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You Magazine Interview with Jimmy McGovern


The creator of TV's Cracker who stirred controversy with his dramatisation of the Hillsborough disaster last year, is doing what he does best: ruffling more feathers. Jimmy McGovern is thoughtful, softly spoken and scrupulously polite. His hands tremble as he lights a cigarette, and, as if in sympathy, his voice falters and stammers as he struggles to find certain words. He doesn't joke and rarely raises his voice. He doesn't even swear much. Which is a bit of a surprise from the man who began his TV career penning loudmouthed sermons for Bobby Grant, the unreconstructed proletarian of Brookside, and the man who injected the spleen into the soul of Fitz, the cynical, frighteningly erudite psychologist of Cracker. Particularly as McGovern admits that most of his work is autobiographical. But Jimmy McGovern has always enjoyed getting his professional hands dirty. Since the early 80's, when he was invited by Phil Redmond to join the writing team of the newest channel's fledgling soap opera, he's inflamed debate on issues such as rape, child abuse, racism, injustice, drug addiction and homosexuality in the Catholic church. He's also courted controversy, most recently with his polemical drama about the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster in which 95 Liverpool fans were crushed to death, and for which he holds the police directly responsible. (Since the programme was shown last year, the government has set up an enquiry into the events.) 


If it's taboo, then McGovern will dig it up, dissect it and hurl the pieces into the nation's sitting rooms. But what really interests him, and makes him interesting to the millions who lapped up Hearts and Minds, Cracker, Priest and Hillsborough is moral conflict and all the messy human stuff - jealousy, betrayal, hypocrisy, lust, deception, guilt - that polite society prefers not to discuss. Not that you'd know what goes on in McGovern's head from listening to him. As a young hothead he supported Militant and when he was starting out as a writer, used to spar with anyone who wanted to change his scripts. But there's little of that fight in his talk now - evidently he prefers to bury his passions in his work. "I am," he says with a wry grin, "a pussycat." "If you're going to write," he adds, in a soft scouse accent, "you should write the truth as you see it. What I write is not everybody's cup of tea, but it's my truth. I know about racism, for example, because I've been there, I've felt it in the past. And if I've felt some of those things, then millions of people have. I try to write about people, warts and all." Besides, he adds, "If you savour all the emotions you've had in you're life, you can transfer them into strange situations."

And all his life, McGovern has done just that. Filed those unsettling emotions away and turned them into true-grit TV. He was born in 1949, the fifth of nine children, to Catholic working-class parents in Liverpool. Although he was bright, he didn't speak until he was eight or nine, except by way of noises that confounded everybody but his brother Joey. "I still don't know why that was," he says, thoughtful, though he has been asked the question many times. "I guess I was just in a world of my own." Nonetheless, he passed the 11-plus, and, clever Catholic boy that he was, won a scholarship to a Jesuit grammar school, an experience he describes, a hard note drawing into his voice, as "bloody awful. I had a stammer. I was the only poor kid there. And they didn't understand poverty." Because of that, he says, he suffered numerous injustices, and, as it turned out, found plenty of raw material that would come in handy later. So was it the anger he felt that motivated him to write? "It was undoubtedly what helped me to speak at one time. If I felt anger and passion, I could cut through my stammer. But I think every writer has to have something they get hot under the collar about. I don't think I'm special in that." He left school at 16 and for the next decade did a string of menial jobs. 


By 23 he was married, with 3 children (two boys and a girl), "a loss of faith" in some of the "isms" he'd taken for granted and a gambling problem. "Basically I lost more money than I could afford to lose. And that made me a serious gambler," he explains. Echoes of Fitz? "Yeah, I understand obsession and emptiness." He concedes that he must have been difficult to live with, but says of his wife Elaine, "She's always known where I'm at. We've grown together. We've had our rows, like, but nothing too intense." By the time he was pushing 30, McGovern was bored and in search of a calling. In 1979 he trained to be a teacher. At first he was heady with idealism but three years later (much like the teacher in Hearts and Minds), he packed it in. "When it comes to education, I'd best be described as a Thatcherite," he says, a flicker of fire in his eyes. "I've seen so many bone-idle, ineffective teachers. And they fail our kids." How could he throw in the towel so easily when he had three children of his own to support? "I'd already started working for Brookside a bit by then. I could never have a time when I wasn't earning." It was his success as a writer that kept McGovern on the straight and narrow. These days he lives with Eileen in a suburb of Liverpool and bad behaviour is confined to the occasional lost evening in the pub. "It sounds corny," he says, "but the big secret if you gamble or drink too much is to fill the void, to find something to fill whatever it is in there that makes you do the things you shouldn't be doing. For me that was first of all education, then teaching, then writing."


His new drama, The Lakes, a rites of passage story set in the Lake District, mines yet another seam of the McGovern autobiography. When he was 19, he went to work in a hotel in the Lake District, where, incidentally, he met Elaine. With its themes of guilt, the attempt to shift blame and hypocrisy, The Lakes covers familiar McGovern territory. But it's also about the tension between urban and rural communities - very 1997 - and its already got tongues wagging. The Friends of the Lakes, a small conservation pressure group, has slammed the series, sight unseen, saying that it presents a negative image of the area. McGovern is dismissive. On some things he still takes a very clear line. "My in-laws are there, so I've got to know the area very well," he explains. "The ordinary working people there depend on tourism, but the people with power and wealth despise the tourists. They don't like the urban baggage that the tourists and the seasonal workers bring. It's about an insular community." Talking of which, how does he feel about Catholicism now? "I can't imagine writing a script that doesn't have a Catholic element," he says. "It's the moment of introspection I've always found valuable, and the guilt. As a source of material it's great." What about his personal faith? "By history, culture and tradition I'm still a Catholic. If you use it in times of need it seems more real than to simply go by rote. And if anyone dare criticise me for being a part-time Catholic, I'd say, I have every right to use and abuse the Catholic faith, because it used and abused me as a child. And if," he adds, quietly challenging, "it offers a good education system for my kids [all three of whom went to Catholic schools], I'll use it then. In the end, all good faith is about sharing a common humanity." And, he might have added, pretty good TV too


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006