A hard earned perspective

Jimmy McGovern is one of TV’s leading writers. He might be slowing down a little but can’t see a day when he won’t head to the hut in his garden to write

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The man whose enduring facility for compelling TV drama has so far spanned four decades is offering to give up half his lunch.

Jimmy McGovern is here to talk up the latest offering of an award-laden career, a one-off BBC film about “the hoops you have to jump through to get somebody cared for”.

His suggestion that we meet in the imposing atrium cafe of Liverpool’s neo-classical Walker Art Gallery is based, it appears, on the quality of its cheese and ham toasties, which are “the best I’ve ever had”.

Now, despite offering to buy me one of my own – declined – and him professing to be more than a little hungry, McGovern is holding his plate up to me. “Do you want to share this?”

The creator of Cracker, The Lakes, Common, The Street and a whole lot more besides has been accused of many things – speech-making, sentimentality, misrepresenting the armed forces – but self-importance is not one of them.

He arrives in anonymous uniform of black bomber jacket and thin brown jumper, gently chiding the weather forecasters (“they said it was going to be 14 degrees but it’s bloody freezing”) and, whatever his superstar status in television executive circles, goes largely unacknowledged by fellow diners in his home city.

As we talk, the prime minister’s long-coming, 585-page Brexit plan is being ripped to ribbons in the Commons. McGovern confesses he did not vote in the referendum. To do so would have been unfair because: “I’ve got money so I’m immune to the consequences. But I think the consequences could be horrendous.

“I want to see the chaos this causes and in the midst of that chaos remember this was all brought about by an Old Etonian playing party politics. I think that’s important.”

He did not vote in the EU referendum because “I’ve got money, I’m immune to the consequences”

Politics is close to the surface of all McGovern’s work, be it drama-documentary Hillsborough, which put the death of 96 Liverpool fans back on the national agenda, or Cracker, the psychological crime drama on many people’s all-time best British TV lists. So too with Care, originally conceived as a stage play by Gillian Juckes, based on her experiences, and re-written for television by McGovern.

Care stars Sheridan Smith as single mother Julie, barely keeping head above water when her own mother Mary (Alison Steadman) suffers a stroke and develops dementia. What follows is an account of the obstacles – human, financial, bureaucratic, systemic – in the way of a loved one and the care they need.

But it’s also about how the exterior impacts the interior. Scenes will strike a chord: the anguish of placing a loved one in a nursing home, friction between siblings. When Julie tells sister Claire she’s not pulling her weight, Claire declares: “Do you know the best thing a mother can do for her children? Die.”

McGovern nods. “Yeah, but there’s a good retort from Julie. She says: ‘You are so wrong.’ It’s important to get that in. We care for people who are ill because we love them so much.”

Yet Julie is accused of acting “out of guilt and fear of what the neighbours will say”. So is it love or a sense of duty?

McGovern says: “I do know from bitter experience that it’s hard to grieve but it’s a lot harder to grieve when it’s tinged with guilt. Far better to have done all you could as a dutiful son than to know you didn’t and then have to grieve for them as well. That’s a killer.”

In Care, money is the chief barrier to their mother’s best interests and they are told that for a hospital to treat dementia seriously, “that means a nurse being called away from a young person fighting for life because an old woman in the next room has shit herself”.

The image is unsparing and McGovern accepts it wouldn’t happen that way, but the point was “to put it simply and starkly in black and white terms. That’s the choice you’re facing – social care or medical care.

“In writing this, we spoke for ages about what is care? What is treatment? It’s a massive question. Does dementia constitute a need for medical care? I reckon it does, but people say, no, it constitutes a need for social care, that it’s not the duty of a hospital to provide social care. But it’s an illness.”

Can he foresee the health and care sectors being adequately funded? “I don’t know. It’s going to cost a fortune.”

McGovern broke his 25-year boycott of the polls to vote Labour last year. He believes a Corbyn government – “I’ve seen him in action, he was brilliant” – would make the money available and dismisses detractors who claim he would bankrupt the country.

“Aren’t we the fifth richest nation in the world? They always find money for war.” He adds: “If you want your country to boom, the one thing you do not do is give money to rich people, because rich people put money in the bank. If you want to boost the economy give money to poor people.”

At 32, McGovern gave up teaching to write for groundbreaking soap Brookside, whose first episode was broadcast the day Channel 4 launched in November 1982. Brookside Close’s residents included Sheila and Bobby Grant (Sue Johnson and Ricky Tomlinson), McGovern scripting the latter – a trade union activist – whenever he could.

