Over the years we have become accustomed to appalling bearded ex-teachers
passing themselves off as the voice of the proletariat by penning supposedly
realistic plays and films that only add to the embarrassment of Liverpool's
long suffering populace. Inexplicably, even sane friends of mine have
been known to treat Jimmy McGovern as a special case, some offering the
opinion that he is somehow 'alright'. In my opinion he is the
equivalent of John Prescott; he is the man people who don't want
to admit the truth cling to. But, like the lovable deputy PM, he is deep
down 'one more whore at the capitalist gangbang', as Bill Hicks
put it. Let us examine McGovern's record.
That he started out at Brookside is probably enough to condemn him, but
we can all make mistakes in our early years. He was involved in transforming
Bobby Grant from a principled trade unionist into a misogynist caricature
who cared for nobody but himself when his wife got raped. He also made
that scab Billy Corkhill into a lovely feller who ended up snaffling Bobby's
bird. None of this was anti trade union of course, Jimmy was only breaking
new dramatic ground by questioning old certainties and challenging stereotypical
caricatures. By painting the scab as a lovable family man and the trade
unionist as uncaring and absorbed by the union. Very innovative I'm
However it was during the highly praised Cracker that the first serious
doubts about McGovern surfaced. As a series, its acclaim has always baffled
me. Pseudo-psychiatry and a large girthed man being chased by an unfeasible
number of gals couldn't disguise the fact that it was just one more
cop show. What was more revealing was what it told us about the writer.
One story line involved a black man who was a rapist - never one to
deal in stereotypes, Jimmy - who at one point tells the assembled white
policemen that their worst nightmare is their wife being raped by a black
man. This hit home with our white brethren who had clearly been troubled
by just such a worry. Now, maybe I'm wrong or different but in ten
years of marriage it has never occurred to me to entertain this notion.
In McGovernspeak, this sort of rubbish is known as confronting our demons.
In reality it is just a regurgitation of hoary old myths and stereotypes.
It reveals McGovern as a man who is wracked with guilt about his own bigotry,
but has found a way of making a small fortune out of it. A recent interview
in Esquire saw lovable Jimmy pissed and letting slip one or seven anti
semitic remarks to a clearly frightened woman interviewer.
Crime number two in Cracker was the story of the Hillsborough victim.
Leaving aside the fact that Robert Carlyle should have been nominated
for the Nerys Hughes services to the Liverpool accent award, this set
of programmes was full of even more dangerous nonsense. Carlyle has been
at Hillsborough and still suffers from the trauma. One day he's going
home from work and an Asian shopkeeper won't let him off with ten
pence till later. Carlyle does what everyone who survived Hillsborough
would do, goes home, shaves his head, gets a knife and stabs the shopkeeper
to death and makes it look like a racist murder. But it's not racist,
cos Jimmy's not like that and so Carlyle tells the shopkeeper that
he is being murdered because he's a capitalist. Carlyle then broods
about Hillsborough, sings Liverpool songs to the wrong tune on top of
buses and kills some more people. But because he's a good socialist
he only kills people who deserve it. The whole series finishes with the
cheap payoff of a tabloid journalist who wrote lies about Hillsborough
getting blown up by a letter bomb from Carlyle.
Again McGovern tells us more about himself than he intends. Instead of
questioning why no Hillsborough survivors have turned into mass murderers,
or what it is about socialists' view of humanity that seems to stop
them becoming serial killers, Jimmy merely sees the absence of these things
from society as a gap in the market, no-one till him was clever enough
to think of it. His complete misunderstanding of the people he's
writing about comes through more in this set of programmes than in any
other. Hillsborough, the drama, played an important role in highlighting
the issues around the continuing denial of justice to the families. But
I don't think you would go far wrong if you saw the whole thing as
a huge act of contrition for the Cracker fiasco.
