The alarming lack of working-class people represented in dramatic television is probably the biggest blind spot to our supposedly golden age. Even our comedy shows have more upscale inhabitants than we’ve seen in other years. In Britain, however, one of the country’s most storied television writers is Jimmy McGovern, a wiry, tough-minded but good-natured 57-year-old Liverpudlian resolutely committed to presenting the multifaceted, unvarnished reality of ordinary men and women. McGovern’s name may indicate controversy — he’s tackled Bloody Sunday(2002’s Sunday), gay clergy (the 1994 film Priest), and the disturbing 1989 soccer calamity that killed 96 fans (1996’s Hillsborough) — but he also gives projects the instant prestige that Steven Bochco or Aaron Sorkin do here.
If American audiences are familiar at all with McGovern, it’s from the gut-wrenching mystery series he created, Cracker. Watching the episodes, it was tempting to attribute the impressive girth of Robbie Coltrane’s vice-ridden police psychologist Edward Fitzgerald to the disturbing diet of wounded, wretched, serial-killing psyches Fitz swallowed up to put himself in the head of murderers and elicit confessions. Now McGovern’s come up with The Street, a six-episode anthology series that peers behind six doors on one northern England housing block. He finds, among others, an unhappy wife and mother (Jane Horrocks) who enters into an affair, an elderly worker (Jim Broadbent) caught in the financial Catch-22 of forced retirement, and a henpecked cabbie (Timothy Spall) who wants to do right by a lost African refugee. Each tightly plotted, heavy-hearted, bruising tale is a marvel about the intersection of private demons and public shame, with plenty of room for unexpected humor and/or eye-opening tragedy where least expected. In other words, real drama. Recently McGovern was in Los Angeles to promote The Street, plus a new stand-alone Cracker TV movie airing on BBC America at the end of October that, due to its subject matter — a uniquely disturbing take on the post-9/11 world — could generate a whole new level of rancorous debate for the award-winning writer.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
JIMMY MCGOVERN: Ever since I was a child, I had a crippling stammer, so for me, a blank page was freedom. I could write down words I couldn’t possibly say, and because I was a word switcher to overcome a stammer, I built up a wide vocabulary. Although I left school at 15, 16 and went out into the wide world, I always came back to writing poems and short stories.
You got your start in TV with the long-running British soap Brookside. What did you pick up from that ?experience?
I found a voice there. I don’t think there’s any better place to learn. What you learn is how to mine a story. Then I got a couple of chances at the BBC to write single films that were fairly well received. But the phone certainly wasn’t ringing. People thought I was a wee bit difficult, which I was on the soap, because I wanted the best for the soap. But God bless Gordon Neal, a fine producer; he must have seen something in me, because he wanted me for this idea about a maverick, so I brought to the table Fitz.
How much of you is in Cracker’s police psychologist, Edward Fitzgerald?
I’ve always been fond of a drink, a smoke and gambling. And interestingly enough, he’s a Catholic educated by Jesuits, which is me. That just informs you all your life.
What’s the most prominent way it has?
It gave me an anger, because they were reactionary bastards. I can remember after the massacre of black people in Sharpeville, South Africa, we were being taught by a Jesuit priest who had spent time there, and he said, “Well, of course, the way to make a black African laugh is to say something stupid like, ‘There’s an elephant in the toilet.’?” And I took the faith seriously, because I was totally indoctrinated. It’s only when you’re 15 you wake up to the fact that it’s all nonsense. But I took the examination of conscience very, very seriously, and I can analyze motivation. Even as a child I could do that. “Why did I act this way?” And with no glib answer.
Describe the Liverpool where you grew up.
It was postwar. I was born in 1949, and we used to play in the bombed houses that still hadn’t been removed. It was a time of great austerity. The only thing that gave people work was the war, and a war is always fought on socialist grounds: Men and women come together. But it hadn’t recovered from the war. I was the fifth of nine in a little two-up, two-down. But the Kershaws down the street was a family of 13, and the O’Connors had about 15. So nine was small. And I’m not going to say it was a time when you could leave your front door open, because there was a lot of violence there. Women used to come out and fight over the kids, ’cause everyone was stressed out over gangs of kids, and if men fought, it could be very violent.