Writing as “a spokesman for the left” on Brookside was wrong, he now says.

“There were a lot of political points to make in the early eighties, and I was determined to make them no matter what. Your characters have to say things that they want to say, not what you want them to say.

“The Falklands War ended in June ‘82. It became a joke almost, because I had this big speech about how we love our young men going out to die in futile wars, and what a terrible coincidence it was that, apart from Colonel ‘H’ Jones, it was the British working class that died over there in order to let Mrs Thatcher sweep to power and wage war upon the British working class.”

So was McGovern Bobby Grant? “Certain aspects, yeah. I was also Sheila Grant.”

McGovern keeps politics on a tighter rein these days. Nevertheless, his last TV work, Broken, which drew the performance of a lifetime from Sean Bean, examined austerity, debt, zero hours contracts and misery inflicted by fixed odds betting terminals. On the latter, the government is to limit the maximum stake but McGovern insists “it’s the speed of spin which is the problem. You can still lose £2 every 15 seconds”.

His own gambling, once a serious problem, is “very limited now. I have the odd bet and I still drink a little bit too much but nothing like I used to”.

A Catholic schooling left its mark, scarring him yet fuelling his writing, and he remains ambivalent. The complex parish priest in Broken is based partly on “wonderful activists within the Catholic community” and he never doubted Bean’s ability to carry it off.

“He’s great. I worked with him on Accused. He played a cross-dresser superbly. We went on a hell of a pub crawl to get to know each other, starting at noon and finishing at something like 3.30 the following morning.

“Some of the actors are total liars about their capacity for alcohol – a few pints and they’re on their back. Everything you hear about Sean Bean is right.”

While other TV dramatists, like Liverpool compatriot Alan Bleasdale, fall out of favour, McGovern’s success is unabated. “I didn’t have Boys From The Blackstuff to live up to. I’ve done easier things – those hour-long episodes for The Street with other writers. You can keep on doing that.”

Nobody else in British television casts a light on the human condition in quite the way McGovern does and his eventual absence will leave a hole. At 69, “I’m slowing down,” but as for retirement, “I’ve got a hut in the garden and I can’t see me not going over to that hut”.

He fears cancer (“I’ve had a history of smoking and drinking”) more than dementia (“my own parents were sharp as tacks to the end”). But, he says, “you can’t spend life worrying. I am the fifth
of nine, and we were all still alive until a few months ago.

“It’s funny. I’m probably enjoying life more now than I ever have. I spent a long part of my life ashamed of where I’d come from. Poverty does that to you. Now I look back and I’m so proud of where I came from.”

Of he and Eileen, “the oracle” and wife of close to half a century, he says: “We’ve got a perspective now that’s hard earned. Nothing much matters apart from the people you love. But I know that’s one of life’s ironies – you reach that position and it’s going to be snatched away.”

Does the former pious Catholic believe, come the time, that heaven and hell are on the agenda? “No, not at all, but if you had to go through the pearly gates and they said ‘what did you do to merit this?’ I would have to say a lot of the time I was a disgrace. I was bone idle, drank too much, didn’t work half as hard as I should have.

“But there are a couple of things: when we worked with the dockers; when I worked with Aboriginal people for a while, that was really rewarding; and Hillsborough. So I’d have a few of them in my arms. I’d say: ‘I’m sorry. It should have been a lot more but is this enough?’

McGovern has said that as a previously impecunious father of three young children, he did things he was “not that proud of” and noted that money buys the opportunity to do the right thing.

He tells me about being in a pub during a writers’ workshop with men and women involved in the bitter Liverpool dockworkers’ dispute of the late 1990s. McGovern paid for drinks with a £10 note but received change of £20.

“The dockers were skint,” he says. “They’d have slotted it. You’ve been overcharged many a time in places so it’s fair game.”

But McGovern returned the overpayment and took his seat with the dockers, who were silent. “I remember thinking ‘I’ve got to say something’, and I said…” – he puffs his chest in mock pomposity – “‘how nice to be able to afford integrity’. They laughed. They knew what was going on.

“There have been times in my life when I haven’t been able to afford integrity and I haven’t displayed it.”

Can he give an example?

“No,” comes the answer as I’ve barely finished the question. Then he smiles. “You can imagine, I’m sure.”

Care is on BBC One at 9pm on 9 December

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