There’s writing that makes me think ‘This is terrible; I could do much better than this!‘ There’s writing that makes me think ‘This is pretty good; I could learn from this and maybe do something as good!‘ And then there’s writing that makes me think ‘This is amazing; I could never ever do as good as this because it’s written by a genius who should immediately be banned from writing to give the rest of us a chance!’ For me, Jimmy McGovern falls into the third category.
His most recent work, Broken, a six part TV series recently shown on BBC1 is one of his best and it doesn’t surprise me that it is an idea that he has been kicking around since the days when he first left the writing staff of groundbreaking soap Brookside. It was gripping and gritty but also tender and thoughtful. Most of Jimmy McGovern’s writing is like that. He created Cracker, The Lakes, The Street, Accused, and Banished among others. He also wrote the script for the docudrama Hillsborough, based on the events of the stadium disaster in 1989, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans at an FA Cup semi-final. McGovern wrote the screenplay for the 1994 drama Priest and the book for the musical stage show King Cotton.
For me, the thing which marks out his work more than anything else is strength of story. I’ve seen interviews in which he says that the story is the most important factor in writing. He even goes so far as to say that he dislikes most theatre because characters just talk and talk and the story goes nowhere. It’s always surprised me that I love his work so much because I tend to feel more drawn to character driven, rather than story driven, stuff. I see TV and films where the story, on the face of it, is really strong but I’m left cold because I don’t identify with the characters.
It’s like when you get a chase scene right at the very beginning (I saw an example of this recently in the opening episode of Tin Star). I understand why they do this; ‘let’s get some pace into this right from the off, let’s grab the viewer with some top class, exciting, action’. But it’s actually the biggest mistake you can make. You watch the ‘exciting’ chase but you don’t know the runner or why he’s running for his life and you don’t know the chaser or why it’s so crucial to catch the runner. You’re not invested in the scene because you don’t see it through the eyes of a character with whom you identify.
So I couldn’t figure out why I loved the work of Jimmy McGovern who himself says that story is the paramount concern in good writing. Then I twigged. Yes, his stories are strong BUT… they always spring naturally from the characters. You don’t get chase scenes in the opening moments here. You don’t need chase scenes at all. And yet there’s rarely a moment of boredom in any McGovern script. The story is strong but it never evolves at the expense of the characters. So that’s why I love his writing. That’s why I think I’ll never be as good as him. And that’s why I want the bastard banned as soon as possible.