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Times Interview with Jimmy McGovern


SCOUSE GRIT by Robert Crampton


Jimmy McGovern wrote Cracker, the biggest - and best - television drama hit of the last two years: 13 and a half million viewers, lots of awards for McGovern and the lead actor, Robbie Coltrane. Jimmy McGovern wrote Hearts and Minds, which has just concluded on Channel 4. Hearts and Minds was, unusually, advertised on the strength of its writer's name. Jimmy McGovern is writing two other television dramas and a third series of Cracker for broadcast later this year, early next. And now Jimmy McGovern has written Priest, which will open in British cinemas this Friday. Jimmy McGovern starts to look like a power in the screenwriting land. Jimmy McGovern starts to look like the flavour of the Nineties so far. What flavour is that then? Well, his credentials say he is gritty northern social realist soapbox flavour, very strong, extra topping, big side order of chips on shoulder, hold any more subtle ingredients. And, superficially, his subject matter says that too. If you hadn't seen McGovern's work, but you knew that it was all set up north and dealt, as the phrase has it, in the harsh realities of inner city life, and that it all carried the signature headbutt of north-west drama, then you might be well on the way to concluding that this man has more to do with the Seventies than the Nineties. You would be wrong. Hearts and Minds, for instance, set in a school, was all set to be classic blame-the-Tories television. But: ``it's too bloody easy to blame the government. Teachers are quite well-paid actually.'' McGovern did not ignore the economic realities of the dole queue, but neither did he ignore individual human beings: behaving badly, behaving decently in a mess not all of their making, but not all of some system's making either. Times change, good writers change with them and McGovern is about as spot-on contemporary as they come, which is why he and his work, and what his work represents, are so interesting.


But first, those credentials. Let's go back to 1949, and examine them. Jimmy McGovern is born, the fifth of what will be the nine children of a working-class Catholic couple in a two up, two down in Liverpool. His dad works "in a bakehouse''. Jimmy is bright at school - "we were all bright, really''- can write well, but he can't, or won't, talk. Up until he is eight or nine, he makes only noises, comprehensible solely to his older brother Joey. "I had a lot of time to meself as a kid. There were so many people in the family to watch, I'd just watch people. If me parents had had a row, I was aware. You know as a child you are, you feel for these things. And I'd watch for those moments.'' So, he is bright and sensitive and a bit unhappy. For a writer, the best possible start. He passes the 11 plus, goes to a grammar school run by Jesuits, still has a bad stammer. "They had a Mass attendance register and you had to say `9 o'clock mass and holy communion', I couldn't say `nine'. I'd go `N-n-n-n-n-n-'. I used to do this (he bangs his hand against his hip) to be able to speak and the other kids would all imitate that in the playground. But I was strong, fit.Small but strong. So I would stick up for meself. But I wouldn't hurt anybody, I could always put myself in their position.'' He is closer to his mother than his father. "Up until I was 21 I wanted to kill him. I'm sure we all do.'' No we don't. "Well, you know, he was me dad. You're young, your body's changing, you're frustrated, and there's this male figure....'' 


So, he is bright, sensitive, a bit unhappy, persecuted, aggressive and he has a problem with his dad. So much the better. Jimmy is good at English, enjoys it, wants to be a journalist, doesn't lack the confidence, but rather the knowledge, "I just didn't know how to go about it,'' and besides, he hates school, hates the priests, feels a bit isolated as one of the few poor boys there - "they didn't understand the problems that poverty brings.'' So he leaves at 16 and - this was the Sixties - goes from one job to another as he pleases, a "Bolshie bastard, I'd insult someone and walk out.'' So, he is all of the above, and he is unfulfilled, resentful and he doesn't much like other forms of authority either. He turns up, aged 21, working in a hotel in the Lake District. There, he meets Eileen. They marry and, back in Liverpool, have three children, bang bang bang, and then Jimmy - "I've never worn a condom in my life'' - has a vasectomy at 23. "The wife came for me in the clinic eight months pregnant pushing two children, the nurses must have been howling with laughter.'' The couple live in a tower block, then get a mortgage off the council and buy a little house. McGovern goes to Anfield. He watches Z-Cars, "set in Huyton, yeah, we were all into that'', and Coronation Street, "it was good then, Ken Barlow was radical.'' He is a car worker, a chemical worker, a bus conductor, he runs pretty much the while gamut of unglamorous, semi-skilled, working class male jobs. He's in the union, but he's not especially active. So, now he is all of the above, but he is also bored, badly paid, going nowhere. And suddenly we are up to the mid Seventies, and the jobs aren't coming so easily anymore. So what does he do? He trains to be a teacher, of course. No, that's not fair. What happened was this. He still harboured the ambition to write, he has written "a few short stories, poems, lousy poems'' but he has started going to writers' workshops. There, he was coaxed back into education, he rediscovered a love of books, he trained and, brimful of idealism, he became an English teacher in an inner city comprehensive.


