its level may rise and fall from time to time, but it is never absent. This tension is the result of good writing – the best – good acting – some fine performances – and a story that is as important as it is engaging.

The drama needed no gimmicks to spice it up. Helen Lewis on the BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Review thought it was dull, as it contained no technical tricks, which she admitted she liked and looked for in television drama. But she was virtually a lone voice. The reviewer in the Daily Telegraph found it “profoundly engaging”. Andrew Billen in The Times thought it was old-fashioned (“not necessarily a criticism”) because it was without gimmicks, without a constant musical soundtrack and was a campaigning piece of drama “precisely and politically targeted ... a rekindling of class warfare by television”, yet his review was favourable.

Rebecca Johnson in the Guardian described it as “a bleak, powerful drama, thick with political intent ... brutal and devastating”. The Daily Mirror called McGovern “a genius wordsmith, an engaging social commentator”. The only hostile review was that of the Daily Mail, whose reviewer sacrificed accuracy to the paper’s own favourite campaign of the moment: “The BBC spent licence fee money on commissioning a 90-minute drama railing against what lawyers describe as a ‘powerful’ and useful piece of legislation (sic) designed to stop criminals getting away with it by blaming each other.

However, the drama was better and the tension greater precisely because of its concentration on character and story without a distracting musical soundtrack, which too often obscures the dialogue, and without technical tricks. The drama had no need of the latter because it was not based on a fantasy but on real life, drawing inspiration from true events in England and Wales today.

The story concerned a teenager, Johnjo O’Shea, played convincingly by Nico Mirallegro, who gave a lift to the local Pizzeria in his older brother’s car to his cousin and his cousin’s friends, while his brother was out and could not be reached. Johnjo thought they were going to buy a pizza. Only after the others had come running back to the car – without any pizzas – and told him to drive away, did he discover that they had gone to find and attack an opponent.

However, in the course of that attack one of his cousin’s friends had stabbed another teenager, totally unknown to any of them, who had happened to be in the Pizzeria and was felt by his attacker to have looked at him ‘in the wrong way’. That single stab wound later proved fatal.

Johnjo was warned by the young man who had delivered the fatal blow (a near neighbour of Johnjo and his family) that Johnjo must say nothing and must not ‘grass’ on his cousin’s friends, otherwise “you will be torched, your family will be torched and your house will be torched”. Johnjo says nothing until the police arrest his brother, as the car had been caught on CCTV and been identified and its owner traced.

The three friends were seen running away from the Pizzeria and another could be seen waiting for them in the car, but none of the four could be identified at that point. Johnjo’s discomfiture was apparent to his family when his brother was released home on bail, mystified by his arrest. The full story then came out within the family, and Johnjo’s parents argued as to when and how Johnjo should go to the police.

His father said they should first find a lawyer and make arrangements to move out of the area, as they would not be able to stay there afterwards under threat of reprisals; his mother said there was no need to wait or find a lawyer or move: Johnjo has done nothing wrong so has nothing to fear from going to the police and telling them the truth.

So Johnjo quietly did just that, by himself and without telling his family beforehand. He then found himself ultimately charged with murder, together with his cousin and the cousin’s two friends, under the legal doctrine of joint enterprise (or common purpose).

This legal doctrine is not to be found in any Act of Parliament (despite what the Daily Mail might have us believe). It is a law developed by the judges in the courts originally about 300 years ago to enable the conviction of all those who took part in a duel, whether as the duellers, their seconds or supporters, when finally the ruling class decided that their sons should no longer kill each other in order to settle quarrels in that time-honoured fashion.

As judge-made, or ‘Common Law’, as distinct from Statute Law, joint enterprise is a flexible concept. Recently, in response to public disquiet (some of it justifiable, but very much of it invented by media with an anti-working-class agenda) about gangs and gang violence on the streets of our towns and cities, the ruling class has encouraged its law enforcement officers in the police and the judiciary to use this useful law more frequently, and at the same time to expand its scope.

