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McGovern, Jimmy (1949-)

Writer, Producer

Main image of McGovern, Jimmy (1949-)

In an age in which an increasingly commercially-oriented British television drama has supposedly moved away from the writer-led model that sustained it from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, Jimmy McGovern is one of a handful of writers to have thrived without compromising his principles. Alongside the likes of Paul Abbott and Russell T. Davies, he has demonstrated not only that it is still possible to find a home for challenging, socially-engaged drama on British television, but that it can attract a mass audience.

Born to a large, Catholic, working-class Liverpool family in 1949 (the fifth of nine children), McGovern knew extreme poverty as a child. The young Jimmy had profound difficulties with spoken communication, and until around 8 or 9 years old he spoke in essentially unintelligible sounds, translated for the rest of the family by his older brother. Even after speech therapy he was left with a serious stutter, which partly explains his lifelong dedication to the written word. He showed an early facility at writing, graduating from the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier primary school to the associated grammar school after passing his 11-plus. The regime at St Xavier's, though, was brutal, and the priests were contemptuous of his poverty. His treatment there left him with a lasting bitterness at the Catholic Church, which, along with his deep sense of justice, has shaped the angry compassion that is his hallmark as a writer.

After a succession of uninspiring semi-skilled jobs, in 1979 he went back to college to train as a teacher, gaining his early experience at the same Quarry Bank comprehensive that was once home to the young John Lennon. In the meantime, he was beginning to find his feet as a writer, with productions at Liverpool's Everyman and Royal Court theatres. From there he attracted the attention of producer Phil Redmond, who was looking for local writers for a new Liverpool-set soap opera to run on the soon-to-air Channel 4. Brookside (1982-2003) would prove a serendipitous position for McGovern, who would remain with the soap for nearly seven years, beginning with episode 14 in November 1982 and finishing with episode 704 in July 1989. Brookside changed the face of British television soap, introducing a sharper political edge and hard-hitting storylines exploring such contentious issues as poverty, unemployment and rape, and McGovern played a key role in developing the serial's distinctive voice. In particular, he helped shape the characters of the working-class, Catholic Grant family, charting the progress of patriarch Bobby Grant (Ricky Tomlinson) as a trade union activist in the hostile climate of early 1980s Thatcherism. He is credited with the inspiration for 1986's Sheila Grant (Sue Johnston) rape story, which attracted significant media attention. Another innovation was the stuttering gangster, Sizzler (Renny Krupinksi); the McGovern stutter has been a recurring feature of his work, often, though by no means always, used to comic effect.

He left the soap in 1989, frustrated with its perceived retreat from political comment and, specifically, by his producers' unwillingness to take on the fallout of that year's Hillsborough stadium disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives as a result of failures in policing and inadequate ground safety procedures (itemised in the public enquiry by Lord Justice Taylor), but found themselves labelled by a hostile media as drunken football hooligans.

The newly unemployed writer initially struggled to find new opportunities, hampered by an entrenched lack of respect from soap writers among TV drama commissioners. In between episodes for the comedy drama El C.I.D. (BBC, 1990-92) and a single script for Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) he wrote two original single dramas which between them set out the concerns which would dominate his work: poverty, desperation, Catholicism, moral choices, social justice and injustice. 'Needle' (Screenplay, BBC, tx 12/9/1990), directed by the up-and-coming Gillies McKinnon, painted a harrowing picture of a near-future Liverpool overrun by drugs, charting a young man's nightmarish descent into intravenous heroin use and AIDS and a police and political leadership incapable of the imagination or courage necessary to respond to the drug problem. Traitors (BBC, tx. 5/11/1990) was a more interior work, hamstrung by a tiny budget, which re-examined the gunpowder plot from the perspective of the English Jesuit leader, Father Henry Garnet, who learned of the conspiracy in confession and, despite his opposition, was tortured and ultimately put to death for his refusal to break the confessional seal. McGovern would revisit the events of 1605 for his later Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (BBC, 2004), while the narrative device of the confessional bond is one to which he would return, notably in Priest.

