Jimmy McGovern: ‘We should be in a golden age of drama but we’re not’
Ahead of an appearance at the Galway Film Centre, Jimmy McGovern, writer of TV dramas Cracker, Hillsborough and Sunday, is frank about being a ‘troublesome leftie’, meeting Martin McGuinness and bad writing
Jimmy McGovern: ‘The writers I admire write about things that matter.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
On the day I’m supposed to interview Jimmy McGovern, he has to postpone to attend the funeral of a man who lost a child in the Hillsborough disaster 25 years ago. The Hillsborough story was always going to be close to McGovern’s heart: he’s a Liverpudlian and a football fan. He is still very connected to the people in the story, 18 years since his dramatised version for ITV.
McGovern, also the writer of such acclaimed television dramas as Cracker, The Lakes and Dockers, is 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 whatsoever – 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 s**t, and that’s the mark of a s**t 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.”
Lessons learned on BrooksideMcGovern’s first television work was Channel 4’s Brookside. The script turnaround was fast (episodes were shot in half a day) and it taught him how to mine a story. “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.
McGovern has the following advice for writers: “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 ‘bricklayer’s 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 he would “ 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 Kerry man would one day play James Bond.
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” by 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 s**tting myself.
“Despite being a troublesome 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 [Saville] inquiry.”
Given McGovern’s ancestry, it’s surprising that he hasn’t told more Irish stories. He says he has written three stories – about a footballer, an IRA honey trap and the republicans who fought for Franco – but they have never happened. Catholicism is a theme in 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. He would 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 such as the writer’s room and the showrunner, and he 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. This reinforces his earlier assertion that television must reflect contemporary life and be about important issues. 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 Bulger. 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.”
Convict colonyMcGovern’s next project is an ambitious one, and has just started filming. Banished, set in 19th-century Australia , is an ensemble drama about a convict colony, which will air on BBC next year. McGovern is known for his outspokenness, but 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 say something. I’m a writer, of course I’m going to offend people.” The Galway Film Centre is hosting a workshop and Q&A with Jimmy McGovern on Friday, June 6th