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Jim McDermottDecember 16, 2021
Sean Bean in the prison drama “Time,” the latest series from Jimmy McGovern (photo: BritBox).Sean Bean in the prison drama “Time,” the latest series from Jimmy McGovern (photo: BritBox).

When the British TV writer Jimmy McGovern was 10 years old, his teacher at the all-boys school he attended offered a contest: The boy who wrote the best composition on “What’s It Like in Your House in the Morning?” would win The Weetabix Wonder Book of Birds. “I think it had a picture of a cormorant on the front,” McGovern recalls now. “It looked fantastic.” He had to have it.

In planning his essay, McGovern started by considering his competition. Given that Weetabix was a cereal, his hunch was that most of his classmates would write about breakfast. So instead he wrote about his father getting ready for work.

Jimmy McGovern’s work is marked by a very Catholic instinct to look where no one else will. 

“I watched him shave, heard the razor, [saw] the scum that formed as he shook it in a glass of water. I watched him do his carryout, the bits of food and tea he’d take into work in his bag. I watched him pour milk into a medicine bottle and ram a cork in,” he wrote. “He’d put a spoonful of sugar on a piece of a newspaper and then he’d add tea leaves and that would all go all grey, and then he’d wrap that up in a ball and put it in his bag. Then he lit the fire [in our house] and [I saw] the sinews on his hands.”

McGovern would go on not only to win the contest but to create decades of groundbreaking TV like the detective show “Cracker,” with Robbie Coltrane; the Catholic parish drama “Broken,” with Sean Bean; and most recently the prison miniseries “Time,” also with Bean. While his stories have ranged in topic from the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre and the 17th-century Gunpowder Plot to the lives of people on a single street in the modern-day English city of Manchester, his work shares a fascination with the Catholicism in which he was raised and a very Catholic instinct to look where no one else will and see in the tiny details of people’s lives, from the sinews of their hands to the scrape of a razor, a humanity that others might overlook or ignore.

Poverty, Jesuits and Stories

Four years after World War II ended, James Stanley McGovern was born, the fifth of nine children of his parents William and Jane. They lived in a four-bedroom, two-story house in Liverpool, and always close to the edge. “Nobody worked harder than my dad, but we were always skint,” he tells me, using British slang for having little money, in an interview over Zoom in August.

McGovern’s Liverpool community did have one thing in great numbers: Jesuit priests. 

As a port and shipbuilding city, Liverpool had been bombed relentlessly during the war. In May 1941 alone, 870 tons of explosives and 112,000 firebombs fell on the community. Even into the 1960s, many of the bombed-out houses simply stood there, waiting to be knocked down. And nearly everyone was poor. “I remember kids with no shoes on their feet right through the ’50s,” McGovern recollects.

McGovern’s community did have one thing in great numbers, though: Jesuit priests. In the mid-19th century, St. Francis Xavier Church had been built to accommodate the large numbers of Irish fleeing the Potato Famine. A hundred years later, “the city was filled with Irish,” says McGovern. “And there seemed to be priests everywhere. They used to come to the house, and we were supposed to give them a few pence.”

Jimmy McGovern (photo: BritBox)
Jimmy McGovern (photo: BritBox)

At age 11, McGovern was admitted into the Jesuits’ prestigious secondary school St. Francis Xavier’s College, which had moved some years prior out of the city proper to what McGovern describes as “the leafy suburbs of Woolton.” It was McGovern’s first experience of life away from where he lived, and his first experience with Jesuit education. “It was terrible,” he recalls. “The teaching was substandard.” The Jesuits did not seem to appreciate the world their students came from, either. “You didn’t get many working-class Jesuits then,” he explains. “I don’t think they understood poverty.”

They also held in their company a sexually abusive priest. “He was a pedophile, and everyone knew he was.”

“I have huge respect for the faith,” says McGovern, who notes he was a “pious kid” until about 13. “But this was how that school was.”

“Cracker” would go on to become a massive success not just in the United Kingdom but around the world.

