Television drama so often depicts priests as either avuncular or sinister, with few shades in between. So the arrival of a man of the cloth in Shameless was always going to make waves.
Never a drama to shy away from controversy – series one featured a married Muslim man having a gay affair with a teenager, after all – the exuberant drama would never have opted for a cosy Ballykissangel cleric. But it could have gone down what might coarsely be called “the paedophile priest” route. Happily, it has chosen a different path.
“Dominic is certainly lapsed, and a damaged soul,” explains actor Stephen Lord, aged 39, who plays him. “He’s got a fair few demons and tries to escape them through drink and sexual activity. At 40, he’s doing things that he would have done at 18 had he not become involved with the Church.”
Salford-born Lord, best known as EastEnders’ reformed hooligan Jase Dyer from 2007–8, brings some experience of the priesthood to the part: when he first moved to London as a young actor, he lived in a presbytery for three years.
“I got to know the priests there well and it was great to see what they did on a daily basis for the community. That doesn’t necessarily make all priests decent, just as the abuses committed by others don’t make all priests bad. I saw a lot of good being done. Dominic’s story is one man’s rollercoaster emotional journey.”
Such a character seems so at home on Chatsworth estate, you wonder why it took so long – Shameless is now in its ninth series – for someone like Dominic to appear. Step forward, Shameless showrunner Ed McCardie.
“Graham Greene’s idea of a whisky priest has always intrigued me,” McCardie explains, “and I wanted to explore what happens to someone who has not just a crisis of faith in his god, but also a crisis of faith in mankind.”
But it was McCardie’s own background, as much as his desire to acknowledge a literary great, that compelled him to create Dominic.
“When I was 12, I was sent off to Aberdeen to a junior seminary, which is basically a Catholic boarding school that prepares you for ordination,” McCardie, now 45, says. “It was like travelling back in time, and not something that should happen, especially to a wee boy who didn’t want to be away from his mum. It wasn’t my favourite thing and I was expelled.”
Raised a Catholic in Carluke, Lanarkshire, McCardie is now an atheist – “I was a good Catholic boy until I was in my mid-20s. After a long, slow process, I just came to the conclusion that it wasn’t real” – though he respects those, like his own parents, who do have faith.
He also defends creating such an intriguing, perhaps contentious, character as Dominic.
“In the first decades of the 21st century, wars are still being fought in the name of religion, and it’s a challenging time for people with a spiritual belief. Drama should reflect that. It’s easy to make a bad episode of Shameless, but when it’s at its best, it has a resonance.”
Shameless is on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published on 31 January 2012.