Jimmy McGovern: Trouble Is His Business

I interviewed the great Liverpool playwright Jimmy McGovern in April 2007. His reputation is for confronting injustice and exposing the starkest aspect of the human psyche through hard-hitting TV drama. Here is a longer transcript of our conversation than the version which appeared in The Word magazine.


‘The truth,’ says one of Oscar Wilde’s characters, ‘is rarely pure and never simple.’ A writer who prides himself on colossal research, Jimmy McGovern nods at the quote with a wince of recognition. Yet he’s addicted to the most contentious stories he can find. His acclaimed documentary-dramas include ‘Hillsborough’ (about the 1989 football disaster when 96 fans died); ‘Dockers’ (on a poisonous 1996 industrial dispute) and ‘Sunday’ (ie Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British soldiers killed 13 Catholics after a Northern Ireland civil rights march). He’s about to do a stage play, ‘King Cotton’, depicting English responses to slavery in the US Civil War. And he’s preparing a drama on the 19th century clash of Anglo-Australian convicts with the indigenous population. The tale of a more distant controversy, ‘Mary Queen Of Scots’, is currently in Hollywood’s ‘development hell’ with Scarlett Johansson linked to the title role.

Trouble, you might say, is Jimmy McGovern’s business.

The one-time ‘Brookside’ writer and creator of ‘Cracker’, ‘The Lakes’ and ‘The Street’, welcomes us to his Liverpool home, a hundred yards from John Lennon’s Strawberry Field; brewing up a cuppa he seems mild-mannered for a professional prodder of open sores. But there’s passion beneath the surface. The fifth of nine children, an ex-warehouseman, bus conductor and teacher, he considers himself a product of Catholicism and the Scouse working class. And though the truth is always tricky, I think he’d agree with another literary idealist, Victor Hugo: ‘Right is always on the side of the hungry.’

PDN: Why do we have such an appetite for these hard-hitting drama-docs?

JM: I go back to the anger I felt after Hillsborough and the way it was reported. I think you need docu-drama because there is still a thirst for justice, and people’s grieving is compounded by bad reporting, That was true of Hillsborough and of Bloody Sunday. In the case of the dockers’ dispute it wasn’t so much mis-reporting as the wall of silence. Even when the reporting is accurate, it’s too cool. You could get a factual account of the Belgrano being sunk, but you would never understand the enormity of that unless you were in there with those young men and unless you went to those Argentinian families. I understand that British justice has to be calm and measured, but what happens if you cannot measure the crime? I’m wary of calm and objectivity.

Are you somehow drawn to injustice as a subject? 

What appeals to me is when the narrative is simple, but the emotional reactions inside that narrative are complicated. I enjoy that. I always bang on about ‘High Noon’, where for an hour and a half you’re mesmerised by his efforts to set things right and people’s different reasons for not helping him. I think that’s what stories should be. Because I also like a good story. In ‘The Street’ I think we told good stories that weren’t necessarily about injustice.

But what drives you to write in this form? Drama must be hard enough without the responsibilities of accuracy. And mostly, your subjects are actual living people. 

I took Hillsborough on after I’d been out for a walk, came back to my house and there on my doorstep were two mothers who’d lost children. They said, We want you to tell the truth about what happened there. So I can honestly say I wrote ‘Hillsborough’ because I was told to. Obviously you become aware of your responsibilities, and the overwhelming sense of grief. When you’re carrying that burden you don’t get lazy, you know you’ve got to get it right. We got no co-operation from the South Yorkshire Police, but anyone mentioned on any page of the script was shown that page. After I stormed out of ‘Brookside’ [the Liverpool soap refused a Hillsborough story-line] I went into ‘Cracker’ with such anger. I always say the thing about ‘Cracker’ was that it was post-Hillsborough, that was the key thing for me. The way contempt for a huge sector of humanity could lead to something like that.
In the case of Northern Ireland I didn’t want to know, because my attitude was, ‘I’m an Englishman and I’m not going to tell that story.’ But I went over and took part in an anniversary march and I just got sucked in. I felt the sense of injustice and said, Yes, I’ll do it. I’ve got this theory that a community owns its own stories. I’ve just spent time in Australia and New Zealand where the Aborigines and the Maoris have this strong feeling that their stories are theirs, white men do not simply walk and tell the stories for them. I felt the same thing about Northern Ireland. So I acknowledge their ownership of the story by making myself freely available to them and letting them pour it all out.