From the time he was young, McGovern enjoyed writing. In his 20s, now married and with three children, someone gave him a break, a chance to work as a staff writer on a Liverpool soap opera called “Brookside.” In six years he would write or co-write 40 episodes.

His breakthrough as a storyteller would happen in the 1990s. In 1993 he created “Cracker,” an ITV series about an alcoholic, adulterous, gambling-addicted forensic psychologist that the pop culture websiteDen of Geek has called a “beautiful and brutal cocktail of gruesome entertainment, savage social commentary and unflinching truth.” It would go on to become a massive success not just in the United Kingdom but around the world.

Those same years would see him write two equally important films. “Priest” (1994) is about a young gay Catholic priest confronting the complex realities of life in a Catholic parish; “Hillsborough” (1996) is a dramatic retelling of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster that saw 97 soccer fans crushed to death and 766 others injured after the police sent attendees through the wrong gate. In the wake of that tragedy, police systematically lied about what happened, saying the attendees in that section had all been drunk, some of the survivors so much so they had urinated on corpses—stories that ran in national papers and played into stereotypes about Liverpudlians and the working class.

The two films are radically different in style. “Priest” is a drama with some comedic moments, “Hillsborough” a muted, documentary-style project in which the audience quietly follows the victims and their families through the chaos of the day and the court case that followed. Yet what these two films share is a passion for the stories no one else is telling. “Priest” is one of the very first attempts to tell stories about gay clergy, which it does in a way that forgoes the sensational in favor of a realistic depiction of the challenges of parish life. And in “Hillsborough” McGovern stood up for the people of Liverpool, who had been so poorly treated by the media. He interviewed many families who had lost loved ones, and in the end the film won three British Academy Television Awards (known as BAFTAs), including for best single drama.

“I find it so lonely to be in your room and having to write. If you’ve got somebody else there, it’s far better.”

The success of “Hillsborough” also challenged McGovern to go further in his writing. “The country sang the praises of that TV program. I won a BAFTA, the program won BAFTAs,” he explains. “But the families of the dead were never invited. That got to me.”

A few years later, when McGovern began work on the story of the Liverpool dockers’ 850-day work strike from 1995 to 1998, he turned to the dockers not simply as sources but as co-writers. “We would all work together and we would all write together,” he says. It has remained his practice on other programs to collaborate with people without professional writing experience but who have stories to tell. “It’s absolutely wonderful to think somebody’s going to walk into the room who’s never written before, you’re going to work with them on a TV program and they’re going to have their name on that,” he tells me.

But he downplays any sense of altruism in his process. “I find it so lonely to be in your room and having to write. If you’ve got somebody else there, it’s far better.”

Shedding Light in Dark Places

In an interview with McGovern for The Independent in 1997, the journalist Jasper Rees talks about the screenwriter’s commitment to “the black stuff” of life, the darkness under the surface. In the pilot of “Cracker,” for example, McGovern’s protagonist, Fitz Fitzgerald,tells a roomful of psychology students that studying Freud or Jung is worthless. The real thing to do is to “go and lock yourself in a room for a couple of days, and study what is here,” he says, slapping his chest. “The things that you really feel, not all that crap that you’re supposed to feel.” Truth is found, he says, “in shedding a little light on dark recesses of your soul.”

What is most striking in McGovern’s body of work is the humanity he discovers precisely in the midst of his characters’ darkness. The woman who runs the local gambling parlor that is destroying lives in “Broken” ends up being a Catholic who comes to the parish priest for confession; the cop responsible for the death of a young Black man turns out to have been harassed into being tougher by all her male colleagues. The prisoners in “Time” almost all wrestle with the truth of what they have done.

What is most striking in McGovern’s body of work is the humanity he discovers precisely in the midst of his characters’ darkness.

This passion to find the deeper well of humanity in characters others might write off as villainous is evident in talking to McGovern. Without prompting he tells me of recent discoveries that paint the officer responsible for the Hillsborough tragedy in a far more sympathetic light. He even has compassion for the convict running the prison’s criminal activity in “Time,” noting that the man is trapped in the system he has created. “When the white man turns tyrant in the east,” he says, quoting George Orwell’s famous story “Shooting an Elephant,” “it’s his own freedom he destroys.”

