Jimmy McGovern Interview: Failure Is Good For You

I stumbled in from the pub tonight and flicked through the channels until I came across an episode of Cracker. It was To Be A Somebody, the incendiary episode starring Robert Carlisle as Albie – a white, working-class scouser-turned-serial-killer – and I watched the last 15 minutes as rapt as I was when I first watched it at the age of 16.

Even then I knew I was watching something important – something that included Hillsborough, racism, working-class socialist bigotry and a host of other issues that send a shiver down the spine of any middle-class liberal. A disturbing confluence of issues – overlapping on a Venn diagram – as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Watching it back it’s hard to not view Albie’s call-to-arms in terms of Irish republican violence, 7/7 and even the rise of UKip, BNP and EDL. A touchstone for the disaffected white working-classes, denied the social gravity of work, unions, church and football. It struck me, although the outcomes may be somewhat different, that it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of his script.

Cracker Albie

I interviewed Jimmy McGovern in 2005 for Black & White Magazine, a Liverpool culture magazine I edited back in the day. At the end of some delicate negotiations I had an email exchange with Jimmy where we exchanged questions, discussion and gossip.

He was incredibly accommodating, polite, funny – I have not a bad word to say about him. Doctor Who was gearing up for a return at the time and he gave me some juicy gossip involving Christopher Eccleston, who he obviously held in high regard. I also got a lovely Christmas message from him at the end of the year – I like to think he’d appreciated something in the questions I asked.

As is always the case, we lost touch and I doubt he even remembers the exchange ten years on. But I remember his personal kindness to a young journalist to whom he owed nothing – he also allowed me to sell the interview to Tribune – and willingness to engage on subjects we both found interesting. Thanks Jimmy.

Ten years on from that interview – and 20 years from the episode’s debut – the issues we spoke of are still relevant. And, with The Street and Accused, so is Jimmy McGovern.

The following represents the compiled Q+A I assembled from our email conversations, printed in Black & White Magazine and Tribune. Inevitably I feel I was a little gauche and tactless – and wish I’d pursued certain lines on inquiry, but remain pleased with the exchange.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I’m trying to do final polishes on the Cracker special and a six-parter for the BBC provisionally entitled The Street. As for the six-parter I’ve written only two eps and been a sort of lead writer on the others. The Americans would call it “show runner” but to hell with the Americans and their cultural imperialism. With the exception of a man called James Quirk the writers on The Street have been relatively inexperienced – but they all had good stories to tell and that’s the main thing for me. I’m sick of watching telly and seeing the same old stories being regurgitated. When I’ve finished these polishes I’ll be switching over to a musical about the history of cotton. We’re trying to blend negro-spirituals from the cotton fields with brass band music from the cotton mills. God knows if it will work.

What made you decide to come back to Cracker?

I’ve gone back to Cracker because I used to be co-organiser of the Hillsborough Memorial Golf Day and we needed a sponsor so I went to Granada and told them that if they sponsored the golf, I’d write them another Cracker.

Do the characters you create inevitably stem from aspects of your own personality – even if it’s a small one?

You’re right: if you’re in any way serious as a writer, you will always write characters based upon your own personality. That’s easy to say when it’s people like Fitz [from Cracker] because people like him despite his flaws. Not so easy when it’s characters like Albie [from the episode To Be A Somebody] but Albie was based on how I felt in the aftermath of Hillsborough. I don’t think I could have killed anybody over Hillsborough. In fact I’m sure I couldn’t. But I certainly felt like killing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher and every single member of the South Yorkshire Police. And as for The Sun… I think every single killer in Cracker has come from somewhere deep within myself.

Hillsborough seems to be something of a touchtone across more than one of your works; something that has deeply affected Liverpool. Is this a fair reflection?

And you’re right again: because of that, some people think I’m a headcase, a hot-headed, angry, frustrated Scouser. But I’m not. I’m fifty-six. I’ve been married for thirty odd years; I’ve got grandkids; I play golf. The secret is, I know I’m nothing special. I know I’m not particularly good. Or particularly bad. I’m just like everyone else. And if I’ve felt like doing horrible things, then I’m bloody sure everybody else has as well. Nobody’s unique. Well, everybody’s unique but you know what I mean.