Those readers who watched Hearts and Minds, which was about a former car worker who becomes an English teacher in an inner city comprehensive, wants to change the world and finds he can't, will know the next bit: McGovern captured neither hearts nor minds, or not enough to make it worthwhile. His idealism dried up. Was teaching as bad - pupils cynical, staff decayed - as he depicted it on screen? "It was worse, a lot worse. He tells one story by way of example, which Hearts and Minds viewers will recognise: "I was out with my wife and kids, I think it was in the school holidays, and a load of kids started hurling abuse. I snapped, chased them, caught them all bar one kid, and he brought a guy round to my house. Big fella. Hard. A builder. Can you imagine, a Saturday afternoon, my kids all small, and there's this maniac knocking shite out of my door, wanting to come in and kill me?'' Unsurprisingly, McGovern persisted with his writing. He was 30 and running out of time, but he was beginning to get a bit of work staged in local theatres and then Alan Bleasdale, another Liverpudlian writer with a beard who used to be a teacher, just a few years older than McGovern but already successful with Boys From the Blackstuff, did him a favour. "I'd just got a play on and I'd fallen out with them all in the theatre,'' says McGovern. "Bleasdale took me to a pub, we had a few pints and he told me the facts of life.'' What were they? "He said: 'keep that (mouth) shut and these (ears) open. You're far too young and inexperienced to be mouthing off. These people are good, these people can teach you things'. Stuff like that.'' 


McGovern took at least half the advice, kept his ears open, and found that his route back out lay down Brookside close. He joined the Channel 4 soap as a regular writer in 1983, in the days when the channel was still embarrassingly and self-consciously hot on its politics. He wrote mainly for the Grants, a working-class Catholic family, and he discovered, and it must have been a sweet discovery, that his background became an advantage. He says that, yes, he "exhaustively played the class card to get my ideas incorporated into the storyline.'' How so? "I just argued that my ideas were somehow more real and more valid because I knew the working class.'' Shameless, no? "Oh yeah. But we're talking about a commission for a few thousand quid, you know what I mean?'' McGovern stayed with Brookside for six years. Brookside was good to him. The money was good. The discipline of turning out scripts quickly was good. The culture and tone - set by Phil Redmond, another working class Liverpudlian - suited him. And he began to change, began to mature as a dramatist, away from Seventies agitprop towards the impressive psychological complexity of Cracker and Priest. It was a slow process. He says he looks back at his Brooksides now (he wrote about 80 episodes) and thinks they suffered because the characters were mouthpieces for him and what he had to say then wasn't that interesting. "I had me Belgrano speech, about a lot of young men dying in the south Atlantic to cheer us up and re-elect Thatcher, and I kept putting it in and they kept taking it out, and eventually Bobby Grant did make that speech, but...you learn your characters have to have free will.'' 


This realisation came alongside a political change. McGovern - along with many others of a left-of-centre disposition - has lost his faith in "isms and systems and long words'' over the last 15 years. He turned instead to the more reliable, more rewarding drama of people, their problems and their search for solutions. Again, his own evolution was slow. In the mid Eighties, for instance, he defended the Militant Tendency and Derek Hatton - "I thought it was easy to have a go at him, which is why I felt doubly betrayed when he was revealed as the kind of man he was.'' He says: "All the people I met who would profess to be of the left and principled socialists, their personal lives were bag o' shite. Dreadful people.'' Means became more important than ends. He also got to the point where his credentials ceased to be something to be displayed and became a wonderful preparation for writing accurately about the motivations and behaviour of human beings in difficult situations. That is what gives Cracker its force: psychological insight so raw that when Fitz, the criminal psychologust played by Coltrane, is accused of being "an emotional rapist'' you feel it could apply to his creator too. He is employing not academic psychology, not pop psychology either, but a psychology of the streets and the home. In Cracker, men are unfaithful; women want love; crime hurts people; they want revenge; lives are complicated or ruined by betrayal, guilt, desire, lust, flattery, deception; people have affairs and they forgive each other because they feel fear and guilt and compassion; they use brute power and violence and anything to hand to impose themselves on others; but they also try to love and understand one another. McGovern didn't need to go off and do research: he knew all this already. So, for the last five years, McGovern has been steadily sharpening this talent for writing about what he knows, taking experience that as a younger, less confident man he might have been either ashamed or boastful of, and steadily mining it as top quality drama.