'Needle' attracted the attention of producer Gub Neal, who was looking for a writer for a new ITV drama series about the cases of a forensic psychologist. Cracker (1993-96; 2006) would be McGovern's breakthrough, showcasing the writer's exceptional talent for presenting tough, dark, even harrowing subject matter to a popular audience (at its peak, the series drew audiences over 15 million, putting it in the leading pack of TV drama series). In Fitz, he created one of 1990s television's most vivid and memorable characters, a brilliantly intuitive detective in the mould of an updated Holmes, who combined piercing insights, a highly developed moral sense and a host of personal faults, from alcoholism and gambling addiction to a chronic incompetence as a husband and father. McGovern, who has openly discussed his own history of heavy drinking and gambling, crafted Fitz after his own image, giving him his Catholic legacy and even his own birthday, and through this compelling character, given life in an extraordinary, three times BAFTA-winning performance by Robbie Coltrane, the writer explored the faultlines of contemporary Britain, fearlessly examining such uneasy issues as male sexual violence and rape, racial identity, the miscarriage of justice and the failures of modern policing. In the process Cracker came under attack from the increasingly vocal clean-up-TV lobby and its friends in the rightwing press. Particularly controversial was the three-part 'To Be a Somebody' (1994), which evoked memories of the Hillsborough disaster; McGovern, however, was unflinching, having already secured the support of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, and established a lasting bond that would lead to the drama documentary Hillsborough (ITV, tx. 5/12/1996). He left Cracker during its final series, bequeathing the writer's chair to another rising star, Paul Abbott, but revived Fitz in 2006 for a one-off special (tx. 1/10/2006) which confrontationally intertwined the war in Iraq and the events of 9/11 with Britain's earlier undeclared war in Northern Ireland.

In the wake of Cracker's success, McGovern found doors once closed to him flew suddenly open, and he was able to revive two projects previously rejected by commissioners. Originally conceived as a ten-part series following an innercity cleric, Priest (BBC, 1994) was ultimately made as a 110-minute feature film in the BBC's Screen Two strand. Though it suffered structurally in the process, Priest is one of the writer's most powerful and affecting works. Through the character of Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a traditionally-minded young priest joining an inner-city Liverpool diocese, the film explored the moral turmoil of a believer torn between a near-fundamentalist loyalty to his faith and his homosexual desires, while attacking the hypocrisy of a church more attuned to moral condemnation than the Christian virtues of compassion and tolerance, and a priesthood bound by outdated, unworkable and even (in effect if not in intent) immoral strictures, from the vow of celibacy to the doctrine of the confessional seal. Not surprisingly, such a critical portrait of Catholicism offended some, and in the US, where the film had its first non-festival screenings, Priest was the focus of a national boycott targeting the Disney company, parent of the drama's distributor, Miramax.

Hearts and Minds (Channel 4, 1995) was a more personal work, drawing on McGovern's own experiences in the Liverpool education system. The series was a typically hard-headed analysis of the modern-day chalkface, with Christopher Eccleston's idealistic young teacher battles with a cynical headmaster, disillusioned colleagues in a system in which educational inspiration was submerged by the task of managing classrooms of disaffected, unruly pupils.

Eccleston would take the lead role in the impassioned Hillsborough, which inevitably drew further complaints, not least from the South Yorkshire police force. McGovern, however, who had worked with the full support of the Hillsborough families, was unapologetic in the face of those he and they considered responsible for the disaster, and the drama was a success on any measure, winning the Best Single Drama category at the BAFTAS and the RTS Awards, as well as a number of other national and international prizes. More importantly, Hillsborough gave new impetus to the families' continuing campaign for justice, and was a major factor in incoming Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw's decision to launch a fresh review of the events (which, however, failed to find grounds for further action). He returned to the drama documentary form in 2002 for the similarly controversial Sunday (Channel 4, tx. 28/1/2002), which used a similar structure to interrogate the events of 30 January 1972, when members of the First Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed Civil Rights marchers in Derry, Northern Ireland. It was a typically direct and powerful work, but was somewhat overshadowed, to McGovern's lasting fury, by Paul Greengrass's treatment of the same subject, Bloody Sunday, which broadcast on ITV a week earlier.

