Jimmy McGovern: ‘Even the psychopaths are a deep, horrible part of me’

When writer Jimmy McGovern was growing up in his beloved Liverpool, the city where he and the remaining seven of his siblings still live, with nephews and nieces galore, it was a source of pride to his family and their neighbours that only one of the residents on their street had gone to prison.

“It’s a working-class boast,” he laughs wryly. “You say this to a middle-class person who doesn’t understand and they go, ‘The fact that one went to prison is shameful.’

“I could have ended up on the wrong side of the law.“, says screenwriter Jimmy McGovernCredit:Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

“But you couldn’t imagine the street I was born in. They were two-up two-down rat-ridden slums, they really were. And my poor mother brought up nine kids and that was nothing, that was small. There were Irish Catholic families of 13 …”

It’s beginning to sound a little like a Monty Python sketch, I dare to joke (he is the most approachable and warm of interviewees). “Yeah, born in a shoe and all that!” he cracks back. “But, you know, it isn’t shameful . In a poverty-stricken area, you do get people ending up in prison. I can only speak for myself, but as a young man, when I was skint, I did things that were very naughty in order to survive.”

What sort of things? “Just pinching and stealing things. Nothing major. I wasn’t brave enough to do a big bank robbery or anything like that – but I could have ended up on the wrong side of the law. I could have, but I didn’t, and I was lucky. ”

The much-garlanded writer of British television dramas from his early days on the Channel Four soap Brookside to creating Cracker in the ’90s – “I found the only way to write Cracker was to be like Cracker … yeah, ‘method writing’ … so I was smoking like a chimney and drinking like a fish” (he didn’t have to “act” the gambling addiction part) – to The Lakes, The Street, the BAFTA-winning Hillsborough docu-drama widely credited for sparking a new inquiry into the football stadium tragedy and The Accused, has a new three-part drama that is powerful, affecting and urgent.

McGovern smoked and drank excessively to get into the head of Cracker’s criminal psychologist and problem gambler Fitz, played by Robbie Coltrane.Credit:Granada TV

The aptly named Time is set in prison and revolves principally around two characters from either side of the cell doors: a decent prison officer, Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), who is forced into corruption in order to ensure the safety of his imprisoned son, and a prisoner, teacher Mark Cobden (Sean Bean), who has killed a man when drunk-driving and is seeking atonement while learning how to avoid getting murdered himself in prison.

McGovern gets a great deal out of working with these two actors and created their characters expressly for them: “I love the two of them – they’re my favourite actors along with [one-time Dr Who] Chris Eccleston.” He had only recently learnt that Graham’s father is black, which fascinated him: “I said, ‘You’re not black’, and he said, ‘I am!’”

Does Graham identify as a black person? “I don’t know how he identifies, but he’s the most relaxed, unburdened man you’ll ever meet in your life. He’s so cool.”

“They are my favourite actors”: Sean Bean (Mark Cobden) and Stephen Graham (Eric McNally) in Time

If you tell me Sean Bean is that, I won’t believe you! “Oh Sean’s not black,” McGovern says, misunderstanding me. “Sean’s a white working-class Yorkshire man.” But if you’re about to tell me he’s completely chilled and relaxed … “No, he’s OK Sean – he’s a lovely man. I love him to bits, like.”

He says that a series he workshopped for nine months in Australia – Redfern Now in 2012 – was “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was just a buzz from start to finish.” McGovern was invited over by the Australian writer Mac [Wolf Creek] Gudgeon when they met at a writers’ guild conference on the West Coast of America. In Australia he met Sally Riley, who went on to become the ABC’s Head of Drama, Comedy and Indigenous and was a great fan of McGovern’s The Street and hoping to recreate it in Australia. Instead, something original was worked up to become the first series commissioned, written, acted and produced by Indigenous Australians. It won a multitude of awards and was developed into a second series.

McGovern meets with Indigenous writers working on the ABC series Redfern Now in 2010, from back, left to right, Adrian Wills, Steven McGregor, Tamara Whyte; middle row, Dennis Simmons, Danielle MacLean. front row, Jon Bell, Jimmy McGovern and Michelle Blanchard. Credit:James Brickwood

A non-Indigenous Australian, the British writer believes, wouldn’t have been able to do and say the things he did and said: “I realised I was asked because of what I didn’t know about the Aboriginal experience; I was an ignorant bum!” He had what he describes as “an absolute ball” but was less impressed by some aspects of the Australian way of life. He was in Paris doing a “screenwriters’ thing” and “I remember saying ‘If you think England is a racist country or France is – go to Australia!’ There was an Aussie in the audience who took great exception to what I said but I think it’s true. I love Australia and I love Australians but I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a racist society.”