Why is The Street set in Manchester instead of Liverpool?
If you’re from my city, you’re a “scouser,” and scousers are not really thought of as English, because we’re Irish, really, and Welsh. So we’re constantly portrayed in the media as vagabonds and thieves and liars and on the make. So if you’re writing a drama, you’re going to write about flawed characters, and if you set it in Liverpool, in the eyes of Liverpool you’re reinforcing a negative stereotype. But the trouble is, it’s nice to make stuff in Liverpool because it generates money and business.
Your reputation is for writing dark tales of the downtrodden, lives of guilt and turmoil. Wouldn’t you agree?
I’ve done stories about ancient kings and queens of England, but I have to say, I find stories about the street, real people, easier to do. But one thing I was very proud of [was] about [King] James and the gunpowder plot.
Is it fun to take your powers of psychological perception and apply them to historical figures?
Yeah, I mean, James basically says, “What a dastardly plot, what a disgraceful vile deed. Think what we can do with this — we can lay waste to half the world.” It’s the opportunity afforded to you by atrocity. That’s a parallel for our times, is it not?
Do you think American audiences will respond well to the new Cracker, which explicitly addresses this country’s wartime arrogance through the crimes of a vengeance-seeking British ex-soldier?
I think the American people will find it compassionate. I hope so, anyway. I’m not stupid enough to claim that all Americans are pro-war. I saw it with my own eyes in New York at the outbreak of this war. We were on the way home from Australia, and we arrived in New York just as they started “shock and awe.” I saw more than half the population of New York were totally opposed to it. I saw them marching in the streets. It was really moving for me, and we just headed for Central Park and we came across Strawberry Fields. And you know, he’s from my hometown, dear John, and there were New Yorkers galore lighting candles and praying for peace.
Two of the six episodes that make up The Street bear your writing credit. What was your trick for keeping the emotional integrity and authorial seamlessness of the other four?
We did a trawl of writers, and what was interesting was the more experienced the writer, the more clichéd the idea. Something would outrage the community, and the community took action. But in my experience, that never happens. If you outrage the community, they just don’t talk to you. They don’t burn your house down. Then there’d be a blackmail thing. And that doesn’t happen. So I realized, I knew two guys who had better stories to tell than these. They were untidy stories, but so real.
Give me an example.
One guy, a plumber — his partner had a sister who was in a very violent relationship, and he realized he would have to protect his partner’s sister. We changed the story, but it was autobiographical and meant a great deal to Arthur [Ellison], the writer. He wasn’t vastly experienced, but I knew we could make that work. The other case, a guy who lived in the world of drugs — he had a story to tell about a young footballer who steals a pair of sport shoes and loses his future by getting sucked into drugs. These are real stories, and they’re outside the world of television. I’m just so pleased with all six, the integrity of the storytelling. There’s no fat.
Do you find the process of fleshing out a story easy?
It’s so tiring. I think you can only do it for about an hour, and you’re drained. It’s about not letting anything else come into your mind, focusing entirely on that idea and the logic of the story. If you look at a football match, in an hour and a half you can be on the ball for something like 40 seconds, but you’re still playing football. It’s the same with writing.
What was the critical reaction when The Street first aired in England?
Bloody typical. First, it was, “Oops, it’s grim up north,” which is an old putdown. They hate us Northerners going on about how we haven’t got the jobs they’ve got down there. But as the series progressed, it earned respect, even in right-wing newspapers. They said it grew in complexity, which is critspeak for “I didn’t realize it was this good.”
Could there ever be a posh version of The Street, set in a wealthy neighborhood?
I’m sure I could write one, but what would happen? If you analyze a few of these stories, economic pressures matter, don’t they? And there’s something about passion, as well. When I was a kid, we used to [play] cricket in the street, and we’d use stones instead of stumps. So you had to assess whether the ball would have hit if the stumps had been there, and if they said “Out!” when you were batsman, you screamed back “No way!” Whoever was most passionate was most believed, and I think there’s something fundamental there about working-class people. They don’t necessarily trust logic and reason, because they can be perverted, whereas there’s something genuine about passion that people recognize. You can feign passion, but working-class people will know.??
THE STREET | BBC America | Tuesdays, 10 p.m. | Premiere episode Oct. 3