Forget the causes of crime – lack of opportunities for meaningful and rewarding employment, paid or otherwise, poor housing, diet and social conditions, glaring and increasing social inequalities – all of which combine to make a toxic mix of hopeless anger and resentment that is too often turned against fellow sufferers of these conditions rather than against the ruling class that creates and tolerates them. No, instead, win cheap votes and stay in power by exacerbating the contradictions among the members of the working class, which sees them fighting each other, and imprison as many as possible.

Johnjo’s aunt says to his mother that the purpose of the law is to get as many of the young men seen as “working-class scum” off the streets as possible. That, of course, is Johnjo’s crime: he is working class and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is a case of Common Law using “common purpose” against the common people – in case you missed the significance of the title.

The drama follows the two families most affected by the murder: that of JohnJo and that of the murdered boy. There are no winners in this situation. The suffering of both mothers is vividly portrayed. Johnjo’s mother, Colleen, is played by Jodhi May. Margaret Ward, the mother of victim Thomas, is played by Susan Lynch, in a performance described variously by the critics as “knockout” and “standout”.

The majority of those convicted under the law of joint enterprise – mostly young, mostly men – are of black, Asian or mixed-race ethnicity. Almost all are working class and poor. Johnjo is white, naive and a haemophiliac, so obviously innocent and obviously vulnerable. McGovern may have felt that he needed to emphasis Johnjo’s innocence and vulnerability in order to show more clearly the arbitrary nature of this law as it is currently applied, as well as to avoid any possibility of bias against Johnjo in the viewers’ minds on the grounds of colour.

The fact that two of the killers of Stephen Lawrence were finally convicted of his murder under this law was cited in the Newsnight discussion on 8 July following the screening of this drama, but we all know how many years of determined campaigning and heart-breaking reversals it took before that happened.

And, moreover, all the killers of Stephen Lawrence would have been behind bars, where they belong, many years ago, had not the Metropolitan Police been institutionally racist (as even much of the bourgeoisie now admits); had they not treated the Lawrence family, their friends and supporters, the black community and anti-racists in general as the suspects and criminals to be subjected to investigation, surveillance, denigration, disruption and harassment (as now extensively reported by the press, not least after the exposure and self-exposure of hitherto secret police units and methods); and had not at least one of the murderers not hailed from a notorious lumpen-criminal family, whose father was up to his neck in shady dealings with corrupt police officers.

To use the Lawrence case as attempted justification of the use of ‘common purpose’ is the height of both cynicism and shamelessness.

By contrast, the campaign following the equally tragic and senseless killing of a young white boy in West London led in a relatively short time to a doubling of the sentences for knife crimes. In the Newsnight discussion it was also made clear that the threshold of culpability under the doctrine of joint enterprise has now become so low as to be virtually meaningless in many cases.

Two or three hundred years ago, those who took part in or assisted a duel were clearly all equally aware of the risk of death to one of the parties. Death of one of the duellers was clearly a foreseeable possibility – even a probability. That test of foreseeability is now stretched to breaking point, so that young men have been convicted even when they were not aware of a knife or a gun being carried, let alone of any intention to use it, on the part of another.

The true stories of three families whose sons have been unjustly convicted of common purpose murder were explored in the related TV documentary programme Guilty By Association, shown on BBC1 on Monday 7 July. In it, a senior retired judge added his voice to that of the defendant solicitor in the Newsnight discussion, calling for a rethinking of the law and its application, since it is resulting currently in too many young people being imprisoned for unjustifiably long periods.

The police inspector, DI Harris, played to great effect by Robert Pugh, who was in charge of the investigation in the drama says (with great relish) to the young man working in the Pizzeria, whose phone call had initially brought the cousin of Johnjo to the Pizzeria with his friends, intent on a ruck, that “a phone call, even a knowing look” may be sufficient to implicate someone in a killing under joint enterprise. In this way, that young man was persuaded to give the names of all those involved in the fight (names withheld by Johnjo in his earlier statement to the police, apart from the wielder of the knife) and be a witness for the prosecution in return for not himself being jointly charged with the murder.

