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Jimmy McGovern: ‘You have to write stories that matter’

Throughout his long career, the television writer Jimmy McGovern has railed against injustice. He has written dramas about the fallout from both Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday and, more recently, his fictional series Accused explored a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Now, in a new film for BBC One, McGovern is again taking aim at the police and the courts.

Common tells the story of a young man (Johnjo, played by Nico Mirallegro) who is unjustly prosecuted for murder under the controversial “joint enterprise” principle by which a person can be found guilty of involvement in a killing even if he did not physically take part in it. Johnjo is no villain. He gives a gang of lads from his estate a lift to pick up a pizza, and waits in the car while they go in to collect it. Soon afterwards he discovers that one of the men has stabbed a teenage customer to death.

McGovern believes that joint enterprise, which has led to more than 4,500 prosecutions in the past eight years, is leading to many miscarriages of justice. The double meaning of the title, Common, is intentional. Much of that injustice, he argues, falls on young working-class men.

“If you want to be the victim of injustice – and I speak from long acquaintance with the Hillsborough families – be poor,” he tells me. “You get lousy lawyers. Most of the people who’ve been the victims of this kind of injustice are poor.”

The inspiration for Common came, in part, from a meeting McGovern had with Janet Cunliffe, whose son, Jordan, is serving a life sentence for the murder of Garry Newlove in Warrington in 2007. It was, says McGovern, “a notorious case. But then Jan told me her version of the story. Jordan was with the group [who attacked Newlove], but took no part in the attack. He went up the road to make sure the ambulance got to the injured man, and bumped into a policeman. And that’s why he was apprehended.”

The law must, of course, recognise different levels of guilt, as McGovern acknowledges. “There’s the guilt where you participate, there’s the guilt where you assist and there’s the guilt where you could have stopped it and failed to intervene. At the very least, they say, Jordan is guilty of that. But Jordan, technically, is blind. So he could hardly have seen anything anyway. He didn’t even stand and watch.”

McGovern says he was “sucked in” by Janet Cunliffe’s account and the story of Johnjo’s mother, played by Jodhi May, is central to the film. She acts as a powerful counterpoint to the mother of the murdered boy, played by Susan Lynch. “If you lose a loved one, you are not bothered with shades of guilt,” says McGovern. “If you are the parents of a murdered child, there’s no such thing as justice. What you can possibly get, though, is atonement.”

As a screenwriter, McGovern has pet subjects he returns to, but are his tastes as a viewer as clearly defined? On the topic of Downton Abbey, for example, he says: “It’s not my cup of tea. But you know, you express an opinion and all the fans of that show come on… I’m not the kind of man who watches Doctor Who, but if I say anything about Doctor Who, I get emails galore lambasting me.”

He is a fan of the Danish drama sensation The Killing but didn’t see much of Borgen. “They’ve got an advantage. When we watch a British actor, we know whether he or she is

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good because we hear the lines, and we catch the wrong inflection,” he says. “When we’re watching the subtitles, the actors get away with murder. I used to love watching French movies, too – you can rip them off and nobody knows.”

McGovern turns 65 this September but says he has no plans to reitre. “I’ll start to coast. I like working with other writers.” Both Accused and another successful BBC One series, The Street, were created by McGovern but included episodes written by other writers.

He has, however, written almost all of his next project, Banished, a seven-part series for BBC Two about the first convicts who were transported to Australia in 1788. “I think, as ever, I stumbled upon a really great story,” he says. And, again, McGovern has found a voice for working-class characters. “I’ve got poor, uneducated people speaking in the most articulate fashion. I’ve often seen a character on-screen using a big word, and the writer allows that person to search for the big word, in order to be entitled to say it,” says McGovern. “And I go, ‘P‑‑‑ off!’ I grew up with the most articulate people – and they were dockers.”

That quality of dialogue may seem a small matter for a writer – especially compared with, say, potential reform of the law of murder. But for McGovern, these aspects of his scripts stem from one guiding philosophy. “I personally believe that, if you’re going to write, you have to write stories that matter,” he says firmly. “Every time I say that, I get into all kinds of trouble, but I still believe it. Why write about things that don’t matter?”

Source: The Telegraph

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