LIVERPOOL – A troubled priest in the North of England struggling with his own personal demons as he tries to help a community that desperately needs him.
A 6-part 2017 BBC drama looking at priesthood is at its heart about the Eucharist, according to the lapsed Catholic writer who brought Broken – starring Sean Bean, best known for HBO’s Game of Thrones – to television last year.
“Everyone thinks this was about a broken society, a broken system; it’s not. It’s about a broken body,” said Jimmy McGovern.
Well-known in the United Kingdom for his 1990’s ITV crime series Cracker and the BBC series The Lakes, McGovern said he always wanted to do a series about a priest.
McGovern was speaking Sep. 7 at a screening of the first episode of Broken at Liverpool’s Saint Ignatius Xavier Church, where the series was filmed. It was also the location of the since-closed parish school McGovern attended as a child.
The screening was part of the “parallel program” for the Adoremus Eucharistic Congress taking place in Liverpool.
The writer doesn’t have pleasant memories from the school and noted the rough punishments he sometimes received. He said it “damaged” him, and others.
Although no longer a practicing Catholic, McGovern said since leaving school he has had nothing but positive experiences with priests.
“They’ve always been there for me,” he said.
Broken combines these two elements, where Bean’s character, Father Michael Kerrigan, is suffering debilitating flashbacks of his troubled childhood while trying to do his best to minister to his impoverished community.
“It exorcised quite a few demons for me,” McGovern said. “It was a healthy thing for me to do.”
McGovern said Bean resisted taking the role, because he feared the priest was too passive, especially in the confessional.
“I jumped around telling him how wrong he was,” McGovern said, adding that the weight a priest takes on in the confessional can be overpowering.
Jesuit Father Denis Blackledge, the pastor of Saint Francis Xavier and a consultant on the series, said Bean “was very humble” during filming, and “grew into the collar.”
The series does not shy away from the problems facing working class neighborhoods in the North of England, and episodes take on issues such as poverty, single parenthood, suicide, and police brutality.
It also doesn’t shy away from other aspects of the priesthood, especially prayer. The Mass plays an important role in the series, and scenes feature the priest reciting the Hail Mary and the Our Father at pivotal moments.
“Jimmy basically concentrated on three parts of the Mass: The first the entrance to the ‘I confess’; the second was the consecration and the elevation; and the third was the actual receiving of Communion itself,” said Blackledge.
McGovern told Crux that the BBC didn’t have any problems with the prayers in the series (in fact, what he complained about was the fact the producers tried to fight him on the sound in the show.)
He said the only thing that mattered about the featuring of prayers is that they “worked in the edit.”
“They came at crucial times,” the writer said. “As a dramatist, you want people to say ‘What now?’ And the prayer comes at that crucial time.”
He was referencing the end of the first episode, when a woman is going to have to face the consequence for a bad decision. Kerrigan prays the Our Father with her, and stares at a picture of Christ: McGovern said this leaves the priest, and the audience, thinking, “What now?”
Both McGovern and Blackledge said they have heard from many bishops and priests – both Catholic and Anglican – about how meaningful it has been for them.
The Jesuit said this has not been a universal response.
“Some clergy have liked it, some haven’t. Some have found it a bit raw. I think it could be close to the knuckle for some clergy if you’re not content in your own skin, with your own brokenness,” he told Crux.
“The whole essence of Jimmy’s thought was this brokenness of Jesus himself, who was on the Cross. And also the taking, the blessing, the breaking, and the giving, which are the four key elements of Eucharist,” Blackledge said.
The priest also noted the appropriateness of featuring Broken during the Eucharistic Congress.
“Jimmy said to me, it is all about the Eucharist,” Blackledge said before adding, “I don’t think a man who could write as he did a Eucharistic priesthood – he’s not practicing as a Catholic now – but he’s Catholic through and through.”