Nobody wants to be lectured by the TV

If characters can’t make themselves heard over the sound of grinding axes, why spend time with them? asks David Butcher

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Nobody wants to be lectured by the TV
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It’s amazing what teachers could get away with in the 1970s. I had one science teacher, let’s call him Dr X, who liked to reinforce whatever point he was making with a sharp blow to the head of a child sitting in the front row. It was as if he thought literally hitting us over the head with facts would make them stick, a philosophy even Michael
Gove might blanch at.

I’m reminded of Dr X when I watch those TV dramas that are determined to hammer their point home, to make us understand. Recent Channel 4 costume drama New Worlds was sunk by the writers’ attempts to berate the 17th century for not being the 21st and make us grasp that, you know what, oppression and sexism are bad, whereas freedom and true love are good.

Pretty soon, New Worlds collapsed under its own earnestness and viewers stayed away in droves. A great cast and a lot of frock coats and stately homes were entirely wasted, because nobody wants to sit and be lectured about liberty by Jamie Dornan.

But the trouble with New Worlds wasn’t that it had a point to make; it was that it was so crude about it. If you want an example of polemical drama that doesn’t clobber you over the head, try this week’s Common (tonight BBC1). It comes from the pen of Jimmy McGovern, who has form in this department, having previously made committed pieces such as Hillsborough, Sunday and Dockers.

McGovern wears his anger about social injustice on his sleeve. I met him once and it was more like talking to a social campaigner, albeit a very entertaining one, than a TV writer. In fact, he’s one of the great TV writers – up there with Dennis Potter, for my money – a man who seems incapable of writing a dull character or a dreary scene.

Common is at one level a tirade against an obscure legal doctrine called joint enterprise, increasingly used – McGovern argues – to imprison young men for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Johnjo, the 17-year-old hero, gives some friends a lift to get a pizza (he thinks), but when one of them stabs a bystander, Johnjo finds himself charged with murder, too.

But McGovern is no fool; he’s smart enough to weave the point he wants to make about the criminal justice system into layers of taut, believable, moving plot. We’re so busy empathising with Johnjo’s predicament and how it ruptures his family, we almost don’t notice the message.

Almost. McGovern occasionally gives us a friendly slap on the cheek to make sure we’re paying attention. At one stage, a character tells another to Google “joint enterprise”, and it feels clear McGovern would quite like us to do the same. All right, Jimmy, point taken. 

At times like that I can almost feel myself as a viewer weighing up whether I’m prepared to take the medicine I’m being offered. Has the show earned the right to get all didactic on me? Is it good enough as a piece of storytelling to get away with a little socio-political finger wagging? If yes, stick around; if no, turn over.

That’s the deal we make with TV dramas and they break it at their peril. If the characters can’t make themselves heard over the sound of grinding axes, why spend time with them? Thankfully, the world has moved on so teachers like Dr X have learnt not to clout kids. And now maybe TV writers are seeing the light, too. 

Common is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1.