‘I love Australia and I love Australians but I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a racist society.’

McGovern’s interest in and knowledge about prisons has deepened over the years; early on in his writing career, when he first moved from teaching to scripting, he was invited to conduct workshops in prisons. More recently, he has spent time working with the Sycamore project, under the auspices of the prison chaplaincy, led by volunteers teaching the principles of restorative justice by focusing on victim awareness.

As someone who works in prisons, myself, with Liberty Choir UK, the charity I co-founded with my wife seven years ago , I was struck by how accurately Time captures the inhumanity of life in prison – what civilised society would tolerate conditions that you wouldn’t accept for animals, where two men in a tiny cell, built in Victorian times for one prisoner, are forced to eat and defecate virtually on top of one another?

Time captures the inhumanity of life in prison. Sean Bean plays a teacher who has killed a man while driving drunk.

But I was also touched by how McGovern caught those rare, surprising moments of grace that can and do offer tiny shafts of light in a very dark place: as when an educated prisoner discreetly teaches an illiterate but proud fellow inmate to read and write, the kindness and concern that can manifest itself, how a caring and imaginative chaplain (such as the one played by Siobhan Finneran; the cast is a roll call of great British television actors) can transform the intolerable into something almost transcendent when she offers a prisoner the chance to experience a virtual funeral after he is denied the right to attend his father’s in person.

Jimmy McGovern has been working as a volunteer on a restorative justice program.Credit:Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty

“I’m really proud of that scene,” he says. “I’m so glad you picked that out. I loved that sequence. I’ve never seen that done before, have you? It came to me and it’s amazing, isn’t it?”

I have witnessed similar moments of reprieve in prison: how hard men can show emotion and even weep if they feel safe – alongside terrible events, more terrible because of how commonplace they are: suicide and self-harming, which has increased by 24 per cent in female prisons during COVID-19.

Mental health, which has always been a major problem in prisons, has dramatically deteriorated with the further restrictions imposed because of the virus: the deprivation of fresh air, education, work, exercise, visits from family and none of the activities, such as our choirs, that offer relief from despair and can give prisoners the strength to survive another week.

McGovern, of course, sings from the same songbook – although not literally; he insists his voice is terrible, so much so that it is hard at times to remember that this is supposed to be an interview, not a meeting between like-minded people who are searching for a solution to an inhumane institution that is no longer fit for purpose.

The main answer to making prisons work better is to empty them, he says: “If you decriminalised drugs, you would have empty prisons. And I’d do something about the cells; you shouldn’t eat and shit in the same room.

‘If you decriminalised drugs, you would have empty prisons. And do something about the cells; you shouldn’t eat and shit in the same room.’

“There should also be a lot more meaningful activity, education and training. If only there was some way of altering the minds of the British public when it comes to sentencing. It’s so easy for any political party to say ‘tough on crime’ and get elected. It’s ridiculous.”

The dynamic between Eric, the prison officer, and Mark, the prisoner – both trapped in different ways – came to McGovern for his script early on. During his research and in his various stints working in prison, he never encountered what he calls “a real baddy” of a prison officer. “I thought they were people doing shitty jobs in shitty circumstances with very little money, and so I can see the temptation is there. But I never came across an out and out bastard – that’s probably because I wasn’t allowed to see the out and out bastards!” he grins. ” I didn’t want to write an easy villain. And yet stuff does get into British prisons through staff. That is one way it does get in, and I had that story early on.

“And the Sean Bean story is my kind of story – a man who needs to atone and can’t even begin to atone, paralysed with guilt and grief and suffering. And then of course he gets picked on. And the only thing he does know about prison – having seen what happens to the other grass [who gets scalded horribly] – is that he knows he cannot grass.”

Stephen Graham is prison officer Eric McNally, who is forced into corruption to protect his son.

In one of several hard-to-stomach scenes, one prisoner bites the ear off another inmate: “Yes. I always had that in mind – the kind of level you’ve got to sink to in order to protect yourself.”

The brutalising nature of being in the belly of the beast, as prison has been called, is conveyed by the deafening cacophony of heavy doors slamming, men shouting at the top of their voices, banging of metal bars – and this is given an arresting counterpoint by the gentle, melancholic music of Elgar-like strings, suggesting the sadness, confusion and regret that is nearly always present when the men are alone in their cells, unmasked from the bravado and bluster of their strut in the wings.