Recently McGovern has collaborated with some ex-dockers and friends to
write the minimalistically titled Dockers. Typically and arrogantly, Jimmy
insisted that a scab had to be a central character and that he had to
be 'lovable'. This news was delivered to the dockers by Jimmy
with all the gravitas of Moses descending from that mountain with a few
rules. But why does the scab have to be lovable? It's always possible
that one or two scabs in history have been quite nice to their kids, but
the vast majority are despicable twats. However Jimmy's a groundbreaker
and an innovator, so the scab gets to be played by the only decent actor
in the entire film - are there no actors who are actually from Liverpool? - and
the trade unionist gets to treat his wife like shit. Haven't we heard
this somewhere before? To suggest that the Dockers film would have been
less of a drama without the addition of the already well overstated world
view of the scab says a lot about McGovern's approach. And given
that he is seen as radical it says even more about tv and film drama in
While it is relatively easy to pick holes in McGovern's films, he
is often defended on the grounds that 'he gets things done'
or that 'he raises issues nobody else will touch'. Both of these
things are true as far as television is concerned, but surely that is
a reason to condemn television rather than a feather in Jimmy's cap.
And just because he tells stories that at least include a radical working
class point of view, does that elevate him and his work above criticism?
Are we to be grateful that the powers-that-be allow us a fleeting and
shallow amount of exposure and not kick up a fuss?
Part of the problem arises from the fact that, while Jimmy may include
radical subject matter in his scripts, they are contained within an entirely
conventional framework. Thus he cannot tell a story from only one side
for that is not 'drama'. This willingness of allegedly radical
writers to accept that there are certain immutable principles to writing
drama is profoundly depressing. It is also dangerous. It has been widely
reported that McGovern's next project is to be a film based on the
events of Bloody Sunday in Derry. Following on from his insistence on
including a lovable scab in Dockers, will there have to be a lovable squaddie
in the Bloody Sunday film? Will the logic run that it is not 'drama'
if we do not see two worlds collide? I fear that the answer to both questions
will be yes.
It is perfectly possible - I would say vital - to make a film entirely
from within the Bogside. The debates and discussions within that community
at that time - against the backdrop of the Battle of the Bogside you
had questions about the role of the state; the logistics of urban guerrilla
warfare; self organisation of policing, welfare and social provision;
links with other liberation movements etc etc carried on at a high level
and leading to immediate practical action; as well there was the generational
divide over rioting, the fact that we were only two years on from the
troops being welcomed etc. - are more than sufficient as subject matter
and as an audience we should be forced to face the actions of the British
Army on the day with the same degree of bewilderment and unpreparedness
as the people on the march did. There is no need to restate the Army's
view of the day, and even if there was it is surely not the role of a
radical dramatist working with families of the victims of Army terror
to do so.
This debate is by no means confined to drama, the tyranny of balance pervades
television and infects documentary making even more. But of course the
balance demanded is selective. A documentary on victims of crime is not
required to be balanced by an interview with a burglar or mugger; documentaries
on the financial system are not required to present us with the human
casualties of stock market fluctuations; a film on child sex abuse need
not bother interviewing a paedophile. So if balance is optional and negotiable,
what's wrong with us negotiating it from our side. What's wrong
with excluding the viewpoints of the police, the judiciary, big business
and other over-represented bodies from drama and documentary depictions
of working class life and struggle?
Myself and others made a series last year for Granada television called
Tales From The Riverbank. The first point we made in the treatment for
that series was that there would be no balance, that it was unnecessary
given the volume of negative, anti- working class coverage of Liverpool's
history over the years. The series was essentially a working class history
of Liverpool over the last forty years. It was an unashamedly rank and
file, bottom up history that contained no balancing interviews on any
issue; riots, rent strikes, strikes and council rebellions included. If
a tiny independent company in Liverpool can do that, how much easier would
it be for a bankable 'name' script writer? And how liberating
would it be for others to have successful examples of unashamedly biased
films to point to as precedents.
All film making, documentary and drama, is authored. All script writing
is biased. Until film makers, screen writers and others consciously acknowledge
this and start to question and experiment with the fundamentals of the
grammar and narrative voice of film, along the lines of James Kelman's
seismic shifts in literature, we will remain mired in the current situation
where attempts to make 'balanced' films lead to the more or
less conscious adoption of the prevailing ideology.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Guttersnipe magazine.