On the day I’m supposed to interview Jimmy McGovern, he has to postpone. The writer is attending a funeral for a man who lost a child in the Hillsborough disaster. Despite his long years in television making acclaimed dramas like Cracker, The Lakes and Dockers, the Hillsborough story – as a Liverpudlian and a football fan – were always going to be close to McGovern’s heart, and he’s still very connected to the people in the story 18 years since his dramatised version. McGovern is very aware of the complex relationship between making television for an audience, and the need for accuracy. “With Hillsborough and Sunday [his drama about Bloody Sunday] you have no leeway whatsover, it has to be absolute truthful. I wanted to allow the story to be told through me, but that I wouldn’t allow it to be bent. It would be of no use to anyone. When people have died, you have a responsibility to them, and to the ones who are the cause of it.”
The sense of injustice, of something being fundamentally wrong is central to McGovern’s work. He grew up in a large, working class Catholic family of Irish descent, aware of a lack of money, education and opportunities. After various unskilled jobs, he trained as a teacher, began to write and is grateful he didn’t take the academic route. “I came across a piece by Martin Amis where he used a word which sent me to the dictionary. I’m well read but I didn’t know this word. There was no artistic or poetic reason for him choosing that word and I thought ‘you are shit’, and that’s the mark of a shit writer. He was so keen to show off that he had to lose the reader. If I’d gone to college, I might have become that kind of writer… I’d have been insufferable. What you need to do as a writer is live. Live and write.”
McGovern’s first television work was Channel 4’s Brookside. The script turn around was fast (episodes were shot in half a day) and it thought him how to mine a story – he once had to make half hour of television out of “Tracy Corkhill wins a hairdressing competition”. “You learn everything working on a soap. It teaches you that you’ve got to sit down and write. It’s a monster that needs feeding week after week and there’s no time for writer’s block. However good the writing is, it will never survive bad acting so you learn to write for people who can actually act.” This week McGovern visits the Galway Film Centre for a workshop and Q&A. The centre – despite huge cuts to its budget – has consistently enticed acclaimed TV writers including Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cogman of Game of Thrones. “If you’re stuck, you follow one word with another. A parallel I often use is that if you’re a bricklayer, you never get ‘bricklayers block’. You write 100 words then another 100 words.”
The reference to ‘people who can actually act’ is a reminder that the Liverpool writer often chooses to work with the same actors. Of Christopher Ecclestone and Ricky Tomlinson he says “I’d go through a brick wall for the pair of them”. He has an eye for spotting talent – an early Olivia Colman showreel prompted him to declare that she “would blow people’s minds”, and when he worked with Michael Fassbender, McGovern tried to convince a bookie to take a bet that the Kerryman would one day play James Bond. Originally, he also wanted an Irish actor (Colin Convey) for the part of Cracker, before it was immortalised by Robbie Coltraine.
The communities McGovern represents are claustrophobic – the small town of the lakes, the neighbours on The Street, the docks of Liverpool. “I tend to write about people who don’t have much money, or about working class people. Those environments are very supportive but there are also no secrets, so you can be exposed and they can turn on you.” He notes the dearth of working class characters and their problematic representation on television nowadays, but was “very impressed” the first series of Love/Hate. McGovern has championed social underdogs, as much as he has probed political complexities. When it came to dramatising the events of Bloody Sunday, he did a lot of research, which included interviewing Martin McGuinness, who completely disarmed him. “He could charm the birds off the trees – I practically had my pants down, but when he took me up to this windswept moor I was absolutely shitting myself. Despite being a troubelsome leftie, I’m a patriot and love my country. My country should prove itself worthy of my love, and you don’t do that by murdering innocent people on their streets. Everything we alleged in the drama was upheld by the enquiry.”
Sunday was shot in Derry, Dockers was shot in Dublin and given McGovern’s ancestry, it’s surprising that he’s never told an Irish story. He says he has written three stories – about a footballer, an IRA honeytrap and the Republicans who fought for Franco, but they’ve never happened. Catholicism filters through his work (not least his feature length work Priest), and he pays tribute to many of Liverpool’s clergy who work with the poor. Recently, he was disappointed by Calvary but extols Brendan Gleeson’s excellent performance, saying he’d love to work with the actor “but he’s always tied up with movies.” McGovern’s only other film foray was Heart, which he describes as “the biggest failure of my life”. TV is where he is happiest, and arguably where he can reach his biggest audience. Television narratives, viewing platforms and structure have altered radically in McGovern’s lifetime: audiences stream and download shows that have longer narrative arcs. He admires The Killing, and liked Broadchurch, but feels there is too much reliance on costume drama. “Every time I speak on this, I get told I’m a bitter, old man, but why write about things that don’t matter? Writing is so hard – so why do it if it’s not about something that matters? There is room for all kinds of drama, but the writers I admire write about things that matter.” He is wary of modern concepts like the writer’s room and showrunner, and thinks that funding is one of the biggest challenges to quality programming. “We should be going through a Golden Age of drama and we’re not, because we’re not allowed to devote as much time or money to the script as the Americans do.”
Throughout his career, McGovern has been unflinching in his subjects: rape, addiction, murder, sectarianism, and this reinforces his earlier assertion that television must reflect contemporary life, and be about important isssues. Has he ever turned away from a story out of fear? “BBC Scotland asked me to adapt a Pat Barker book about a man who kills as a child. I started the project, and realised every line I wrote was about Jamie Bolger. I gave the money back and told the producer I couldn’t do it. It broke my heart. I’m a Scouser and just couldn’t go near that story. I don’t know why I didn’t realise it straight away.”
McGovern’s next project is an ambitious one, and has just started filming. Set in 19th century Australia, Banished is a multi-ensemble drama about a convict colony. It will air on BBC next year, where The Lakes, The Streets and Accused screened. McGovern is known for his outspokenness, and hasn’t had many clashes with the station. “Politically the BBC needs a compliance unit but it shouldn’t interfere with drama, because the dramatist’s function is to offend – not the for the sake of offending – but to have his characters stand up and stay something. I’m a writer, of course I’m going to offend people”.
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on June 5th, 2014