I have always seen myself as left-wing but, honestly, throughout the eighties it was hard to be a left-wing, white, working class male. We were blamed for everything: racism, sexism, fascism. And, of course, the epitome of the white working class male was the football fan. People hated them, especially people on the left. Hillsborough came out of all that and, after Hillsborough, I said to myself that I would never let people attack us (white working class males) like that again. And Fitz came after that – the first post-feminist, post political-correctness TV series.

I never had any doubts about writing the story of Albie in Cracker. In fact the Hillsborough families came to a screening and supported it. They, more than anyone, understood Albie’s anger. As for the drama-doc itself, I wrote it because the families asked me to write it. As simple as that.

Do you still have a personal faith, or are you a cultural Catholic?

I have never attacked the Catholic faith. I have never attacked any religion. There was one particular journalist who slyly hinted that I might be anti-semitic but I can tell you I’m not. The great religions, when they are properly adhered to, are a force for good. It’s the institutions that sprout up around those religions that get up my nose. And the hypocrites within them. One example, the Catholic Church sheltered child abusers for years. If it had done this out of compassion for the abusers, well that might, just might, be understandable. But it sheltered the abusers because it was frightened of losing its great wealth in the courts.

What would be the worst and the best we can expect to come out of Liverpool winning Capital of Culture?

I’m ambivalent about Capital of Culture. On the one hand, if we ever get my cotton project onto the stage it will probably be because of Capital of Culture money. On the other hand I’m not prepared to be gagged because of that. I think 2008 will pass the vast majority of Scousers by, just as whatever-year-it-was passed the Glaswegians by.

Liverpool has given you a lot of source material in the forms of Hillsborough and Dockers, albeit frequently tragic and terrible. Does this make you ambivalent about living here?

No. I thank God I was born here. I have always loved this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The people above all, their humour and passion and sensitivity, but also the river, the architecture, the parks, the history of the place…

I have always had a soft spot for Ireland. My wife has 100 per cent, pure Irish blood in her veins. And, of course, I have the obligatory great grandad who came over in the Famine. But I see myself as a Scouser, a catholic, white, working class Scouser. That means I’ve plenty in common with the Irish but, no, I am not Irish; I am a Scouser. Lots of people see themselves like that, I think, and that’s healthy surely.

Where did The Lakes come from? Was there an element of it being something that was ‘fun’ to write?

I am proud of the first series of The Lakes. The trouble was the second series. We brought in a lot of very good writers, each with his or her own “voice” so the second series went all over the place. But the first I liked. And a lot of it was autobiographical. As was Hearts and Minds of course.

I know I’ve got this reputation for grittiness but, actually, the first two things I wrote, other than Brookside, were Felix Randal and Traitors. Felix Randal was based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a farrier in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century and Traitors was about Father Garnet’s involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Are there particular actors who you prefer to work with?

Because I write a lot about working class characters, I like to work with actors who are working class. It’s the hardest thing to pull off for an actor, I think: to act outside your socio-economic group. Interestingly, Irish actors can do it. It’s often very hard to spot an Irish actor’s background. But for the English it’s not so easy.

I used to fight like mad to get my programmes made in Liverpool. But I got tired of people accusing me of portraying Liverpool in a bad light. You know, the people of Manchester have never said to me, “Hey, you Scouser, how dare you portray our city as full of headcases and psychopaths!” That’s because they understand that film and TV production brings millions into the local economy.

What are you most proud of of your scripts?

No matter how well something has been done, it could always have been done better. I’m proud of Hillsborough of course because it helped people. I’d say the same thing about Dockers, Sunday and Priest. But Heart, a small movie, was a bit of a failure as was the second series of The Lakes. As for Mary Queen of Scots, I wrote it as a big-budget movie and, in hindsight, I should have fought to get it made as such. But failure is good for you, you know. Particularly if you’re Catholic.

A Game For Alex


Alex always looked like he was up to mischief. He wasn’t, not always anyway, but I always think of him sidling up to me with a conspiratorial grin; “Hey, Rob…”.

