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My Arts: Jimmy McGovern

The creator of Cracker, Hillsborough, The Lakes, The Street and now Accused, talks to Angie Sammons about his favourite stuff

Written by . Published on November 21st 2010.

My Arts: Jimmy McGovern


So, you've got Accused coming up. Exciting times?
I'm kind of getting used to it now, but you are always nervous on the day itself.

You have been in the papers a lot in the last week. You've probably had a belly full of controversial questions about TV.
What happens is, you do a TV programme and for the first time in 18 months the press start firing questions at you. You answer them truthfully and there's a big furore. But for the other 18 months, I'm getting on with my life, thank you very much, and so when you start answering questions you get the name of being controversial and you are not.

But it's the misinterpretation.... The BBC have never censored me in my life. Nor would they. The BBC's brilliant. But to interpret what I said, that the BBC is censorious in some way, is stupid.

I liked your line about Man United (he is quoted as telling BBC chiefs “every chance I get, I write with anti-Manchester United bias”,).
(Chuckles) Football is one of the least important things in life, isn't it?

What about TV drama? Do you think that can be considered art?

There are a lot of things in my life I remember, and a lot of them are to do with TV drama. I think of the late, great Jim Allen who wrote the likes of United Kingdom and The Spongers for Play For Today – absolutely magnificent drama – and if that isn't art, what is?

That to me represents art more than any play of Shakespeare's. If you truthfully said to somebody, if you asked them the question: You will die soon, and we will allow you to see one thing: One TV production, one film or one play. What would you choose? How many people would say: “I would choose Hamlet."? Compared to how many people would say “I want to watch Apocalypse Now, or High Noon, or The Graduate?" That's where it matters and TV and film can aspire to great art just as any production of Hamlet can.

In what way are they art, though?

They are beautifully told stories, about things that matter.

What was your first professional writing job and how did you get the break?
I got £15 for a short play that was produced by Unity Theatre, in the days when Unity Theatre was radical and Left-Wing. Early 80s. These days you would frame that cheque, but we were so skint we had to cash it, so we took a photograph of the cheque.

What was the play?
Lost City Echoes I think it was called. It was a thing I wrote as a mature student at Ethel Wormald College. I went on to become a teacher. But it was toured and I owe a lot to the Unity Theatre because it was seen by Pedr James (then artistic director at the Everyman) and I got a big break from that.

Pedr James directed Our Day Out on the telly.
And brilliantly. He is still going strong in Cardiff, apparently still vibrant and outspoken.

What tune is running around your head at the moment.
You probably get this all the time. I'm a Red, so it's Ring of Fire. Mainly because I was at the game recently.

What newspapers/magazines do you read?
The Daily Mirror, Monday to Friday. The Guardian on Saturday and all the broadsheets on a Sunday, with a lie-in.

What word do you most like the sound of?
There's a wonderful Aboriginal word for water, “Arkalula”. There are over 200 Aboriginal languages and I am not sure that word even exists. But if it hadn't, it ought to have been invented.

Who or what do you listen to on the radio?
I am a Radio 4 freak, right from 5.45 in the morning when Farming Today comes on. Unless Liverpool are playing and I listen to Radio Merseyside.

What was the best television programme ever made?

The Spongers by Jim Allen. In fact anything by Jim Allen. The second would be United Kingdom, which he also wrote. He did many many things, including the screenplay for Land and Freedom which Ken Loach directed. He is dead now.

Did you know him?
I had the chance to meet him once and I was frightened that he wouldn't like me, and that would have crucified me so I didn't take it up. I was insecure, but he was my god, Jim Allen.

I didn't realise the BBC were going to bring Upstairs Downstairs back till I read an interview where you commented on it.
It's going to be very difficult to cast, but I think, overall, the acting is better now than it was then. Certainly the part of Hudson, that's very difficult to take over, that role. But the aristocracy themselves came and went if you remember. Everyone raves about Hannah Gordon, but actually she wasn't in it that long.

Top film ever?
High Noon. I remember being mesmerised by it as a boy, then I saw it as a much, much older man and I was still mesmerised. It's such a lean, mean piece of film making. The photography is exceptional as well – but in anything the most importantly thing is the story.

Carl Foreman wrote it, it was about McCarthyism. It's always been a favourite. I even used a pastiche of it in The Street, with Bob Hoskins.

What book in childhood made the biggest impression on you?
The Tom Merry books by Charles Hamilton. Schoolboy adventures set in St Jim's. Not many people will remember them, I bet.

What's your current book at bedtime?

I don't read books at bedtime. But I have got one on the go about New Zealand in the bathroom.

Not thinking of running away there are you?
No! Too far! But I am fascinated by Maori and aborigine cultures.

Do you go to the theatre and what did you last see?
Lennon at the Royal Court. It was more of a night out really.

Did you see the original in 1980?
Yes, but I remember that being more of a play. This version I saw was a very good concert.

Who or what makes you laugh?

