Meet Sean Bean’s holy inspiration
Father Denis Blackledge on how he’s helped Sean Bean play a thoroughly-modern Catholic priest in Broken
Ididn’t think I’d ever have “religious adviser to Sean Bean” on my CV,’ smiles Father Denis Blackledge as TV Times chats to him about the crucial role he’s played in bringing Jimmy Mcgovern’s gritty drama Broken to the screen.
The BBC1 series, which concludes this week, has seen Sean turn in a powerhouse performance as Father Michael Kerrigan, who has helped his parishioners face everything from suicide to homophobia while dealing with horrifying flashbacks to his own traumatic past.
To prepare for the role, both Sean and Jimmy sought the advice of Father Denis, who is the parish priest at Liverpool’s St Francis Xavier church, which was used to film many of the scenes set at Father Michael’s fictional church, St Nick’s.
‘They wanted to use my church as it’s where Jimmy was brought up so I was just in the right place at the right time,’ says Father Denis, 74.
‘Jimmy said to me, “I don’t want people writing in saying we got things wrong” so I had to make sure they got the church stuff right with the correct things on the altar and at mass and with the Eucharist and confessions. But they also wanted to get Father Michael’s bedside manner right and his own brokenness so that he would fit in with other broken people, so I just showed them what, to me, is the authentic way of being a priest.’
As we talk to the passionate, forthright and funny Father Denis, it’s clear that Sean learned a lot from him and, in turn, Father Denis can’t hide his pride at the way that his protégé has settled into the role.
‘It was a delight and a great privilege to work with Sean because he is so easy to deal with and a good learner. He was nervous at first but that was good because this is a big thing. He really grew into the part, which was lovely,’ he says.
‘I wanted him to do it his own way but I told him what it feels like to be a priest, how it comes from your guts and goes through your heart. He also learned by watching me, such as when he came to mass and picked up how I go among the people and don’t stay by the lectern.’
The finale sees Father Michael’s problems threaten to overwhelm him and he faces a big decision about his future. Lancashire-born Father Denis tells us that those very personal difficulties accurately reflect the challenges he has faced in more than 40 years as a priest.
‘There have been a few times when I could’ve left but I’m still here,’ says the priest, who joined St Francis Xavier 14 months ago. ‘I’ve had to make big, painful decisions in the past because I’ve been in love and I’ve had to choose to give up the chance of a wife and kids. But any good priest goes through doubts. We’re ordinary blokes, not extraordinary people. We have to deal with our own messiness.’
Father Denis is certain that Broken will increase footfall in churches and he hopes that viewers have gained a new insight into modern Catholicism.
‘My parishioners think it’s terrific and when I watched the last scene of the finale, I wept buckets and thought, “They’ve got it right about being a priest at last”,’ he says.
‘I became a priest to help others and this is the first time in a long time that I’ve seen the depiction of a Catholic priest as a man who is true to God, true to himself and true to other people. You have to get your hands dirty and do what you can for people. Those who tell people how to do things and want to be on a pedestal wouldn’t last five minutes in my parish.’
I told Sean what it feels like to be a priest – it comes from your guts and through your heart
From left: Director Ashley Pearce, Father Denis Blackledge, Sean Bean, producer Colin Mckeown and Jimmy Mcgovern Father Denis Blackledge of St Francis Xavier church
Sean Bean as Broken’s
Father Michael Kerrigan