If The Handmaid’s Tale makes you despair of religion, try Broken

Sean Bean’s turn as a troubled priest in the BBC drama celebrates the best of religion while acknowledging the worst, says David Butcher

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In its way, Broken is the most radical drama of the year so far. Why? Because it offers something you hardly ever see on TV outside of Easter week – a story that’s as religious as a stained glass window. And unlike The Handmaid’s Tale (very unlike The Handmaid’s Tale), it comes with a broadly positive take on Christianity.

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The story of a troubled Catholic priest, played with heart and soul by Sean Bean, does something vanishingly rare in the schedules: it celebrates the best of religion while acknowledging the worst.

In the end, though, this Tuesday’s finale couldn’t have been a better advertisement for the priesthood if it had come with a blessing from Pope Francis himself. Maybe that shouldn’t feel so shocking. But invariably, films and dramas portray Catholicism as a strange and suspect business – all bells, smells and weirdos.

As a very lapsed Catholic myself, I can well understand that. I went to a Jesuit boarding school in the 1970s and 80s and heaven knows, it was an eccentric, archaic kind of place. So I can well see why, for directors and writers, it’s irresistible to film church locations as shadowy and sinister, with a priest who is a creepy hypocrite at best, and a child abuser at worst. How many crime dramas over the years have used an abusive Catholic priest as a plot point?

You can’t blame them. The fact a top Vatican cardinal was recently charged by an Australian court with multiple sexual offences suggests the extent of the possible skeletons the Church may still have in its sacristy cupboard. It’s a scandal that could take decades, perhaps generations, to recover from.

In his scripts for Broken, Jimmy McGovern doesn’t shy away from that ugly history, not a bit. The main character, Fr Michael, is haunted by memories of being bullied and abused at the hands of a grubby priest who taught him at school. The flashbacks keep assailing him just as he is at the most solemn part of Mass, the consecration of the bread and wine, making him stumble and freeze. 

He is assailed by doubts: “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter,” he groaned in the final episode. The irony is that we know, from everything we’ve seen him do over the series, that Fr Michael is in fact as terrific a priest as any community could hope to have.

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One of McGovern’s achievements (and Bean’s) is to give us that rare thing, a genuinely kind and selfless protagonist – who is at the same time conflicted and flawed (or else there would be no drama at all…)

He also has the hardest working conscience in Liverpool. What’s the right response if you discover one of your poorest parishioners (Anna Friel) has concealed her mother’s death in order to keep claiming her pension – a victimless crime if ever there was one? Fr Michael works it out. If a woman comes to you and calmly confesses she plans to take her own life, how do you react? Should you break the bond of the confessional to save her? Again, he steers a compassionate course through choppy ethical waters.

Not that he’s anyone’s clerical goody-goody. The scene where Fr Michael lays into local betting shops from the pulpit, condemning the fact that they install machines to prey on the city’s poorest, is full of the righteous anger that McGovern dishes out better than anyone. (It can make him preachy at times, but not here.) The scene that follows, where locals go out with baseball bats to solemnly smash in the machines has a real moral clout to it.

McGovern clearly respects religion – even fusty, dusty Catholicism – because he sees it bringing a moral yardstick to things. He values the way religion holds us to account, the way it offers ideals, however tarnished, and solace in tough times. He knows the sins of organised Christianity – and attacks them mercilessly in a way TV might shy away from with other religions – but in the end he draws a sympathetic picture.

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All this is clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum from The Handmaid’s Tale, with its bitter portrait of a society ruled by evangelical thugs. That’s a brilliant piece of television – and with the kind of American budget and production values McGovern could only dream of. But in its way Broken offers a good counterweight. And if Bean isn’t nominated for a Bafta next spring, it’ll be the devil’s work.