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Priest (1994)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Priest (1994)
BBC2, tx. 18/11/1995
108 mins, colour
DirectorAntonia Bird
ProducerJosephine Ward
 George Faber
ScreenplayJimmy McGovern
EditorSusan Spivey
MusicAndy Roberts

Cast: Linus Roache (Father Greg Pilkington); Tom Wilkinson (Father Matthew Thomas); Robert Carlyle (Graham); Cathy Tyson (Maria Kerrigan); Lesley Sharp (Mrs Unsworth); Robert Pugh (Phil Unsworth); Christine Tremarco (Lisa Unsworth); James Ellis (Father Ellerton)

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Newly arrived at an inner-city Liverpool church, Father Greg clashes with the older, radical Father Matthew. But Father Greg's conservative values conflict with his own secret life, and his faith is about to be tested.

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Priest arrived as the Catholic Church was under intense media scrutiny, with an ongoing 'paedophile priest' scandal and the 'outing' of a number of allegedly homosexual priests by gay pressure group Outrage. Priest, though, had a tortured 12-year history behind it, beginning as a rejected storyline for Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2003), on which lapsed-Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern served his TV apprenticeship, before expanding to a ten-part take on the Ten Commandments. In 1991, the BBC commissioned a three-part (later four-part) series, only to axe the project after some eight drafts. It was thanks to that rejection that McGovern threw himself so ferociously into Cracker (ITV, 1993-95), and it was thanks to that series' success that the BBC suddenly rediscovered its interest in Priest, now proposed as a cinema feature.

During his research, McGovern interviewed a gay priest, whose sexual and spiritual torment was exacerbated by his extreme political and moral conservatism. His story became that of Father Greg, who arrives in inner-city Liverpool when his predecessor is unceremoniously 'retired' and soon clashes with the older, Guardian-reading Father Matthew, who scandalises Father Greg with his openly political stance on poverty and deprivation and his relationship with housekeeper Maria, in breach of his vows of celibacy. Greg's moral outrage, however, is undermined when he finds himself charged with public indecency after a gay fling.

Father Greg's faith, meanwhile, is tested when he learns of a young girl's incestuous abuse but is powerless to stop it thanks to the sacred seal of the confession. Helpless and desperate, he looks to Christ, but sees in His crucified form not salvation but "a naked man, utterly desirable." The truth is finally revealed thanks not to divine intervention but human weakness, when Greg, distracted, ends a church meeting early, allowing the girl's mother to return home and discover her husband's abuse. The revelation, however, only isolates Father Greg further.

With its powerful themes, Priest was bound to provoke. Barred from Liverpool churches, director Antonia Bird (who had shown a taste for confrontational material with her 1993 homelessness drama, Safe) filmed some scenes in London. The American Catholic League issued an 11-page condemnation of the film, accusing it of attempting "to convince the public of the Catholic Church's malevolence," and launching a boycott against Disney, parent company of Priest's US distributor, Miramax. The UK's Catholic newspaper The Tablet, however, thought it "well-made, honest, courageous and sensitive".

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Moral guidance (3:21)
2. John 23 (2:37)
3. Confession (2:07)
4. The unpenitant (2:50)
5. Humanity and compassion (1:23)
Barber, Paul (1952-)
Bird, Antonia (1959-2013)
Carlyle, Robert (1961-)
McGovern, Jimmy (1949-)
Tyson, Cathy (1965-)
Wilkinson, Tom (1948-)
Liverpool: Speaking Out