This is the first book-length study of one of the most significant of all British television writers, Jimmy McGovern. The book provides comprehensive coverage of all his work for television including early writing on Brookside, major documentary dramas such as Hillsborough and Sunday and more recent series such as The Street and Accused. Whilst the book is firmly focused on McGovern’s own work, the range of his output over the period in which he has been working also provides something of an overview of the radical changes in television drama commissioning that have taken place during this time. Without compromising his deeply-held convictions McGovern has managed to adapt to an ever changing environment, often using his position as a sought-after writer to defy industry trends. The book also challenges the notion of McGovern as an uncomplicated social realist in stylistic terms. Looking particularly at his later work, a case is made for McGovern employing a greater range of narrative approaches, albeit subtly and within boundaries that allow him to continue to write for large popular audiences. Finally it is worth pointing to the book’s examination of McGovern’s role in recent years as a mentor to new voices, frequently acting as a creative producer on series that he part-writes and part brings through different less-experienced names.
The contrasting fortunes of Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh television drama in the 1990s
This chapter looks at popular television drama from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the 1990s. It suggests that the BBC's faith in the need for a broader, more flexible idea of Britishness does not yet extend to its commissioning of programmes that they hope will have genuinely broad appeal. Ballykissangel was made for BBC Northern Ireland by Tony Garnett's Island World Productions. In terms of commissioning and popularity, BBC Scotland's biggest success by far in the 1990s was Hamish Macbeth. Tiger Bay was probably BBC Wales's biggest play for a genuinely mass appeal popular drama in the 1990s, though it was by no means the only one. Unlike either Wales or Northern Ireland, BBC Scotland's drama department entered the 1990s in a position of some strength. The BBC remains, in a sense, a major instrument of what some would see as enduring colonial power.
This chapter deals primarily with the earlier part of McGovern’s career both within established genre such as soap opera and the crime series and then into his first authored series with a strong autobiographical basis, Hearts and Minds and The Lakes. The chapter is key in charting McGovern’s early negotiation with the institutional constraints of television from his introduction of radical trade unionism into the soap opera form to the comparatively populist narrative of The Lakes, albeit a populism that still has a hero reading Gerard Manley Hopkins and scenes of a sexual nature explicit enough to incur wrath from predictable sources. Whilst the book as a whole is organised around television forms rather than chronologically, this first chapter does provide a comprehensive overview of McGovern’s early development and the thematic and stylistic pre-occupations that recur throughout the rest of his career.
This chapter deals with McGovern’s later work on television drama series. It focuses on two works for the prime time BBC One audience, The Street and Accused and one for daytime, Moving On. This phase of McGovern’s work is seen as being characterised by a confidence to experiment both in stylistic terms and, particularly, with writing processes. All three series here see McGovern working, to different degrees, with other writers and reflects a television environment which would see such an approach become increasingly common but within which McGovern can fairly be seen as a pioneer. The term ‘hybrid’ is here used to indicate that all three series occupy territory somewhere between television series and serials and the supposedly extinct single play. To different extents all the works use individual ‘episodes’ that are, to varying extents, linked thematically or by common characters and locations. In this way, to use his own formulation, McGovern has been one of a very small number of writers to be able to effectively reintroduce the single play to British television under the guise of a series and this chapter examines the significance of such a trajectory.
Hillsborough, Sunday, Dockers, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
This chapter examines McGovern’s extremely varied work on both documentary and historical drama for television. His range is best illustrated by the inclusion in such a category of his influential work on the Hillsborough stadium tragedy alongside work focusing on turbulent period of British history around the Gunpowder Plot. A key element in all of the documentary drama works that is examined is McGovern’s emphasis on the relationship that he has with the subjects of the work. From the families who lost people at Hillsborough and on Bloody Sunday to those who’s working lives were ended by the Liverpool Docks dispute McGovern’s work is founded upon an intimate consensual relationship and, in the latter case, a collaborative approach to writing. The decision to include Gunpowder,Treason and Plot in this chapter is not a straightforward one, but provides an important opportunity to examine the ideas and problems behind working with ‘factual’ material and such a radically different kind of source reveals important contrasts that open up questions about the drama documentary form itself.
This chapter deals with the small number of single plays for television written by McGovern: Traitors, Needle, Gas and Candles and Go Now. Although space did not permit full discussion of McGovern’s work for feature film brief mention is also made of his work in that area including Priest. Whilst in themselves the works discussed here are of only minor significance in the whole range of McGovern’s output, their inclusion also enables examination of what is often seen as the dying days of the single drama on British television. That McGovern was able to at least cut his teeth in a form that once was the lifeblood of young writers breaking into television is something that is used as a means to examine the evolution of British television drama commissioning itself. The chapter also includes a brief conclusion to the work which, above all, argues for the real significance of McGovern to the recent history of British television drama and also reflects on the quite remarkable range of his output, both thematically and formally.