BBC1 series Broken, by Jimmy McGovern

brokenBBC1 series Broken, by Jimmy McGovern
Paul Rowan

A review of the recent drama by Jimmy McGovern, Broken, shown on BBC earlier this year. (Available on DVD, Amazon £19.50). Paul Rowan is Assistant Head (Director Catholic Life and Formation), Beaulieu Convent School, Jersey, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

Jimmy McGovern's dark, heartrending, inspiring, and compelling BBC1 series Broken is set in a forgotten, deprived and indeed broken urban community, somewhere in the north-west of England. For those with a sharp eye, Fr. Michael Kerrigan, grippingly played by Sean Bean, is the parish priest of Saint Vincent de Paul's parish in Liverpool 1, and much of the filming takes place in the Kirkdale area of the city. One assumes that McGovern's intention is to portray a fairly general 'northern' working class group of people/parishioners, rather than go for the oft-used but politically loaded theme of 'Scousers' (I say this as one who loves Scousers, Liverpool, the Archdiocese and their red football team).


On a number of occasions Michael is seen travelling home across the Pennines on his day off to visit his rapidly deteriorating Irish mother. Some of the scenes set in Sheffield, where he sleeps on a blow-up bed next to Mam, are deeply moving, and the exchanges with his siblings (especially with his long-lapsed brothers in the pub, bowling alley and at their mother's wake) are hilarious and a reminder that priests do not drop down out of Heaven in a ready-made 'fit for sacramental use' box with a nice bow on top. They emerge, rather, from a very specific set of cultural circumstances which mark them for better and for worse, depending on how those origins are viewed. I recall with both gratitude and sadness the different reactions seminarians and priests from humbler social backgrounds could have to their cultural roots. Some were proud of their humble beginnings (without succumbing to the temptation of inverted snobbery) and drank deeply from that well of wisdom, using it as a springboard to grow into deeper wisdom. Others were ashamed and did all they could to put distance between themselves and their backgrounds, doing their utmost to hide or excuse their parents', relatives' or friends' accents or cultural habits. But, as Michael Kerrigan also eventually works out as the series unfolds, the good news of Catholicism is that people need not be slaves to anything, least of all the hand they were dealt by life. Christ can work with any material to bring us home safe.

Through six episodes of Broken we are introduced to several convincing characters, all of whom are truggling with life in austerity-affected Britain. There's Christina (Anna Friel), desperately trying to keep her mother's death a bedroom secret for a few more days so that she can claim her pension to help feed the kids. We meet Vernon, the troubled black son of Helen, shot dead by a police officer in a tragic event which leads to a carefully-orchestrated institutional cover-up predicated on half-truths and blatant lies (a theme we have come across before in the prophetic McGovern, and one which will probably provide him with many a project for years to come). Roz (Paula Malcomson) is in her forties and tells Fr. Michael that she intends to commit suicide after stealing more than £230,000 from her employer over a couple of years in order to feed her gambling-machine addiction, and because her actions are about to come to light. Moral dilemmas and small, desperate, life-changing acts that become habits are not just a factor of life for the working classes.

In Episode 5 we meet the amusing ('It's not every day you're skinning up in a phone box with a Catholic priest!') and damaged (after a lifetime of bullying) character of Karl, a 50-year old homosexual who has long since walked away from the Church because of the way he perceives its perception of him. Karl (played by Ned Dennehy and, next to Kerrigan, perhaps the most believable character of all) finds this ecclesial perspective embodied in Helen's pious Catholic brother, Daniel. Daniel clashes violently with Karl and Karl accuses his assailant of a hate crime. After a long standoff, Karl's magnanimity eventually leads to a dropping of the charges and the avoidance of further heartbreak for Helen. Fr. Michael is deeply moved and commends Karl for having 'more Christianity in your little finger than in [Daniel's] whole body.' Karl rejects Kerrigan's acclaim, angrily challenging him, 'Why don't you go and tell that to your bishop? Go and tell that to your Pope! Shout it from the roof tops! There's no point in coming round here to whisper it to me, yer bloody hypocrite!' To those who know the Catholic Church from the inside, Karl's reaction seems at one and the same time both unjust, yet justified! On the one hand there are many good priests and bishops who would sympathise with Karl because they have a pastoral heart, and some who can go further and empathise because they are themselves gay. A clergy lacking in understanding and compassion for homosexuals might reinforce media stereotypes, but it could seem a tired old clichŽ to many of those who are engaged in the pastoral outreach of the Church. Then again, the fact that many Church leaders, ordained or lay, are homosexual but too nervous to engage in a serious, open and frank discussion about the complexity of sexuality with one another, let alone others outside their circles, weakens the Church's pastoral credibility. It also belies their claim to follow the one who said that those who seek to save their life will lose it, and those who look to lose their life for his sake will find it.

