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.

International Rescue: Liverpool’s Third Sector

A feature on the extraordinary Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, written for The City Tribune (Issuu below).

Time and again, Liverpool’s mercantile background informs its present. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) is no different. Were it not for Victorian merchants heading back from the tropics with all manner of exotic diseases, the issue would never have come up, but when the city’s businessmen went to the government with an idea for an institute to deal with these new threats, London wasn’t interested.

Undeterred they returned to Liverpool and invested their own cash; in 1898 the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was born. Impressed by the idea, the government opened a second, in London, a year later.

106 years later the School has 400 students hailing from 70 countries around the world — and its origins are obvious in the ease with which is negotiates public and private sectors.

Professor Janet Hemingway CBE

“Because of the origins of the LSTM we’ve always been business friendly and influenced by business — looking at real-life issues and problems,” says Professor Janet Hemingway CBE. “That tradition hasn’t really changed since we first started. We’re not blue-sky; we’re very hands on”

Professor Hemingway, the current Director of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Insect Molecular Biology, to give her full title, initially trained as a geneticist in Sheffield and ended up in Liverpool via London, south-east Asia, the States and Cardiff.

She describes herself as being steeped in tropical medicine for almost 40 years and is polite, assured and unmistakably British — a dash of no-nonsense and stiff-upper-lip pragmatism.

While the School’s activities are many and varied — spread across a number of sectors and carving out a pivotal role between government, business and third sector —the people of Liverpool may recognise just one of its most public-facing services. “We run a travel medicine clinic,” says Professor Henderson. “We also deal with specialist referrals that GPs can’t deal with — if you do get sick while abroad there’s a good chance you’ll be referred here.” Although the people of Merseyside may only know the School as the place they get their pre-holiday jabs, the LSTM has a much higher profile abroad. “We say that we’re one of Liverpool’s best kept secrets, but if you go into the tropics we’re very well known,” laughs Professor Hemingway.

Price Waterhouse Coopers asked people overseas what they knew about
Liverpool. We were third after football and The Beatles.

The School’s awkward positioning — partially academic, part-business and part public sector — makes it in some respects a de facto NGO; without it, Hemingway believes, much governmental and aid work simply could not happen.

“Without us that process would not begin. We help with catalysing that process and we’ve got the ability to test these products within at-risk populations. We’re about improving health in the tropics and you work out what you need to do, how to do it and where you need to do it. “Once they have them, big pharmaceutical companies will give out millions of drugs for free, but there’s no normal distribution system for getting them out so we have to work with various ministries of health to distribute these drugs. At last count we work with 36 different countries; we have a brand name overseas that most organisations would be delighted with.”

With AstraZeneca, the School was responsible for co-developing one of the first anti-malarial drugs — an example of the role the School plays in bringing real-world products to market. But the School doesn’t work exclusively with one industrial partner.

Student at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

“The consortia we work with might be quite large and involve companies, government agencies and NGOs. We work with many different companies because we have the proper firewalls in place; people trust us with their IP and activities. “We’re in that space between research and generating products — medical devices, diagnostics, drugs, agrochemicals, IT systems, policy and practice — and have always worked in industry.”

Professor Hemingway recognises the unique role the School plays is drug formulation, strategy and logistics — yet it does remain fundamentally a place of learning. “Most of our clinical staff are practitioners but that’s because we need to be at the top of our fields and work with patients — you can’t maintain your clinical practice without doing that; they’re all practising clinicians but will need to balance those activities.

“We’ve got clinicians who want qualifications in tropical medicine — a standard clinical degree in the UK won’t equip you for dealing with tropical diseases. We run a three-month specialist course that brings clinicians up to speed in tropical medicine and have about 280 clinicians who will do that course each year.

“We’re also dealing with parasites and insects that transmit the diseases we’re concerned with and have specialist courses for biologists who want to be on the parasitology or entomology side; public health people who are interested in distribution; nurses coming here who want to work in tropical environments; midwives who will work in resource-poor settings, where you will not be attended by a doctor if you’re having a baby, to reduce the phenomenal maternal and child mortality that still happens in many countries.

“We also run a number of programmes in humanitarian assistance; we train people to go into situations of developing-world conflict and natural disaster because if you don’t know how to deal with the politics and logistics of those situations you’re a hindrance, not a help.”

Professor Hemingway sees the LSTM as a model for how academia and industry can better work together. “I don’t think there’s a great model out there for academia working with industry — we’re different because we were set up wanting to do something in terms of improving health. We’ve always been in that translational space; the drivers coming from government now are pushing academia into that space that we inhabit. It means that we’re a lot more used to talking that industrial language.

“There’s been a push for a very long time for academia and business to work together but it’s been very slow because the drivers for success are poles apart. “Because science in universities tends to be driven by people being inquisitive about how things work, academics in industry are seen as unfocussed; going off at tangents because they happen to be interesting, rather than the most direct route from A to B. You have to get those two cultures understanding each other’s language and drivers.”

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

The School has recently normalised its relationship with the government to receive its funding and reward degrees directly, rather than through the University of Liverpool — a natural development of the School’s original independence.

Hemingway believes the move will improve the School’s profile nationally and internationally and allow for continued growth and expansion. It comes at a time when the LSTM is expanding into a new building and pushing into new areas after winning millions of pounds in grants to expand its life-saving work — including £650m from the foundation set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“The Gates Foundation realised that industry, off its own bat, wasn’t going to develop these products and if they left organisations like us to develop ties with industry, although it would happen, it would happen way too slowly. So they started giving fairly substantial awards to consortia to develop these new products.

“Because we were already working in that space we were able to react quickly in terms of developing new drugs to combat malaria, tuberculosis, filariasis and worm diseases and new public sector insecticides. We follow the industrial process and take these products through to market — some even came out last year as a result of those partnerships.”

Among other projects, the brand new Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health, due to open in October 2014, is doing pioneering work in tackling the appalling number of deaths that result from childbirth every year. It’s an example of what Hemingway describes as the desire among the School’s staff — from clinicians to cleaners — to do something beneficial.

“We’re there to respond to need, so when you look at the big questions it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a big problem around maternal and child health, with unacceptably high levels of child mortality.

“It’s a case of looking at what skills we can bring — and can we get out there and test it so it’s not simply theoretical. We were getting some very good results coming through from the countries we worked in — now we’re getting more requests than we can actually handle. We wanted to build on the success that we already.”

Hemingway is enthused by the opportunities ahead, with a brand new Royal Liverpool Hospital and bio-campus arriving a matter of yards away — in the heart of Liverpool’s so-called Knowledge Quarter — by 2017.

“Within the Knowledge Quarter you will have co-located the LSTM, the University of Liverpool and the new Royal Liverpool Hospital with a bio-campus sitting in the middle. There’ll be a clinical trials unit that has access to patients, the research base and hi-tech equipment. That’s a potent mix and Liverpool needs to attract the right companies to that area. “We’ve got the biggest concentration of infectious disease research going on here — we need to grow that in an academic and industrial sense. We want to work with SMEs in the area and the larger companies — most obviously companies that are sending large numbers of people overseas and look at their healthcare needs. There’s a feedback loop there.”

The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine may be a vital cog in the wheels of international health, research, drug development and policy, but it’s heartening to know that it is still looking after the health of locals who are following in the footsteps of those merchants of Victorian Liverpool.