THE street where Jimmy McGovern lives is not like The Street he writes about. His house is surrounded by tall trees. They look best, he thinks, at this time of year, most of them having turned to gold. Leafiness is not the only difference between this side of Liverpool and the postwar dockside where he grew up. But from his perspective, McGovern hasn’t moved far, or changed much.
Today, the imminence of Bonfire Night reminds him that when he was a boy, his city had its own name for November 5. “The wood for our bonfires came from houses that had been bombed by the Germans,” says McGovern. “So we always called it bommy wood’. There was enough of it to last us right through the 1950s, along with the stuff we raided from the slums that were falling to bits around us. It made the whole night a slightly different thing in Liverpool. Bommy night’.”
The programmes McGovern has written over the past 25 years – first Brookside, which was Britain’s only social-realist soap opera back when Channel 4 was young, then Cracker for ITV, and most recently The Street on BBC One – have established him as the best known, loved, and respected TV dramatist in the UK, with the possible exception of Stephen Poliakoff, CBE. (Who is, according to McGovern, exempt from the BBC’s rules on swearing, which allow for a maximum of four “fucks” per script. “But no ‘cunts'”, he claims, in passing, and presumably in jest, “unless you’re Poliakoff.”)
A second series of The Street begins next week, with an episode in which David Thewlis plays a housing benefit officer who can barely afford to keep a roof over his own family’s heads. “At least we earn our poverty,” he screams at a recalcitrant client. Writing like this has made McGovern so wealthy that his circumstances no longer resemble those of his characters. He invites me inside the workroom in his garden, which he calls “the big hut”. He thought he could claim back the cost of its construction as a tax break – only afterwards did his accountant tell him that the requisite clause does not apply to buildings. “I should have put it on bloody wheels,” he says, having written it off as a funny story instead.
The big hut is carpeted, kitted out with a bookshelf and soft chairs, and heated to a soporific temperature. It doesn’t seem the sort of room where a working-class man writes working-class dramas, but that must be what happens in here, although McGovern does admit that prosperity and comfort have made him less productive.
Another story: not long ago, the wife of popular Liverpool playwright Willy Russell told McGovern that her husband was finding it hard to come up with new ideas lately. His (joking) advice was for Russell to give away all his money. “You’ll write if you have to,” he says, seriously. In his own case, he now works mostly for the sake of working. His career and reputation are founded on the increasingly unfashionable belief that television is an industrial process, and each programme is, or should be, a product of intensive labour.
“Why isn’t TV better than it is? Primarily because the writers don’t work hard enough. There are people in the Writers Guild who despise me for saying this. I’m in the guild myself, because I’m a trade unionist, and I feel I need to be in a union to speak. But every week I want to resign, because most writers are so fucking lazy. The Street is only good – and I can tell you that it’s very fucking good indeed – because a group of experienced people got together and worked their bollocks off.”
Not all of them were so experienced. The full, official title of the show is The Street By Jimmy McGovern, but as with the first series, he hand-picked scripts from a select team of relative novices and veterans. Episode one, in which Thewlis’s character assumes the identity of his wealthier twin brother after he chokes to death on a sherbet lemon, was written by former plumber Arthur Ellison, a childhood friend of McGovern’s. That premise could be reverse-engineered into an ancient parable, or adapted, as McGovern admits, into a “blacker than black Hollywood comedy”.
Instead, like the five episodes that follow – each of which visits a different domestic crisis along the same row of terraced houses in an unnamed Lancashire satellite town – it imagines what might actually happen. “The only way to approach these stories is real,” says McGovern. “A real working-class man does this, and these are the real consequences. That’s why it works. We get away with it because we keep it so true.” Episode two, or “ep two”, as he calls it, was co-written with the longer established professional Andy Lynch. Ep five is the debut screenplay of Alice Nutter, former singer and agitator with the shouty pro-anarchist pop group Chumbawamba. “They all do a first draft,” says McGovern. “Then we criticise it.