Tommy Cooper. And the memory of Tommy Cooper just makes me laugh. There was a lot of humanity there. He was nervous, low self esteem, drank too much. But a really funny man.

What single work of art do you find the most moving?
Mother and Child, outside Liverpool Women's Hospital (by T McDonald). The time I came across it was when my own children were giving birth. You are there at that place for a specific purpose and that specific purpose is captured in this wonderful sculpure. Whereas if you walk through an art gallery, you are there because it is raining.

Which public figure do you most admire?

Tony Benn. He is still as sensible as ever. The sheer intellect of the guy. Met him once, you know. We were at the Hay-on-Wye Festival. There were a few of us eating and Eileen (Mrs McGovern) said, “Look up, there's your mate,” and the guy who joined us was Tony Benn. I couldn't believe it.

What is your favourite piece of architecture?
Lime St Station. It's only become my favourite recently and probably the one good thing the Lib Dems did was to knock down Concourse House. I love it. I think it looks absolutely fantastic. It's a pity they couldn't put such money and imagination into Edge Lane. Instead of flattening it.

We seem to keep repeating the same mistakes.

I keep asking myself this. There has to be a logic to it. What they have done to Edge Lane is insane. But if it is not insane, what is the logic? The only logic can be, someone has taken money. Because it is cultural vandalism on a massive scale, destroying those beautiful Victorian terraces.

We are always being told it's what the people of Edge Lane wanted.
That's bollocks. Have they kept a record of who lived there? And are they going to invite them back? Do you know that every privately owned property on Edge Lane was occupied? The only properties that fell empty were housing association- and council owned. It was a policy, get them out. Now they are going to build shite. That's their legacy (Mike Storey's and Warren Bradley's).

My brother Joe was one of the last to move. He went through hell. He was a right pain in the arse to them. I kicked off about it as well, they knew it was always going to be noisy. But they looked after him and got him a nice house by the ice rink. It's a desert down there now.

That's without mentioning Kensington Fields.
Yes, ten years and £62 million – and they've decided to knock it down. The left side of Kensington was not getting the money, the right side was. Ten years on, 62 million pounds later, you would expect the right side to be thriving and the left side to be demolished. On the contrary: It's the right side that's being demolished and the left side that is thriving. Isn't that amazing?

Know any good jokes?

One told to me by Charlie Landsborough 30-odd years ago when we were at college together. He is one of the funniest men you will ever meet. It's the old baby polar bear joke. He asks everyone if he really is a polar bear, his mum, his dad. He ends up going to his granddad and asks: “Are you sure I am a polar bear, and not a grizzly, or a koala, and when he asks him why he wants to know, he says: “I'm bloody freezing, that's why!”

*Six-part courtroom drama Accused, starring Christopher Eccleston, Mackenzie Crook, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Andy Serkis, Warren Brown, Marc Warren and Naomie Harris, starts on BBC One on Monday, November 15 at 9pm.

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousNovember 12th 2010.

Great piece

AnonymousNovember 12th 2010.

Very interesting interview. Nice to see Jimmy still being so outspoken after all these years. Many people in his successful position would have stopped saying boo to a goose a long time ago for fear of upsetting their new friends in the Establishment.

Brown OwlNovember 12th 2010.

It's a Cracker!

AnonymousNovember 23rd 2010.

Accused was wonderful last night and McGovern's performance with Mark Lawson on BBC4 on Sunday was not only a masterclass in how to write anything but showed off, as here in this interview, what a rather humble guy he seems to be.

gonzopixNovember 23rd 2010.

last Anon: you're so right. McGovern tackled very complex themes - comradeship, cowardice and bullying - without skewing the debate in any particular direction, cleverly leaving us to make our own moral judgements. Crook was marvellous, radiating a febrile intensity and total conviction. Only one cavil. No civvy street pathologist, doing the PM on the suicide, would believe a lucky shot by a Talib, could go upwards through a soldier's open mouth and out the back of his head, taking much grey matter with it. (Tho during the siege of Sarjevo a young man famously took a Serb bullet through one cheek and out the other whilst standing in open ground defying the snipers to do their worst.)

JesuitNovember 23rd 2010.

Loved the Christopher Eccleston episode last week. The writing was top class without a moment of slack and the acting was superb.

McGovern is now the only screen writer from this city who deals in gritty themes. Which is good - and bad.

EvilEddNovember 24th 2010.

Looking forward to seeing Accused. Seems odd that so many people seem to have a problem with a piece of fictional drama - but I guess in part it's because Jimmy's such a good writer, with some excellent drama-documentaries to his name, that it's hard to believe it's not based on fact.

In terms of screen-writers from this city who tackle gritty themes, Esther Wilson is one to watch.

Liverpool WagNovember 24th 2010.

I would imagine a lot of the subtleties go over people's heads....

Arthur Augustus D'Arcy the Aristocratic SchoolboyNovember 26th 2010.

'Pon me soul! A fan of St. Jim's!

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