McGovern knew what prison drama clichés he was going to avoid, along with creating a multi-layered, subtle portrait of a prison officer who is a man of honour and integrity until he can’t be, some of which are not even based on reality. “You know how they always show a riot in the prison canteen? I have a very good friend who I’ve known for 50 years and only the other day I said to him ‘You do know that prisoners don’t eat in canteens.’ And he was shocked when I told him that they pick up their food and take it back to eat in their cell – one person sitting on the lavatory and the other one on the lowest bunk. He was absolutely gobsmacked, you know.

“And the other cliché I wanted to avoid was scenes of violence or homosexual rape in the showers. ”

There are some viscerally graphic scenes around self-harm in the first episode; how did he feel when he saw them? “It’s funny because it always happens to me and maybe to all writers – what we see in our mind’s eye is often less graphic that what appears on the screen. Having said that, I was served by a brilliant director [Lewis (Des; Broadchurch) Arnold] so I’m not knocking him on this, but it was maybe a little more graphic than I envisaged it to be, but not that much more.”

Liberty Choir holds regular concerts in non-COVID-19 times in prisons (where the prisoners perform with the volunteers who come together for weekly sessions in a mixed choir) in front of an audience of prisoners’ families and friends. The dynamic in the hall with children running up to hug their fathers and where partners and wives, parents, grandparents or just supportive friends get to see their loved one in a different, joyous light, transforms a harsh environment. Time shows a similarly radiant moment when a child runs across the room at visiting time and everything changes in an instant: “It’s a beautiful meeting scene that, isn’t it? All you see is love.”

Or when Mark’s mother – his parents visit him regularly – played by Sue Johnston says: “You’re here as punishment, not for it.” Is that yours? “No, it’s not mine. I’ve heard it said before about British prisons and I can’t remember where but I clocked it when I heard it.”

He is talking on Zoom set up by Eileen – they have recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, he tells me – in his office across the lawn from their home. Behind him is a blue plaque that he takes down to show me, which says: JIMMY MCGOVERN Grandad since 2002 Health & Safety Expert Lives Here. The McGoverns have three children now in their late forties, Nicky, Joanne and Jimmy, and four teenage grandchildren: Hannah, Nancy, Tom and Jimmy jnr. “I’m a typical granddad,” he says. “Every time they come, I worry about their safety, so they call me the Health and Safety Expert.”

Despite the serious subjects we tackle, there is often an air of merriment to the proceedings because of McGovern’s frequent laughter and the twinkle in his eyes. The short vowels and Scouse thud are still very much intact, as is the occasional ghost of his childhood stutter, when the odd word stubbornly sticks.

McGovern wanted to avoid the cliches of prison-based dramas.

He talks about his memories of the 11 members of his family living in their little house, four boys to a bedroom until he was 10, thinning out as his older siblings married and left home: “Me Mam would be singing Nat King Cole’s When I Fall in Love [he breaks into song, tunefully – despite his earlier protestations] as she washed the oilcloth over the table.”

Greenside is still there, he says, “but now it’s got these pretty little houses built by the much-maligned Militant Tendency [of the Labour Party] in the ’80s”.

He’s sensitive to the criticism that has been made of him reinforcing the negative stereotype of the Scouser: “You know, ‘What do you call a Scouser in a suit?’ ‘The Accused.’ ‘What do you call a Scouser in a big house?’ ‘A burglar’. When a drama works, it’s because it’s about flawed characters, and because I shoot in this city, giving jobs to my own people, I get accused of reinforcing that negative stereotype by our paper the Liverpool Echo, who can’t even be arsed to print here, which is unfortunate.

“I love this city, and the older I get, the more I love it. The architecture is second to none and you walk along the river and you see a proper river. I’m sorry, but Manchester hasn’t got a river like the Mersey, you know what I mean?”

He reads each of his character’s lines out so they have a Scouse inflection, and “I don’t think I’ve ever written a character who hasn’t been part of me. Even the psychopaths in Cracker would be some deep and horrible part of me.” He may have drunk more and smoked more to get into the head of Robbie Coltrane’s criminal psychologist Fitz, but the gambling addiction wasn’t a stretch at all: “I was a terrible gambler. I nearly lost everything to gambling.”

McGovern used to pride himself on his discipline for writing, but now he can be distracted by the smallest things, such as fixing his lawn. Is it because, at 71, he gets tired easily? “I don’t know,” he smiles, with a sort of rueful bemusement. “I think it’s a lack of hunger. I’m more successful now than I was – when you’re younger you want success and appreciation.

“I don’t particularly go after that now. I don’t really go for the baubles.”

If anything deserves baubles, it’s Time, I say. “Do you think so?” a modest laugh. “Well, of course, I would love that.”

Ginny Dougary is co-founder of the prison charity Liberty Choir UK, libertychoir.org

Time starts this week on BBC First.

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