“Then we make them do a second, or a third, or a fourth. And then, when they’re totally knackered, I’ll come along and do a big rewrite. I won’t insult the more experienced writers, but anything in there that I wouldn’t have written meself, I’ll change it. And I know the less experienced ones will learn so much from that, because I learned the same way.”
As a result, The Street is ruled by his voice and signature. He has previously said of working-class communities that there are few things wrong with them money couldn’t fix, and he tends toward stories that bear this out. “Yeah yeah,” says McGovern, “that’s always a factor. If you’re writing a working-class drama, you have to question the economic consequences, which lots of other dramas don’t do.
“If you sit and watch what happens in the third ep, you’ll be thinking, The wife must leave the husband’. But then he approaches her and says, We can’t divorce’. They can’t afford to live under one roof, so how could they afford to live under two? It’s just a fundamental consideration.”
Another thread common to these stories is the narrative circuit through which characters are driven to folly by the fear that a partner does not love them, only to conclude, after a chain of mistakes, that love was the one thing they could be certain of. This is so old-fashioned that it seems bold on the modern screen. In the second episode of The Street, a taxi driver (Timothy Spall) launches into a fugue of helpless spending while his wife (Ger Ryan) forms a mental block against telling him about the lump in her breast. “There’s a lot of my life in that one,” says McGovern.
“I’ve been married for 36 years, and nobody knows better than me how easy it is to forget that you love someone. Well, my wife might know more about it, but if you ask her you’ll get the same response. It’s amazing when something reminds you that you do. That thing about the health scare, Irene and I have been through that, and fortunately it was OK. But the shock of your partner experiencing pain and distress, it reminds you, Oh my god I love this woman. This is the most important person in my life, and I forgot that I love her.’ Ep two, I think, captures long-term marriage beautifully well.”
Almost as soon as he mentions her, his wife approaches the big hut to offer us ham butties and soup. “Thanks love,” he says. McGovern considers himself living proof of certain truisms about his nationality, gender and class, particularly the one about northern English working men being the least emotive and communicative in the UK, if not the world. “Ask Irene. She’ll tell you. I’m hopeless.” His programmes are eloquent and compassionate enough to be admitted as evidence to the contrary. In Cracker, Dr Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the police psychologist played by Robbie Coltrane, engaged in a moral battle with murderers by means of language alone. “Often, I give the insane people beautiful lines,” said McGovern of the show during its prime in the mid-1990s (Cracker returned last year for a one-off special episode). “But they have killed people, and they will suffer for it.”
In retrospect, he defines the difference between himself and Fitz, which is also the difference between the writer and the actor, as a matter of two separate facilities for words. “It was interesting to work with Coltrane,” he says. “Fascinating. I’d watch him, and admire the way he could sit down and charm the pants of anyone. He’s so witty, so quick. I have a stammer, and I could never even attempt to do what he does. But give us both a piece of paper, and I’d leave him for dead.”
The stammer is audible today, as, occasionally, is the hesitance and diffidence that presumably come with it. He is also as personable in conversation as anyone I’ve ever met. “Here’s Arthur,” he says suddenly. “You must meet Arthur. This guy is great.” Arthur Ellison, his old friend and collaborator on The Street, has called round unannounced, not at all unlike a kid wondering if his mate can come out to play. He comes into the big hut for a cup of tea. “Do you want to tell the story?” asks McGovern. “Which story?” asks Ellison. Between them, they have many, one of which ends with McGovern putting Ellison in a drunken headlock after the US launch party for The Street on BBC America last year, shouting, “We’re going to bed, you cunts” in front of “all these LA trendies”.
The story McGovern meant was the one about how Arthur finished his first script – he had always been too busy working as a plumber, but then he had his jaw broken in a fight, and that gave him three months off work to sit down and write it. Ellison’s wife advised him to show it to his friend Jimmy, who flung it to the ground and said: “Fuck off.” “He’s a funny, funny fella,” says Ellison when McGovern goes to the loo. “But he knows so much as well. Other writers see him as a god, which he is, but it’s a bit different for me because I’ve known him all me life. I helped carry his mam’s coffin … ” When McGovern returns, and Ellison leaves, we talk about his parents.