What followed was usually a discussion about how he should approach a girl he fancied, a cheeky request for a fag – especially after he’d quit – or a compliment. Alex was a very giving person. He was impeccably polite, fun, gregarious, intelligent and a bit daft. He was everyone’s greatest fan; he made friends with anyone – whether they liked it or not – and always made the effort with strangers. Men grasped his hand, laughed, shook their heads at his puppyish enthusiasm. Ladies swooned. Kids smiled. That openness and generosity of spirit is an incredibly winning trait in people and much undervalued.

I met Alex at Sefton Park Cricket Club. He’d just returned from a game at another ground where, upon spotting a fair on a nearby recreation ground, he had gone to get his hair dyed. Blue.

He progressed up through the teams to the third team, where I played (he later played for the second team and might have made it to the first) and it was always lovely to play with Alex. Because Alex just loved to play cricket – more than anyone else I’ve ever met. Passion, as we know, is a word much misused and its power diminishes with every empty use. But Alex was passionate about cricket. This meant that he never shut up: whether encouraging teammates (“Creeping in, boys!”), remonstrating with umpires or narking the opposition, his South African accent was omnipresent on a Saturday afternoon. “ALEX!”, I would shout, in an effort to head off another confrontation at the pass. “Sorry, skip,” would be the comeback, with a rueful grin.

But he always made it up with the oppo afterwards. He was irrepressible; impossible not to warm to. He was one of Sefton Park Cricket Club’s most popular members, within the club and without – a ‘loon’, in affectionate club parlance. Which is why, on the 23 June, people will gather from all over Merseyside – and various parts of the country – to play a cricket match in Alex’s memory.

Alex took his own life shortly before Christmas last year. He had struggled, we all knew, with depression and was very open about it. As well as being a great listener – you could actually see Alex listening to what you were saying, taking it in and digesting it – Alex was a great talker and it was always rewarding to listen to what he had to say: his eye-opening experiences of life in South Africa; his love for family; his difficulty with the dark days of Winter; his deep joy when playing cricket.

It’s this last element that helped me come to terms with Alex’s death. Amongst his difficulties he found an equanimity on the cricket pitch, surrounded by his mates and competitors. Sefton was a bright spot in his life and knowing that has given me some comfort. Though the immediate aftermath was terrible, our thoughts turned to how we could best pay tribute to Alex’s memory and ensure that something positive resulted from his passing.

In Spring a group of players ran the Liverpool Half Marathon in their cricket kits. A tremendous feat at the best of times – I can only wince in sympathy at the burn from running 13 miles in pads. Sefton now wears the logo of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on shirt fronts, like a Liverpool-based cricketing Barcelona. Alex’s father, Ray, has been producing a wonderful match programme throughout the season. And now we have our game; a game for Alex.

Alongside a Sefton XI, players from other cricket clubs – including Bootle CC, with whom Alex had a special affinity, New Brighton and Birkenhead Park – will show up to pay tribute to the gobby ‘keeper in the most fitting way possible.

Friends and competitors will celebrate Alex’s life and the game of cricket, but you don’t need to be a cricketer or a member of the club to partake. The bar will be open and a barbecue aflame – and the club has collected a fearsome array of raffle and auction prizes. We hope people will come down on the day to help us pay tribute to our team-mate, watch some quality cricket, eat a hotdog, quaff a beer (supplied by the Liverpool Organic Brewery) and buy a raffle ticket.

The game does have an aim – to raise as much money as we can for CALM. But it’s also an example of how Sefton Park and the greater Merseyside cricketing community has drawn together in empathy and affection. The mutual support is touching, gratifying and strengthens us all. The Winter has passed and it is Summer again at Sefton Park; a time for fond memories and tough cricket.

Sefton Park Cricket Club loved Alex and Alex loved Sefton Park Cricket Club. I have written, at some length, of the beauty of comradeship among people who play sport together. But Alex said it much more succinctly in a tweet he posted after a game last Summer. It exemplifies him – and it’s how I choose to remember him.

Voice is cracked, heart is sore.
Team spirit is a beautiful thing #forever