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Series Mania: Sean Bean in ‘Broken,’ Jimmy McGovern on British TV

Variety logo Variety 4/22/2017 John Hopewell
© Provided by Variety

PARIS — Ned Stark he is not. In BBC1’s upcoming primetime drama “Broken,” created and co-written by Jimmy McGovern, Sean Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan, a Catholic priest in North-West England struggling with inner demons, seeking atonement for the sins of youth, shy, retiring, broken. Of an evening, he goes down the bingo, listens to the BBC shipping forecast about Dover, White and Sole; or sings “Chattanooga Choo Choo” to his bedridden dying mother.

World premiered at Series Mania in main competition, in Ep. 1 and Ep. 2 of “Broken,” Father Michael only appears a man of action, dashing down a street, but that’s because he’s late for a parish meeting. His immediate reaction to his parishioners’ problems – and they are legion: Unemployment, and uncaring welfare state and police malpractice – is to scratch his temple or play nervously with his hands. In Episodes 1 and 2, in a performance that won her best actress award at Series Mania, Anna Friel plays a single mother of three driven to a desperate act when she loses her job after a barney with her manager and can’t afford to pay for her young daughter’s first communion dress. Though highly sympathetic, Father Michael cannot help her. Also in the second segment, the mother of a boy who’s suffered a psychotic attack phones him at night to ask him to come round: Father Michael is the only person her son listens to. But Father Michael’s so knackered that he’s gone to bed and fails to pick up the phone.

“Broken” asks if this gentle caring man will ever find a kind of redemption.

“It’s extremely Christ-like to have all your hopes and strategies demolished, to perceive yourself as a failure, and then realize: ‘No, you’re not,’” McGovern said, talking to Variety at Series Mania.

Graced by two of the boons of modern British drama –  McGovern’s writing, a rare working class voice on U.K. TV; the caliber of performances – “Broken” delivers a sobering portrait of a community which falls back for social support on family and friends, for want of a welfare state.  A special guest at Series Mania, McGovern – the creator of “Cracker,” “The Accused,” “The Street” – was introduced at a keynote Q & A by Series Mania’s U.K. representative James Rampton as “possibly our greatest TV writer over the last 30 years.” He is also eminently quotable. Here are some of McGovern’s observations, taken from a 45-minute stage conversation with Rampton and chat with Variety, on “Broken,” Sean Bean and Anna Friel, British TV and Britain, 1989’s Hillsborough, where 96 Liverpool soccer fans died due to grossly negligent policing during a match: and Robbie Coltrane, who went on to play Rubeus Hagrid in “Harry Potter”:

1.ON SEAN BEAN AND ANNA FRIEL

“Sean Bean is a great actor. Who was the movie mogul who said the Grand Canyon was a crock of shit compared to Steve McQueen’s face? It’s the same with Sean Bean. You see that humanity in Anna Friel too.”

2.THE PASSIVITY OF BEAN’S FATHER MICHAEL IN ‘BROKEN’

“I went to see Sean in the process of getting him onboard. He was worried that the character was passive. I said it’s not passivity: To hear a confession is not passive, you take the concern of the penitent. They go out lighter; you go out heavier.”

3.ON ROBBIE COLTRANE IN ‘CRACKER’

“I didn’t want him. The character I had in mind was a wee bit like me at the time, a thin wiry guy with energy to burn. The actor I had in mind was John Cassavettes, a wonderful actor and great filmmaker, with a crackling sense of energy. So we went to meet Robbie, and I said: ‘Sorry, I see him as a thin man and you’re a fat bastard.’ But he was great, he wanted it, he brought humanity. It was that, mainly. A big sweaty mess of a man.”

4.ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MONEY IN HIS FICTION

“I came from a big working-class family. I was Catholic, the fifth of nine children. We were skint – broke. You need to be aware of the financial consequences of characters’ actions. We ignore this far too much. An example: How a woman, after a doomed relationship, throws her ring into a lake. Grow up. She would sell it. It’s ridiculous.”

5.ON THE IMPACT OF DRAMA 

“We have a saying: ’A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can put its boots on it.’ I wrote about Hillsborough, and it told the truth: That changed the agenda. It didn’t bring the [families of the dead] justice. But it changed the agenda. Police had to respond to the agenda the program had set.”

6.ON HOW BRITISH MEN – LIKE BEAN’S CHARACTER – MISTREATED WOMEN

“I’m 67. I’ve met many men my age, born post-WWII. How we treated women as young men, we were horrible. Teenagers, young men, we were just horrible.”

7.HOW TO IMPROVE AT SCREENWRITING

I worked on a soap opera [“Brookside”], and always argued that nothing teaches you more than to see your name go up knowing that six million people are watching that, and it’s shit. That’s how you learn.

8.BRITAIN’S WELFARE STATE

“I can understand why and how it’s happened, because it’s been abused, but for people who really need it, it’s a shame that it’s gone in our country. It was always there when I was a young man with a young family who was skint. It kept me alive. I just don’t see why it’s not there now.”

9.ON ENGLAND’S CLASS SYSTEM

“In England, there’s a code of conduct and if you don’t understand it, you don’t fit in. There’s a big debate about accessibility and diversity, but people ignore the fact that working-class people, black or white, just do not fit in.”

10.ON THE MAGIC OF PRIMETIME FREE-TO-AIR TV

“I’ve been blessed to work for the BBC most of the time, they treat me well. They don’t do too much advertising. People just sit down and watch. Nothing can replace that.”

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