Jimmy McGovern: Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough dramas helped to tell the truth
Jimmy McGovern is known for his gritty screenplays, including dramas about Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough disaster and cover-up. Although no longer a practising Catholic, he tells Joanne Sweeney how his religious upbringing made him into the writer he is today
BAFTA-winning writer Jimmy McGovern might have given television viewers a most intimate account of priests going through in their daily lives in his hit BBC One series Broken last year, but he says his own Catholic faith seems to have been lost forever.
Taught by Jesuits and once a very devout Catholic from a large working-class Liverpool family, McGovern’s fascination with the Church and the faith remains, despite a self-confessed bitterness against his religious upbringing.
He simply says of the prospect of his faith returning: “I’m open to it but it just won’t come back. It never has.
"I always say that I’ve had two things that blighted my life, one was my stammer and the other was my Catholic faith. Both were combined in Confession, which was just tortuous. When you’re in Confession and you’re got to say stuff as a kid at 10 years of age with a crippling stammer, my God, it’s just a nightmare.
“I always say that I will write about a stammer any way I want, thank you very much, and I will say things about the Catholic Church I want to say and nobody will dare criticise me – I have been there and suffered it.
“At the same time I’m glad that I was brought up a Catholic as it has given me a solid identity at least. I can see its strengths.”
McGovern, who also penned 1994 movie Priest, acknowledges that in many ways it was his Catholic faith which helped him to become the writer he is today. He says the way he examines the conscience of his characters’ motivation for their actions is how he used to minutely examine his own conscience over his own sins and behaviour growing up.
“I was a pious little sh**bag. I took it totally seriously. The priesthood did call to me as a young teenager but thank God I lost it,” says McGovern. “I really examined what I did and I think that’s the essence of drama – why do characters do what they do?
“I think that if I learnt anything at all, I understand the absolutely necessity of motivation. You can’t have your characters doing things because you need them to do things. They got to do things because they inexorably want to do that thing.”
The writer of television shows from Liverpool-set soap Brookside in the early 80s, to the mould-breaking crime series Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane, The Accused, The Street and the dramas Hillsborough and Sunday – the last two about the Hillsborough disaster and Bloody Sunday respectively – will be back in the north this afternoon when he will engage in a public conversation with playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in Bellaghy.
McGovern and Heaney share a real sense of place in their work; for Heaney it was rural Co Tyrone, for McGovern, it’s always the grittier side of urban life in northern England.
“I really liked Heaney’s poetry, particularly Digging,” says McGovern. "He saw beauty in those working-class faces and those working-class pastimes. He had huge respect for ordinary people and it showed in his work.”
But the 68-year-old made a public speech for the first time only recently.
“I was asked to do an opening speech and I was going to say 'No, I have a stammer' but I couldn’t because it was for a stammerers' conference," he tells me.
“I talked about everything – how it crushes your self-esteem, how it’s taken to my age now to be comfortable with the man I am. I grew a foot after it."
He continues: “That bloody stammer crushed my self-esteem and made me duck and dive. I’m bringing this up because what they said at the conference is that for many people to admit having a stammer is as difficult as coming out as gay for a man and woman.”
He says that, just as it has taken him years to acknowledge his stammer, it also took a lifetime's maturity for him to write last year’s six-part drama Broken, which regularly attracted four-to-five million viewers.
It starred Sean Bean – who McGovern had worked with on Hillsborough and The Accused – as Fr Michael Kerrigan, and our own Adrian Dunbar, as Kerrigan’s priest friend. The drama, which also starred Anna Friel, showed the real trials of what the priest had to contend with personally, as a sexual abuse victim and as leader and confidante in a socially deprived area in a northern English town, with issues of gambling, poverty and racism in the background.
“I don’t think I would written about that back in the 80s when I first approached the BBC about a drama. I wouldn’t have talked about the priest himself being a victim of abuse,” McGovern says.
McGovern was a regular visitor to Northern Ireland when he was researching his script for Sunday, shown on Channel 4 in 2002. For him, the families behind getting justice and clearing their loved ones' names regarding both Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough tragedy are heroes. But it’s the Hillsborough story and campaign which has really left its marks on him.
“If and when I get to the pearly gates and if I got to take one thing with me, it would be the Hillsborough script. Not because it’s good; it isn’t good – I had so many lawyers I had to placate. But I remember the amount of effort I put into it and what it meant to the people,” says McGovern.
“It was shown the week before Christmas in 1996. It gave the campaign a much-needed boost as it there seemed to be nowhere for the campaign to go as they had exhausted all the legal avenues.
“Any student of Bloody Sunday will know that a lie can go half way around the world before the truth has got its boots. When you get an atrocity like Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday, the lie becomes an established truth. At the very least, this drama can help you reset the agenda, to discuss it again.
“I was there in court in Warrington in 2016 when the unlawful killing verdict came in and it meant the world to me to be there.”
McGovern is currently working on two new projects: one is a film script based on the real-life racist murder of black teenager Anthony Walker in Merseyside in 2005; the other, which starts shooting in April, is about a woman and her life as she cares for her mother after a stroke.
“We experience, as a viewer, the hoops the woman goes through trying to get temporary care while the house is adapted to suit her mother’s needs and shows basically the crisis in care here,” McGovern says.
:: Jimmy McGovern will be in conversation at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, today at 2pm. To book visit seamusheaneyhome.com or call 028 7938 7444.