In his writing process, too, McGovern is ferocious in his desire to undermine easy answers. “You do no service to anybody if you do not write the truth,” he says. Working with other writers, he insists on going over the text again and again until, as he explained in a Q&A forthe BAFTA and British Film Institute’s Screenwriters Lecture Series, it seems like “surely we found this story in the street.” Where the tendency in the media today is to highlight the screenwriter as a singular voice and personality, McGovern wants to erase any trace of himself. “The story is paramount,” he told Rees. “You’ve got to tell that story, and you tell that story in the most simple, economical way possible, and you do not show off. I know writers who show off in the telling of the story, and it’s bollocks.”

Imagining a Blessed Church

McGovern isn’t a believer, and hasn’t been for a long time, “not since I was a teenager.” It’s a surprising revelation, as his stories frequently involve people praying or participating in Catholic sacraments in a way that is not only accurate (itself a rarity) but deeply moving. In the 2020 film “Anthony,” which tells the true story of a Black teenager murdered by white racists in a Liverpool park, there is a moment when the title character’s mother asks a nurse to stay and pray with her. The nurse is uncertain about what she intends. “I’ll tell God about him,” Mrs. Walker says; “You ask him to protect him.”

She begins to tell stories of Anthony, with the care worker offering a simple refrain, “Protect him, O Lord,” in between. And though you would think this has to be Mrs. Walker’s moment, as she is the one suffering, McGovern plants the focus more and more on the care worker, until it is less a scene about Anthony and more a vignette showing the profound impact of prayer on a person’s life.

McGovern’s work regularly offers spiritual experiences like this—moments of prayer, forgiveness, reconciliation, even the Eucharist. They are the kinds of moments I would show to people who want to deepen their own faith, or to parishes looking for fresh ideas around the ways they offer the sacraments. McGovern seemed a bit bemused when I told him this. “Funnily enough,” McGovern told me, “I probably wouldn’t have described some of those scenes as prayer. But I’m an old-fashioned Catholic. Prayer to me is ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee....’”

McGovern’s work regularly offers spiritual experiences like this—moments of prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation.

As he has gotten older, McGovern has wondered about the possibility of experiencing God in his life once again. “I’ve been open to returning,” he tells me. “You know, the closer you get to death, the more likelihood you might rediscover faith. But that hasn’t happened.”

In the months since we spoke, I have spent a lot of time struggling with this part of our conversation. How can it be that a man whose work has been so profoundly spiritual for me and many others has not himself been afforded any experience of God? More than once I have wanted to reach out to him, not as a journalist, but as a priest to suggest that maybe God is in fact right there with him, just not in the form he has been taught to see. Certainly in my own life God has often been in the wildflowers I can sometimes overlook along the side of the road rather than in the churches.

Then I wonder: Who am I trying to reassure here, him or myself? As much as I resent the Book of Job for its notion of God and Satan presenting us as chess pieces in some little game of their own, maybe its brutal conclusion is right: At some point God is simply not to be understood.

McGovern’s favorite poet is the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived for a time in the parish where McGovern would later grow up. “The Windhover,” McGovern told the Independent, is “the best 14 lines ever written.”

In that poem, Hopkins admires “this morning’s minion,” a “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon” flying in the sky. In his classic style, Hopkins describes deeply the physical qualities of the bird, “the brute beauty and valour and act” of its flight, “the fire that breaks from thee.”

At the end, he compares flight to the labor of life. “No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion/ Shine”—that is, it is the slow, endless work that makes the fresh plowed soil glow.It is an apt description of the work McGovern himself has done and the quiet moments of revelation it has offered. I may want that for him, too. But I am pretty sure if McGovern were editing this article, he would tell me to cut that thought out. My desires as the writer are unimportant. There is a story here to tell.

The shows “Cracker,” “Broken” and “Time” can be streamed on BritBox.

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