2023 Sandford St Martin Trustees’ Award winner
In recognition of his commitment to creating challenging, thought-provoking drama that never shies away from exploring what people believe.
“I’m a writer because I was a Catholic and I took the examination of conscience really seriously. That means I came up with five motivations for every possible sin I committed and that’s perfect training for a writer, that ability to think about why someone might act as they do.”
Jimmy McGovern has a knack for writing a particular kind of drama. From Brookside and Cracker in the 1990s to drama documentaries abou Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday or previous Sandford St Martin Award winners Broken (2018) and Time (2022), as one interviewer put it, Jimmy McGovern specialises in moral dilemmas. The resulting dramas can be bleak, might even be bruising but they are never anything less than brilliant and revelatory. There is arguably no British tv dramatist who through the brute beauty and valour of his writing has so consistently and successfully captured the complexities of what it is to be a thinking, feeling human. The result is a body of challenging, socially engaged, unmistakeably British television that always attracts a mass audience.
Watch the video dedication to Jimmy and his work from some of his friends and colleagues – including the actor Sean Bean – below.
Catholic preoccupation with sin is perfect training for a writer
Jimmy McGovern’s brilliant and riveting six part-series ‘Broken’ has been described as one of the BBC’s finest dramas ever. Sean Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan – a Catholic priest presiding over a large community in Liverpool. Not without his own faults, Fr Michael is called upon not to give communion and act as a confessor to a congregation suffering acute individual challenges of their own, but also to be a confidante and a counsellor as they all struggle with their faith and life in modern day Britain. Such was the power of the series that ‘Broken’ won double Sandford St Martin Awards in 2018, taking not only the TV/Video Award which is decided by a jury of professional broadcasters, but also winning by a landslide the public vote and the Radio Times Readers’ Award.
The following article was written by Sarah Hughes and published in the Observer newspaper on 7 May 2017.
Cracker’s creator opens up about his faith
He is renowned for bleak, bruising and brilliant dramas from Hillsborough and Cracker to The Lakes, Accused and last year’s blistering take on the consequences of the Iraq war, Reg. But Jimmy McGovern says that he might not have become a writer had he not been raised in the Catholic faith with its particular attention to the nature of sin.
“I’m a writer because I was a Catholic and I took the examination of conscience really seriously,” says McGovern, 67, who was brought up in a large working-class family in Liverpool. “That means I came up with five motivations for every possible sin I committed and that’s perfect training for a writer, that ability to think about why someone might act as they do.”
McGovern is no longer a practising Catholic – “I still go to church at times of crisis, when people I love die, for funerals and at times of joy such as births and marriages” – but his continued interest in the faith of his childhood has led him to write a new six-part drama series.
Broken follows Sean Bean’s Father Michael Kerrigan, the parish priest in an impoverished working-class community (the series was filmed in the Kirkdale district of Liverpool), as he struggles to make a difference in his parishioners’ lives, while coming to terms with his own past and vocation. It’s a series McGovern has been trying to write “since the 80s”, coming closest in the 1994 film Priest, which examines the strictures of the church and the nature of doubt.
“I said from the outset that Broken is the story of a good priest. He doesn’t abuse boys, he doesn’t chase women, he doesn’t even drink – I think the most we see him have is half a glass of wine over the whole series – and that was very important to me. It’s a story of atonement, what it means and how it can be a lifelong thing.”
Broken, which will be shown in a primetime slot on BBC1 soon, could be seen as something of a risk given the largely secular society we live in and the relatively small number of Catholics in the UK, something McGovern acknowledges with a laugh. “Because I was bought up in a Catholic community I thought everyone was Catholic – I was well into my 30s before I realised that we were only 10% of the country. Until then I thought we ran the show.”
He is confident, however, that those who have no experience of Catholicism or organised religion will gain as much from the story as those raised in the faith. Certainly many of the show’s themes – poverty, debt, addiction, the strain that caring for the sick and elderly can place on family relationships – are universal and a strong cast, which includes Adrian Dunbar and Anna Friel, ensure that Broken is not about arcane mysteries so much as the ordinary realities of life.
He acknowledges that people will make assumptions based on the title. “They’re going to look at it and say, ‘oh, broken Britain’, but it’s not about that. It’s about broken humanity, about how when you’re at your weakest you can also be at your strongest. Just suppose they hadn’t killed Christ, where would Christianity be then? When he was at his absolute weakest he became the most powerful thing on the planet. That’s fascinating, and it tells us we shouldn’t be frightened of weakness.”
Broken is unflinching in its depiction of a community torn apart by poverty. Kerrigan’s parishioners work in “shitty jobs” with zero-hours contracts and minimal pay. They are repeatedly let down or ignored by the structures of the society in which they live, leaving only their wavering faith and the parish priest to sustain them: in the opening episode Kerrigan offers a struggling parishioner not prayers but food vouchers.
“It’s not about smells and bells but about a priest who is working on the coalface, doing real muscular work within his community,” says McGovern.
“In the north-west, and especially in Liverpool, we have some wonderful priests who do important work with alcoholics and the homeless and who are at the heart of their communities, standing alongside them and helping them. Somebody said that the art of priesthood is to keep your mouth shut and your ears open and I think that’s very true. You wouldn’t last five minutes if you went to these people and preached at them.”
He admits Bean, who gives a sensitive and at times devastating portrayal of a good man in crisis, initially struggled with Kerrigan’s perceived passivity, the way in which he appears to stand by as people he cares for are dragged under by troubles. “I got quite exercised about that and said: ‘Do not think hearing confession is passive. You don’t just listen – you take those sins. The penitent leaves the confessional box lighter and you leave it heavier.’”
Part of the appeal for both men lay in the way that a priest can know so much about his parishioners’ lives yet is bound not to act on it. “The confessional is the one situation in which you know that one person is telling the absolute truth and the other person will never reveal a single word, will in fact go to their death without revealing a single word. Even a lawyer or analyst doesn’t have that.”
Is he worried about how devout Catholics will perceive it? “No, I think they’ll like it,” he says with a laugh. “We had a priest as an adviser throughout and when we had the read-through of the final episode there were also a few priests around and when I looked up after the final scene, which I like to think is a good scene, one or two of those priests were crying and not tears of anger. They were genuinely moved.”
It helps perhaps that he has been here before. “When we did Priest we lost all our locations once word got out about the subject matter [the film deals in part with a young priest’s homosexuality]. No one in Liverpool would have anything to do with us so we had to bus 60 kids down to London in their communion frocks to film but when Derek Worlock [then the archbishop of Liverpool] watched it he called it a profoundly Catholic film and said what’s all the fuss? And I’d say this is the same – it’s a deeply Catholic series but one which asks universal questions.
“It might ruffle a few feathers but that’s our job as writers – to be a bit mischievous, to ruffle feathers, to ask awkward questions. It doesn’t pull its punches and it’s not for everybody but if you stay with it then it is uplifting. It’s about a man who believes he has not lived a worthwhile life and yet who learns he has. It’s about reconciliation, redemption and hope.”