I saw a Protestant objecting to ‘Sunday’, saying he’d lost five family members in the Troubles but nobody was telling his story. What makes Bloody Sunday different to all the other killings? 

What’s different is that it was done in our name. I’m fairly convinced a political decision had been taken to go in hard. And the British Army act in our name. Our soldiers went on to their streets and shot them. I think that was enough to cause many men to join the IRA. The one argument left was that British justice would sort it out, but Lord Widgery comes along with his report and the highest judge in the land says, ‘This is fine,’ and the commanding officer gets a knighthood. It seems to an Irishman there’s nothing left to defend him, and you’ve got to take up the gun. Widgery made it seem logical to join the IRA and kill our boys.

When you get emotionally involved, isn’t that dangerous for objectivity? 

Yes, but I have an editor, Katy Jones, who works hard to keep me calm and objective. I have good people around me – and, of course, armies of lawyers. The only time I ever flipped was in Ireland, researching Bloody Sunday. After months of being told how bad my country had been, I’d had a few drinks, I was tired and I said, ‘You Irish bastards! You left the lights on in Dublin so the Luftwaffe could go there, turn left and bomb Liverpool to fuck!’ This was my big diatribe. And I realised that while I’m embarrassed by the National Anthem, I was a patriot. Despite it all, I love my country and I want to defend it.
The other thing I feel strongly about is that there was never any hassle about drama documentary when it was about the communists in Eastern Europe, but when it comes closer to home then it becomes a problem. And the people who attack it as a form are the very people in the British media whose mis-reporting has created this thirst for truth. I spent two years in Northern Ireland interviewing people and putting in the kind of effort no reporter could put in. and I came back with amazing facts, overwhelming evidence that, for instance, a British soldier shot a wounded man in the back. We worked hard to establish these facts.

Do you agree with many people’s view that ‘Brookside’ declined for years before it was terminated? 

It really broke my heart but there was one reason that people don’t think about, which is that Phil Redmond had loads of jobs He had that burden to carry. If ‘Brookside’ goes down the tubes a load of jobs go down the tubes as well. So every time he went down there [to Channel 4 in London] to talk about renewing it for the next period he wanted to go in from a position of strength, with the show doing well in the ratings, so he always went for ratings at certain times. In that commissioning process lay the seeds of our destruction. It was quite understandable that Phil would say ‘OK, the show’s doing well but if we throw in a car crash I can go to Channel 4 with 6 million viewers.’ The next time, ‘Well, we’ve done a car crash, so… a siege.’ But I loved that show. Also we went three nights a week and that was a killer. That’s 50 per cent more work, a hell of a lot to take on.

How did your Catholic upbringing affect you? 

I am the man I am because I was brought up in a Catholic community and I was taught by Jesuits. It made me the insecure wreck I was throughout my 30s and 40s and I’m just about accepting the kind of person I am now. If I write drama I like writing about Catholic people because you can always have a confessional scene and the one thing you know as a Catholic is that if you want something to thrive, an idea to blossom, persecute it. They’ll never destroy Catholicism because they’ve attacked it so much.

And the impact of Liverpool? 

I argue that if you look at the log of the Alabama, [a Mersey-built and largely Liverpool-crewed ship for the Confederate side in the American Civil War] this scallywag ship, a serious ship that killed, look at the names, and therein lies the culture of Liverpool, therein lies the birth of The Beatles, this going out, being influenced and coming back in. I remember a lad a year older than me who went away to sea like a stick insect and he came back like a man. Twelve months away at sea changed him. I didn’t do it cos I’d been to grammar school, I went into an insurance office, you don’t get your hands dirty when you’ve been to grammar school. But there’s something about this city, being an Atlantic port.