He returned to his own life for the subject of 1996's The Lakes (BBC), which told of a young unemployed Liverpudlian's escape to the Lake District. Like his creator, the series' protagonist, Danny Kavanagh, met and married a local girl and wrestled with a compulsion to gamble. Attractively led by John Simm as Danny, The Lakes brought McGovern to a younger audience, although a second series in 1997 was, he later acknowledged, a mistake. Similarly autobiographically-inspired (though based on a novel by Joseph McKeown and set more than a decade before McGovern's birth) was 2002's Liam (d. Stephen Frears), his first deliberate venture into cinema, in which the seven-year-old protagonist, afflicted with the McGovern stammer, was the window onto a working-class Catholic Liverpool, beset by unemployment and hardship at the height of the Depression, poised on the edge of fascism under the malign influence of Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. Another historical project was a long-nurtured dramatised biography of Mary Queen of Scots, which has so far failed to materialise despite several false starts, but in 2004 he visited the same period with Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (BBC), a four-part account of the Guy Fawkes conspiracy fuelled by the same dark and bloody court intrigue that had driven Shekhar Kapur's earlier Elizabeth (1998).

In later years, he has devoted much of his professional life to offering support and development opportunities to young and inexperienced writers, fostering voices which might otherwise fail to find an outlet on television. 1995's 'Go Now' (Love Bites, BBC, tx. 16/9/1995) saw him working alongside Paul Powell, helping him shape his own autobiographical tale of a young sufferer of Multiple Sclerosis and sharing with him a BAFTA Best Writer award. For 1999's Dockers (Channel 4), about Liverpool's two-and-a-half-year dock dispute, he assisted 14 veterans of the action to craft their own version of the story. More recently, his award-winning anthology drama The Street (BBC, 2006-) featured his own stories alongside those of several writers new to television, in a format that implicitly recreated the role of long-defunct strands such as Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) in developing young talent. In this respect, he, like his counterpart and friend Paul Abbott, was perhaps deliberately seeking to provide for a new generation of writers the opportunities that had been unavailable to both in their early careers.

Setting a series of discrete, though occasionally overlapping, stories among the inhabitants of a single Salford residential street, The Street implicitly referenced Coronation Street, although it injected its stories with an at times almost unendurable tragedy that the venerable soap could never contemplate. McGovern's name and reputation attracted to the series such illustrious actors as Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks and Gina McKee. Despite its challenges, The Street was an unexpected critical and popular success, surprising observers by beating the frothier Life on Mars (BBC, 2006-07) to the best drama series BAFTA in 2007.

Although by his own admission he has 'mellowed' since his younger days, reining in his drinking and even giving up smoking, more than 25 years in television have softened neither his combative style nor his commitment to challenging drama; his writing retains the furious compassion that has been his fuel since Brookside. He is a fierce critic of contemporary television, lambasting broadcasters for their casual 'contempt' for working-class viewers and railing against lazy and unadventurous writers. McGovern himself is anything but lazy: he routinely has three or more projects in various stages of development. The second half of 2007 alone saw a return to the stage after a 20-year absence with King Cotton, a musical linking the North West's 19th Century cotton trade to slavery in America's Deep South, as well as a second six-part series of The Street, for which he wrote one episode, co-wrote another, and oversaw the remaining four in his role as executive producer. It is testament to his status in the early 21st century television hierarchy that the BBC chose to put McGovern's name - and his signature - in the very title of The Street, a move which belies claims of the death of the TV writer.

Mark Duguid

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Priest (1994)Priest (1994)

Powerful drama about a Catholic priest tortured by secrets

Thumbnail image of Brookside (1982-2003)Brookside (1982-2003)

Early Channel 4 hit that changed the face of British TV soap

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Go Now (1995)Go Now (1995)

Touching romantic drama about a young man beset by MS

Thumbnail image of Hillsborough (1996)Hillsborough (1996)

Powerful drama about the 1989 football stadium tragedy and its aftermath

Thumbnail image of Lakes, The (1997-99)Lakes, The (1997-99)

John Simm stars as a young Scouser adrift in the Lake District

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Unending stories of everyday life

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A decade of restless change for small-screen drama

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