Jimmy McGovern doesn’t miss God much. He has few qualms about losing the Roman Catholic belief of his childhood, a process he blames on “girls and football”. Neither does he lose sleep over his failure to create a Line of Duty, a series so well written that when episode one of the last series came on his television, he says, “I just went, ‘Oh s***. This is going to be so good.’” Well, maybe a little sleep. “Your heart does sink when you see something exceptional,” he admits. “Ask any writer, they would be lying if they said no.”
But the 67-year-old Liverpudlian, responsible for Cracker, The Lakes, Hillsborough, Common and The Street, really does wish he’d caught Anna Friel the first time round. “That is one of my great regrets,” he says. “I left Brookside just as she came on board in the 1980s, but you could see she was something special, even then. I think Anna is great and she’s beautiful.”
Starring alongside Sean Bean and Adrian Dunbar in Broken, McGovern’s new six-part drama set in the north of England, Friel plays Christina Fitzsimmons, a Catholic single mother of three whose life is collapsing around her. McGovern is right; Friel is beautiful, even though she is wild-eyed and bloody-nosed from a fistfight shortly after we meet her in Broken.
Despite that Brookside miss (“Brookside was the best way to learn,” he says. “Write a load of crap and then see your name go up after it to four million people”), McGovern did get to work with Friel in The Street in 2010, where she played “a woman who’s a prostitute on the side to feed her kids”.
Dunbar and Bean have appeared in his work as well, Bean memorably as a transvestite in Accused (2012). In Broken, Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan, a parish priest with little power to change Christina’s desperate situation, but with an apparently bottomless well of compassion and, inevitably, something dark in his own past to accommodate. Friel is very good, as always. But Bean’s performance, understated, occasionally baffled, profoundly caring, is revelatory. “People know Sean’s a good actor,” says McGovern. “But I know he’s a great actor.”
Did he have Bean in mind when he wrote it? “I wanted Sean all along, but I didn’t believe we would get him. It would have been much more straightforward if we hadn’t, because then each episode would be story of the week, with the parish as a sort of precinct, and the priest in the middle of that precinct. When we got Sean Bean, we then had to do a lot more of the development of Father Kerrigan. It became tougher, but much more rewarding to write.”
It has been a testing and scandal-hit decade for the Catholic Church, Christianity’s oldest and largest denomination and the religion of one in 12 Britons. But now that we know child abuse was never a specifically Catholic problem and a media-friendly Pope sits in the Vatican, we’re due a sympathetic portrayal of both the institution and, more pertinently perhaps, the redemptive force of the faith it proclaims.
In McGovern’s 1994 film Priest, one of the clerics is tortured by his sexuality and another hardly believes in God at all. Not Father Michael Kerrigan. “He doesn’t chase boys, doesn’t chase women, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble,” says McGovern. “He’s a good priest. He believes in the power of prayer but also in the power of effort, to go out and get stuck into problems. When he knocks on a door of somebody who’s skint, he comes with food vouchers. And a prayer, maybe, but food vouchers first of all.”
McGovern’s own religious identity came with birth into a Catholic family where he was one of nine children, and it was forged in the sectarian atmosphere of 50s and 60s Liverpool. “I remember as a child, we’d go and hurl abuse at the Orange Lodge as they marched down Shore Street,” he says. “And they would hurl abuse back.”
As he grew up, McGovern’s faith faltered. “Even when I was 12, I’d be hauled along to confession. We used to go every four weeks then and many a time I’d have to confess to missing mass four times. That is, I hadn’t been to mass once since the last time I’d been in that confessional box. I was becoming a teenage boy, and you know what teenage boys are like and what they’re interested in.”
The psychological challenges of poverty, the moral dilemmas of being a Roman Catholic, the life-changing effects that small desperate actions can cause – a pinched £60 in the case of Broken– they are themes that have appeared before in McGovern’s writing and that of his fellow Liverpudlian Alan Bleasdale’s work in the 1980s. McGovern cites Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuffas a touchstone, but he is not an uncritical observer of ordinary people. “There are just as many scumbags among the working class as there are among the British aristocracy,” he says. “Pound for pound, there are good people and bad people in all strata. But just because there are one or two scumbags among them, you can’t say I hate the British working class.”
This series is filmed in Liverpool, specifically in Kirkdale, on the banks of the Mersey, an area that suffers from many of the evils of deprivation, but the atmosphere is generic northern rather than Liverpool specific. Bean’s rumbling Yorkshire baritone is at times a whisper, but what it never becomes is Scouse, even though we are in McGovern’s home town. Why’s that?
“You know the reasons,” he fires back. “Little Boy Blue [written by Jeff Pope and set in Liverpool] was reviewed by Euan Ferguson in The Observer, who is a very good reviewer, a very good critic, but a lot of his review was about the city. So I just think, with Liverpool, different rules apply and I try to avoid that if I can. Filming in the city, yes, producing in the city, yes, but setting the stuff in the city? I’m always hesitant about that. But Liverpool informs everything I write. I say the lines of every character and I say those lines in my Scouse accent.”
Scouse or not, McGovern’s characters make us think, seriously, about other people’s difficult lives, ask ourselves what we would do if we couldn’t feed our children. In doing so McGovern makes middle-class morality seem like an easy option, even if his characters sometimes do bad things.
In episode one Anna Friel’s character feels obliged to commit an unthinkable act. It’s so extreme I ask if it is true. “Oh God, that’s happened,” he says. “That’s just a horrible position to be in, to have to do that. It’s not greed, it’s not heartlessness, it’s want, and it’s poverty.”
Although McGovern’s own life has been touched by “moments of poverty and despair. You know, trying to bring up kids and things when you’re skint”, he has been successful for so long I wonder how he knows what it’s like to be disastrously poor in 2017?
“I still go to the same pubs I’ve always gone to,” he says. “I’m still the fifth of nine kids; we’re all still alive. Most of my brothers and sisters live in working-class areas of Liverpool. I don’t think I’ve been taken away, but I do know how lucky I am. Undoubtedly I am. I am so, so lucky.”
A believer would see God’s hand in that luck. Will McGovern ever go back to his mother Church?
“It must be wonderfully reassuring, particularly at 67 years of age,” he says. “But you cannot go back to the Church because you fear death, you cannot. There’s no comfort in that.”
Broken is on Tuesday 23rd May at 9pm on BBC1