BY Ryan McDougall | July 19 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Catholic TV belies writer’s Broken Faith

Ryan McDougall speaks to screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and finds he respects the Church despite past abuse.

Jimmy McGovern has written some of the UK’s greatest television, including Broken, a hit show starring Sean Bean as a Catholic priest.

However, his career has taken a circuitous route. Mr McGovern began working in theatre, an industry he says he ‘didn’t seem to fit in.’

With the launch of Channel 4, his luck changed. When the new channel’s Brookside soap opera launched, he was headhunted due to having lived his whole life in Merseyside, where the show is based.


Going solo

After spending a few years working on the show, McGovern took a risk and went solo. This lead, he said, to him ‘waiting for the phone to ring.’ Thankfully, work began rolling in and he would go on to write the hit crime drama Cracker.

McGovern was raised with a Catholic Faith and Jesuit education. Although now lapsed in his Faith, Catholicism has still been a central theme in his most influential shows.

The SCO spoke with McGovern on June 22, ahead of a talk he gave at the Lauriston Jesuit Centre, Edinburgh.



Reflecting on his upbringing, McGovern said his education by the Jesuits had been difficult.

“I was born and brought up in a Jesuit parish, and so I went to St Francis Xavier’s School in Liverpool,” he said. “I went to the infant school, then the primary school, and then the worst thing in the world happened and I got a scholarship for the grammar school, where I was taught by Jesuit priests.”

“They were not good to me,” he said. “I hated it, but this was the early 60s. Times were still hard then—people were poor.

“They were harsh, hard times. They tried to run that school with a rod of iron, and corporal punishment, injustice. There was some sexual abuse. When I was 16, first chance I got, I was out.”

He joked: “I can spell really well because of the school, and I put that down to being force-fed Greek and Latin. You learn Greek and Latin, you can spell anything!”


Respect for the Church

Although his days in education were grim, McGovern holds no grudge against the Church.

“I didn’t have respect for the Church back then, but as I got older—although I’m still not practising—I grew respect, especially for Catholic priests. I had none for the Jesuits who taught me, but I’ve got plenty for Catholic priests of the city of Liverpool, who are magnificent.”


Catholic works

McGovern has written two works that centre on Catholic priests: Priest and Broken.

Priest, a 1994 television film, centres on a priest in a new parish who finds himself having a crisis of Faith.

Ahead of production, there were fears it would misrepresent the Faith.

The film, McGovern said, was initially going to be a 10-part drama series, with each episode based on one of the Ten Commandments. Laughing, he remembered how the BBC rejected his idea, so he rejigged his script and went back weeks later with a seven-part series, with episodes based on the Seven Deadly Sins.

Knocked back again, he condensed Priest into a four-part series, based on the Gospels, and after yet another rejection, Priest became a film.



Remembering vividly the day where the film’s production almost went pear-shaped, McGovern said: “There was backlash over Priest, but it ended on an amusing note. There was one day where I’d been doing a writers’ workshop in a prison up north. I was late getting out of the prison because they couldn’t find a prisoner and these places go into lockdown with stuff like that, so I was about an hour late getting out.

“When I got home there were about 20 messages on my answering machine. The Catholic Church in Merseyside had phoned up every person who owned any location we had for Priest—we were shooting it in a few days’ time—and the Church had told every owner to have nothing to do with us.

“We lost every single location. So it ended up we had to send boys and girls in First Communion clothes down to an Anglican church outside London, which was the nearest church we could get for a big Communion sequence in the film.”


‘A deeply Catholic film’

The fears however proved to be misplaced. Long after the film aired, the Archbishop of Liverpool gave it his support.

“It was Archbishop Derek Worlock at the time,” McGovern said. “He apparently sat down and watched the film months and months later.”

Laughing, he added: “Having caused us enormous heartache, he said, ‘what’s all the fuss been about? This is a deeply Catholic film.’”



One of McGovern’s most recent works, Broken, also explores the life of a priest, Fr Michael Harrigan (Sean Bean), in a struggling community.

In the series, Fr Harrigan tries to ease the burdens of his parishioners and the community, all the while facing his own demons, including the terminal sickness of his mother, and feelings of inadequacy as a priest.

The 2017 series received positive reviews—with the Church on side this time around. St Francis Xavier’s Church, close to where McGovern lives, served as the location for Fr Harrigan’s parish and McGovern said there was ‘nothing but support from the Church’ throughout the production process.


Parts of himself

The characters in Broken are incredibly intricate and McGovern said the majority are splintered aspects of his own psyche.

“As a dramatist, everything you write is a piece of you,” he said. “I don’t think there was one character in that series who wasn’t a piece of me in some way—but I’d also gathered wee pieces of other people along the way as well.

“There was a lot of me in there, particularly in the character of the priest, but in other people too. I think, for me, it’s more important to look into myself rather than other people—but I do also use other people as a basis as well.”


Future shows

McGovern teased the idea of returning to Christianity as a theme in future productions.

“I think there’ll always be Catholic issues in anything I do, even if there’s not overtly a Catholic priest in it,” he said. “I’m doing a drama at the moment on the murder of Anthony Walker, a black boy who was killed by racist thugs in Merseyside—he was Christian.

“After that I’m doing a thing set in a prison and in that there’ll almost certainly be a chaplain—I think it’s going to be a woman who will be a Catholic nun or an Anglican nun. I’m not sure, but at the moment it’s a Catholic nun.”



McGovern said that, as a storyteller, the seal of Confession fascinates him.

“I don’t know why it’s not used more in films as you can pause the story,” he said. “If you’ve got a confessional scene you know it’s the truth. The audience don’t ask questions—they know it’s the truth. This is what the person feels, this is what the priest feels: this is total truth.

“These two people have a really intense conversation about something that means so much to them—it’s tailor-made for a dramatist.”


Returning to Church

Before McGovern set off to speak to his eagerly awaiting audience in the Jesuit centre, he reflected on his own life as a lapsed Catholic. With a deep love and respect for the Church, yet no official plan to return, he said: “I’ve always been open about it and have always been open to returning to my Faith, but it’s never, ever come.

“I wouldn’t go through the motions of going back to it because I fear death or anything as an old man now.

“That’s wrong, you just don’t do that. So no, it’s never happened, but I’m still fascinated by it.”

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