Kerrigan has a hinterland, he has a story, and one that contains pain and shadow, some of it caused by others (the abuse suffered at the hands of a priest at school, the coruscating criticism from his mother) and some of it self-inflicted and the result of his own reactions and sin (his sexual treatment of women as a younger man). When combined with what he thinks are errors of judgment in his day-to-day ministry (at the end of one particularly taxing day, feeling physically and emotionally drained, he decides to let a phone call go to voicemail; the call is from Helen, asking for help with Vernon moments before his death), the darkness threatens to become too much and Michael, believing he failed to respond adequately when life questioned him, thinks he is not up to being a priest.

Ultimately however, there is no antiseptic, squeaky-clean route through life for anyone, and the wounds we collect on the journey can either heal us or poison us, depending on whether or not we open them up to Christ's grace. We can work with the Christ who daily creates us and loves us so that he can make our whole story redemptive, or we can deny, ignore and repress certain parts of the story for all sorts of reasons (career is a popular one - the police officers involved in the Vernon shooting reveal how, for many people, knowledge is power and too much knowledge can lead to the compromising of a career). Whichever option we go for the truth always comes out in the end, one way or another. But St Paul reminded the Galatians that no one mocks God - no one cheats reality in the end. Fr. Michael Kerrigan senses this and, as his heart is broken regularly by events in his life and the lives of others, that heart grows stronger. It becomes more what it is meant to be, more like that of Christ, whose heart was broken open on the cross for the life of the world, and who feeds the broken in every Mass celebrated by Kerrigan. That's why one still finds joy and laughter in Kerrigan's life. (There is always humour to be found among the people in parishes like Michael's, perhaps Jimmy McGovern could throw us a few more laughs next time around!) It is why he constantly and explicitly mentions Christ in his pastoral care of others, and is never just a social worker (wonderful though that work is). It is also probably why Michael remains a priest in the end.

Flannery O'Connor once said, 'Our sense of what is contained in our faith is deepened less by abstractions than by encounter with mystery in what is human and often perverse.' In a higher world it will be different, but in this world God often has to teach people many of life's important lessons through their brokenness. An ancient midrash says, 'Broken vessels are scorned by men but used by God.' The supreme example is, of course, the crucified Christ. The fearless Paul said that Christ crucified is the mocking of Caesar and all those who use the power of this world to threaten truth, justice and love through the abuse of power - through lies, cover-ups and brute bullying. McGovern had already given us Hillsborough in 1996, prophetically showing us what Paul was talking about: that the crucified Christ is also the risen Christ and so truth always wins in the end, no matter what Caesar does to destroy it.

So, while Broken is great entertainment, it is also a lens through which we should look at the Church and at ourselves. I was chatting recently with a priest who served in a parish much tougher than Kerrigan's for many years and we wondered why it often seems that those who govern in God's Church so often seem terrified of proclaiming the full power of the gospel, relying instead on the world's way of deals, half-truths, occasional lies and compromise. 'It's almost as if they don't really trust the gospel,' we said. 'Do you think they really believe it?' I asked. Does the Church really trust Christ? Or does it trot out the usual cliché about the Church having to operate in the world, while not being of the world? Yeah, yeah, we know that's as true of the Church as of the Lord, because he said so the night before he died. We are not disputing its truth. We know that 'being in the world but not of it' is the root of a religion that follows on from the Incarnation, the root of a visible Church, the sacraments, consecrated church buildings for worship, the building of presbyteries, schools, parish social clubs, collections on the plate to pay bills, being politically canny, etc. etc. But that line just doesn't cut it when it is used to justify sin in the name of some higher good of the Church. As if that horse has not well and truly bolted in recent decades! As if continuing to do that in myriad ways will not come back and bite the Church in the distant or not so distant future, in the same way the abuse scandal did. The Lord told us to be only as wise as serpents. He did not send us out as wolves amongst wolves. Fr. Michael Kerrigan is as in touch with reality as anyone, but the fact that he remembers Christ's injunctions is always seen in his life.

There will indeed always exist - sadly in the Church no less than the world - the temptation for those higher up to use those lower down as stepping stones in the featherbedding of their own agenda. No matter. They are not God, so we must challenge them. However, as necessary as challenge is, it is not sufficient. They will answer at some point - if not to someone else later on in their career, certainly to God. So we must get on with living our own life, for that is the one for which we must give an account to God. How to live that life? Broken places before us Michael Kerrigan's eucharistic way of living - he is broken in order to nourish the lives of others, to be food for the life of the world, like his Master - thereby giving us a salutary reminder of possibly the most important of John of the Cross' Dichos: 'In the evening of our life, we will be examined [not on how politically astute we are, nor on how high we climbed, nor on how rich or clever we are, nor on how many books we wrote, but] on love.' In the evening of our life we will have to consider: Did we use all that Christ gave us in this world, for as long as we were in this world, to love those entrusted to us in life? Or were we too busy plotting our own projects? How broken were we?