The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Bro­ken,

‘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

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