‘Isit down to write eight hours a day and sometimes I don’t write a word; it’s so bloody hard, you may as well write about something that matters because it won’t be any harder,” writer Jimmy McGovern said recently, interviewed about his new series Broken. “And, of course, if you can do somebody a favour or if you can help a cause or help people searching for justice then it’s a nobrainer to do that.”
McGovern is the author of crime drama Cracker, which broke new ground by introducing us to the consulting criminal psychologist, and the anthology-style series The Street and Accused, both of which screened on the ABC. He was also story producer for the critically acclaimed Redfern Now, his writerly influence easily felt through the series. He also gave us the colonial drama Banished, disdained by critics for the way it played with fact when it first aired; at times it appeared more like science fiction, a Twilight Zone episode about an ugly parallel universe set in a time only vaguely resembling the beginnings of Australia.
But Broken takes him back to the workingclass dramas that have been his strength, another series of deceptively mundane stories about ordinary lives centred on the figure of Catholic priest Michael Kerrigan, played with extraordinary empathy and understatement by Sean Bean ( Game of Thrones), presiding over an impoverished urban parish in an unnamed city in northern England. (The series was actually filmed in Liverpool, the city most associated with McGovern, and produced by independent Liverpool company LA Productions.)
McGovern says the series is about “touching on important issues that affect people who are skint” — the slang meaning abjectly broke that is used many times in the compelling if often emotionally confronting first episode. It’s a study of poverty in a Britain that its government seems to have totally forgotten exists, the working-class parishioners of Kerrigan’s church, like the priest himself, struggling to resolve their beliefs with the daily challenges of marginalisation and exclusion. (At one pivotal moment in first the first episode Kerrigan looks blankly at a picture of Christ in a dead woman’s bedroom and asks blankly: “What next?”)
Each story centres on an individual member of Kerrigan’s shuttered-up community — the only shops that appear open are the betting establishments — highlighting themes such as social deprivation, mental health, homophobia, gambling and drug addiction. “If you are helping people who are searching for justice that provides you with an energy that wasn’t there before,” McGovern says.
A central figure in his local community, at much at home in the local pub playing bingo with his flock, Kerrigan is supposedly instructing, confirming and encouraging them to a more fervent life when, impoverished and largely unemployed, their worlds have crashed around them. They’re simply skint. His is a flock forced to rely on family and friends as the welfare state turns its back resolutely on them.
Lonely and rather desolate — there are flashbacks to some sort of terrible childhood and church education, his mother shouts about “shame” and calls him “a dirty, filthy beast” — he’s a man acutely aware of his own brokenness and vulnerability. It’s inevitable his commitment to his parishioners is tested, as is his faith.
It’s only by accepting his own weaknesses and susceptibilities that he is able to cope with other people’s problems and understand what they’re going through, living and working in unacceptable conditions of anxiety. Some nights he spends on an airbed holding his now bedridden dying mother’s hand, while a cassette softly plays Dream a Little Dream of Me.
This broken priest is no willing member of a quasi-aristocratic caste who tell his parishioners how to live their lives but a decent, doubtful man uncertain of his supposed spiritual authori- ty over lesser mortals. He simply does his best to support his parishioners through their troubles. “In a way it’s about the Eucharist, where a priest who thinks he has failed his people is shown by his people that he has served them well,” McGovern says. “And it saves him. It redeems him. So it’s about redemption and compassion and forgiveness.”
He suggests that if there is a film to which he owes a debt of artistic gratitude it is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, that dark, bittersweet postwar tale of James Stewart’s savingsand-loan manager who struggles against a greedy banker and his own self-doubting nature in a small town.
“James Stewart is suicidal and thinks his life had been a disaster, but his guardian angel shows him what life would have been without him and demonstrates that his life has not been a failure; it’s been a success,” he says. “So it’s the same themes as It’s A Wonderful Life, except it’s longer, a bit darker at times.”
McGovern also sees the series as an exploration of the clash between the body and the soul, “between principles and practicalities”. “We all know what we should do: you know what the code you should abide by says, but the practicalities sometimes mean you have to divert from that,” he says.
This plays out in the first episode when Christina, played with an acute sense of identification by Anna Friel ( Marcella), her little girl preparing for her first communion, is sacked from her job in a betting shop after her boss Jean (Rochenda Sandall) discovers Christina’s IOU note for £60 in the cash box, despite her protestations she “borrowed” it only because she was, well, skint. As a fist fight between the women breaks out in the shop, they are ignored by a man sitting at a fixed odds terminal who continues to push his money into it, oblivious.
Like many of McGovern’s characters in so many dramas, their lives captured by a freakish or serendipitous occurrence, Christina is caught in a moment that in time defines her. McGovern’s tautly written stories highlighting how easily lives turn on quirks of fate, he is fasci- nated as a writer by the moral dilemmas that emerge as consequences of mistakes, unwise choices and personal weakness.
Christina desperately knows that what she has done is wrong but the practicality is she has to feed her children. She also has no money for her daughter’s communion dress and she is denied jobseekers allowance benefits for 13 weeks, her husband providing nothing “since the day I threw him out”. She pawns her rings but things get worse when her mother, Rosie (Eileen Nicholas), who lives with Christina and her kids, dies in her house and she attempts to claim her pension. “You heartless, scheming bitch!” her nurse sister Lisa (Macy Shackleton) yells. The priest can do little more than confront her with where she now finds herself, powerless to offer little more than prayer.
Director Ashley Pearce, who steers the first episode, grounds the sense of emotional turmoil firmly in the solid geometry of three-dimensional space, much of it shot in close-up against ceilings and the edges of walls, staircases and doorways, confining McGovern’s characters. We lose ourselves in the actors’ faces, exploring every nuance of expression against a kind of background embroidery of soft, nebulous blobs of colour. You sense he shows us exactly what McGovern has written, the dialogue sparse, some sequences containing only a few words, McGovern calibrating scenes on the page, building a visual structure to parallel and heighten the emotional structure of the story.
“As you write, find the strand that gets you in the gut and build it, build it to a crescendo of rage and emotion; pick a character and then torture them,’’ McGovern once told screenwriters at a conference I attended. But don’t be put off watching this superb drama. McGovern delivers not only a scathing exploration of working class life in contemporary Britain but an artful, beautifully constructed exploration of faith, which as Hebrews tells us is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Sunday, July 9, at 8.30pm, BBC First.
Sean Bean as Father Michael Kerrigan