He was the fifth of nine children, “three born before the war, the rest of us after”. McGovern himself was born in 1949. “Me dad worked all the hours God sent,” he says, “and we were still skint, but you would be with nine bloody kids.” His mother, he remembers, was part of a circle of local women who told stories among themselves. His brother Eddie was the tough one, and Joey was the great footballer, but Jimmy was “the dreamer”. “I think it was because I didn’t speak. I would watch people all the time, especially these women. I was entranced by the way they would talk. They were as eloquent as anyone else, but they expressed that eloquence in the context of a supportive community. I listened to them for hours, and it sent me into a dream world of me own.”
McGovern’s core subject has always been the failure of the UK’s institutions, and he learned it from experience. He had three children by the age of 23, and worked a series of low-paid jobs to feed them, eventually retraining as a teacher in the 1970s, and writing plays for community theatres. When Channel 4 gave him the chance, he used Brookside – and particularly Ricky Tomlinson’s character Bobby Grant – as a means to address 1980s Thatcherism. When he left the programme after six years of fighting over dialogue and storylines, it became just another soap, and declined towards cancellation. “I owe everything to Brookside, but when you leave an organisation, you want it to miss you, and fail because you’re not there.”
Cracker, and Robbie Coltrane, became his 1990s equivalents. “I had a lot to say, and with Fitz I could say it. I found that very cathartic, because I much prefer to hide behind a fictional character. If I say it myself, then I’ll say the wrong thing, because I’m physically incapable of saying the right thing.”
IN the case of his docu-dramas about the Hillsborough stadium disaster and the events of Bloody Sunday, he was invited to write both screenplays by families of the deceased. He worked hard to supplant his own opinions with facts, and is proud that he kept his mouth shut on the first issue, directing every question he was asked about Hillsborough to the families’ support group, after checking every detail of the film with them first. “The process of writing a drama-doc is as important as the drama-doc itself,” he has said. “It has to empower the powerless.”
McGovern has also claimed that the other film, Sunday, was the most extensively researched programme ever broadcast on British TV, but now regrets saying that Paul Greengrass’s screen version of the same events – made and transmitted almost simultaneously in 2002 – was “a film to give comfort to the English”. Which is not to say he didn’t mean it. McGovern does not believe the English have earned the right to be comfortable. This view extends from the current prime minister (“I always bang on about Gordon Brown. Most successful chancellor, my arse. Indians and Chinese are beavering away making everything we need at a fraction of what it should cost … “) to the national broadcaster.
“I love the BBC, but this needs to be said loud and clear: they get away with murder. If I write a BBC hour, like The Street, that’s 59 minutes, which is 59 pages. If I do an ITV hour, it’s 43 minutes because of time taken out for commercial breaks. But ITV will pay more. Now I’m not supposed to think in these terms. I’m supposed to be an artist. But I’m a working man, and those extra 17 or 18 pages kill me. It’s a massive consideration that, more work for less money.”
McGovern recognises no contradiction between his feelings for his medium, his city, his country. Each is held to the highest standard. “Iraq … don’t get me started. We deserve bombing more than Iraq, because the people in Iraq had no control over what happened to them. We’ve got control. We re-elected a mass murderer. We are now legitimate targets because we exercised the vote.” And this from a man who has seen what bombs do. One last story, by way of explanation.
In 1945, McGovern’s father fought to liberate Paris. The French capital was left intact, while his home town was ruined. Sixty years later, only recently in fact, his son had a drunken argument over this with Irish republicans who happened to mention the beauty of Paris, on the contentious historical basis that many Dubliners left their lights on to help guide German bombers over to Liverpool.
“I worked out so much about meself that night,” says Jimmy McGovern. “I learned I’m a scouser first and foremost, and I’m also an English patriot. I can’t help it. I instinctively love my country. But if you instinctively love your country, then you criticise it. You expect it to be worthy of your love.”