Johnjo wanted to plead not guilty and rely on the jury accepting his innocence, but under pressure from the others charged with him (since they all had to agree to pleading guilty to different, lesser charges before that of joint enterprise murder would be dropped and all were facing a mandatory life sentence and a likely period in prison of 20 or more years), he eventually agreed to plead guilty to causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) and so received a sentence of just under six years.

He even wrote a letter to the victim’s mother from jail accepting that her son would still be alive if he, Johnjo, hadn’t driven his brother’s car that evening, but repeating his original statement that he thought they were only going for a pizza. Andrew Billen describes the embrace of the mothers that followed the reading of Johnjo’s letter as “an unexpectedly overwhelming conclusion to a highly considered piece of writing”.

It is more even than a poignant moment, as it seems that Johnjo has to reconcile himself to his imprisonment even while knowing that he had no criminal intent at any time. And that is the point and why this is such a heinous law as now applied in such cases.

If charged directly with murder, the accused must be shown to have intended to murder the victim or, at least to have intended to cause GBH, being reckless as to whether death might ensue. No such criminal intent is required for joint enterprise murder. In this way ‘joint enterprise’ violates one of the basic tenets of criminal law taught to every law student: namely, that to be guilty of committing a crime, there must be the intention to commit the crime it as well as the act itself.

What is special about this drama is not just the quality of the writing and the acting, but that it tackles a question which is of real concern to the working class today, as well as to some lawyers and others who are concerned with justice and fairness.

Most television dramas today are escapist – fantasies of the future (Dr Who) or of the past (Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Sherlock), with very little to relate them to the issues of today or to the reality of any day, past or present. Indeed, that is their purpose. They are the modern ‘opium of the masses’.

Most crime dramas are either cosy detective stories, where the police are always intelligent and honest, the murderer is always quickly discovered and all is soon all right again with the world, or ‘realistic’ festivals of blood and gore where insanely inhuman serial killers are the norm.

Even dramas based on books that provided real insight into working-class life – Lark Rise to Candleford and Call the Midwife to name but two – have been romanticised and turned into cosy soap operas, with all the gritty realism of the original books removed.

It was in the 1970s that the BBC regularly showed one-off dramas on topical issues, notably Play for Today, when plays such as Cathy Come Home by Jim Allen highlighted the plight of homeless families and led to the founding of the homeless charity Shelter.

It was perhaps not surprising, that, that when asked what good television dramas he had seen, McGovern cited a play by Jim Allen which was screened in the 70s. He excused himself by saying it was invidious to single out any contemporary drama or writer, which was a fair point. (Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 30 June 2014)

The fact is, however, that there are few if any other writers – not for television, at least, though there are some in the theatre, where far fewer people see their plays so they have less chance of influencing opinion – who write about the working class today or the issues that affect and matter to them.

Jimmy also explained that the drama had come about because he got a letter “out of the blue” from a woman whose family member was inside for a long time under the law of joint enterprise – something he had not heard about at the time. He was moved enough to ring her, then was drawn in by the human story – especially when he went to visit and met the mother of Jordan Cunliffe, serving life for the joint enterprise murder of Gary Newlove because he (Jordan) “stood and watched” the murder, though “he took no part in it and was technically blind at the time”. (Jordan’s unsuccessful appeal against the length of his sentence was one of the stories covered by the BBC documentary referred to above.)

McGovern explained that, because of his record of championing the cause of those who have suffered injustice (Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday), he gets lots of requests to take up and write about different causes, but he usually has to turn them down; this cause was just too compelling to resist, however. (Wrong again, Daily Mail!)

That is the other sense in which Jimmy McGovern’s play can be called old-fashioned. It is an unashamedly polemical play in support of the struggle of the working class for justice, which at the same time – as even the most right-wing critics agreed – is an excellent drama. Only the excellence of his work could ensure McGovern airtime for a play such as this one.

Art has its place in the working-class struggle, though, generally speaking, very little art in a bourgeois society represents the interests of the working class. We need more such art, and more Jimmy McGoverns in every field of art.


** Read ‘ Bourgeois justice working-class injustice ’, Proletarian, October 2013

** See jointenterprise co, website of JENGbA – Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association, the organisation campaigning against this unjust law

** Listen to the on Jimmy McGovern interview
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