For instance, Fitz is an addictive gambler. So was McGovern. In his twenties he was compulsive, horses and dogs. "I remember once, I'd just been paid. The World Cup was on, and I went over to find the price of East Germany vs Brazil. Quarter of an hour later I walked out skint.'' He got over it by "getting into books and stuff. Now I have a bet, I can afford not to chase my losses. I think gambling's creative, fills a creative void, you can turn round and say `I was right.' Now, I have the writing.'' And, like Fitz, McGovern smokes, and likes a drink, and "can be a pain in the arse when you know you should drop a subject, but you don't.''  And, like Fitz, he adds, "I'm Catholic.'' Gub Neal, McGovern's original producer on Cracker, says that what makes him so good is that "he takes the audience to the edge, looks at life harshly, but ultimately they know they can trust, morally trust, the man telling them the story.'' Cracker was about explaining the social and psychological causes of wrong-doing, while still condemning it. Very modern, very "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,'' as in the Tony Blair soundbite. In Cracker, you get a measure of moral complexity, but you do not get moral relativism - or worse - the moral vacuum of Pulp Fiction or Leon. The idea of glorifying murder is anathema to McGovern. (He thinks, for instance, that it is "a crying shame that a guy called Leslie Grantham can appear on our screens. He's killed a man!'') When Detective Chief Inspector Billborough was stabbed in the last series of Cracker, the viewer was left in no doubt that this was an act of immense immorality - analyzable, explicable even - but wrong. "Often I give the insane people beautiful lines, but they've killed people, and they will suffer for it.'' Now that McGovern lives in "a nice suburb called Woolton, semi-detached, with trees outside,'' the working-class label can't stick so firmly. But the Catholic one can, you can't change that. He seldom goes to mass, he doubts his belief in God, but "I was taught to analyse my conscience, all the time, from the age of 12'' and he still does that, and he still believes in right and wrong. Priest is about the conflict between human desires - some of them dark and evil, others not, but regarded as so in Catholic doctrine - and the moral absolutes of that doctrine, and about how those absolutes are worthless unless people act to uphold them.


In Priest, McGovern goes further into the sort of taboo subjects that he has begun to explore in Cracker. In Priest, a man is committing incest, a priest discovers this in the confessional and fails to act, because the ritual of the seal has become more important than the moral imperative that gave rise to it, and because the priest has problems enough of his own due to his homosexuality. The depiction of priests is sympathetic, remarkably so given McGovern's formative years. The message is "the pursuit of common decency''. The "insane'' man here, the perpetrator of the incest, certainly gets some beautiful lines. "His argument is packed with logic,'' says McGovern. "What he says has a core truth. He says, if incest were so unimaginable then why all the taboos?'' He goes on: "Where I grew up, the council and the state couldn't give a shit what sort of conditions we lived in. But what was strictly laid down was the sleeping arrangements. Why would they go to all that trouble unless lingering there was this fear of incest? I think it lies at the root of many things.'' Has he...did he ever have those feelings for his own daughters? "No, never. I would never hurt them in any way. But I believe there's more than a grain of truth in what that incestuous father says.'' The question bothers him, because when we meet again a week later, he says. "Incest. I gave it loads of thought after you asked me. If you as a writer admit that it goes on, and it does go on, and you have to write a speech about it, what do you, as a writer, write? If you had to give that man, the perpetrator of that crime, a rationale, what would you do? I kept on thinking about it. Most men don't feel it. I've gotta say I've never felt it. But some men do. As a writer, you are forced to write through their psyche. When something evil and supposedly unimaginable happens, what do you do?'' At the end of the film, in a deliberate reversal of roles, the priest is forgiven by the girl. "This guy who thinks he's evil, has let this girl down, she has every right to condemn him, but she forgives. Who gives communion then? Who is the priest? It's the Crucifixion. It's bleeding, battered humanity on a cross, you know. Dying for a belief, and that belief is one of compassion for all.'' It sounds like heavy stuff, it's not. It's good stuff, and it's a long way from Bobby Grant ranting about the General Belgrano.


McGovern started writing Priest - before Cracker was a hit - as a television series. Then it became a film, and he had to throw four and a half hours away. "I saw the example of Lynda La Plante, had a hit with Prime Suspect and got all the bottom drawer stuff out and it was shite. I didn't do that. What became Priest wasn't what I had been writing.'' The film has an American distribution deal, "with all the bums cut out.'' Is he cynical about his current popularity in media-land? "Oh God yeah. I'm glad it's happened now, not 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago I might have believed it.'' Fifteen years ago he would have been glad of the money. He still speaks with an occasional stammer. He is an anxious man, away from Liverpool at least, worried about getting back to Euston in time, thinking that he will probably find a seat in the dining car - "it's a businessman-free zone, going back'' - worried about refusing any offer of work in case it all dries up, though he's "got a good few bob stashed away.'' An anxious man, with a bit of lingering scalliness that does not convince, friendly, attentive. At home, he says he works - he keeps a big poster of Coltrane on the wall to frighten him into making his scripts better - and he plays cards on a Friday night, and goes to the bingo with his mother on a Wednesday, and watches television with Eileen, stays low profile. There is none of the anger, nor the complexity that one assumes is there, on show. "My anger depends on where I am. Back home, with people that have got every right to be angry, I'm the mildest person, I'm the peacemaker...among my family, the neighbours. But I can understand that anger. In the world of the media, I can indulge myself. I can act the part of a northern working-class man in this alien environment. I've got a thick Scouse accent, that's quite impressive sometimes. It's games, isn't it? I've always exploited guilt. It's really interesting when black people try to exploit white guilt and there's no white guilt there because the whites have been treated like shit as well. There are some areas in northern cities where whether you're white or black, you're not gonna get a job. It's the same as feminists trying to exploit male guilt. I just love all that because I think it's a pile of bullshit. A decent person's a decent person, for God's sake.''


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006