Broken is the beautiful, heart wrenching new 6-part drama series from award-winning English screenwriter and producer Jimmy McGovern, the champion of working class heroes. We are in familiar territory here – kitchen sink dramas and the seemingly small but overpowering tragedies of everyday life.
The big draw for drama fans is Sean Bean in the central role as Catholic priest Father Michael Kerrigan, a kind man, driven by his vocation to work hard for his community. Immediately we see that he’s haunted by an abusive past, rare in tv land where we frequently see priests as abusers, not victims. Bean played cross-dressing teacher Simon Gaskell in McGovern’s excellent drama, Accused an astounding role that he rightly won an International Emmy for. McGovern said in a Radio Times interview that he never considered anyone else for the lead role in Broken: “I always go back to Sean – I just think he’s world class,” he said. “People know he’s good, but I know he’s great.” Typically, Bean is stoic in the face of tragedy. He’s funny too – a bleak, black humour runs through this episode. On screen he is low-key with no histrionics. Appropriately, he doesn’t lose his head.
His counterpoint is the frantic wild-eyed Anna Friel as Christina Fitzsimmons. Right from the off she is literally fighting, absolutely desperate, filled with righteous rage against the system and entirely empathetic. She loses her job in a high-street betting shop and brawls with the bitchy manager on the floor as the fruit machine addict plays on. This is the Broken Britain politicians and the tabloids warn us about.
We are drawn into the stories via clever camera angles through shop windows on an ordinary scruffy high street. This town could be almost anywhere outside of the M25. For a bleak series it’s extremely beautiful, making great use of intense saturated colours – especially a sickly shade of green that reminds me of hospital wards and school corridors. The speed and rhythm of the opening episode is like a song, and the way the characters speak is lyrical. Father Michael’s grand church stands out as a location, the only large space in claustrophobic streets of terraced houses, all small front rooms and tiny hallways. The people who live there constantly rub up against each other. There’s no room for secrets.
And yet despite the claustrophobia there is secret pain.
Father Michael is dealing with caring for his dying mother in a big family with siblings perhaps not all pulling their weight. We see in flashbacks that he was abused at school and at home. His mother didn’t protect him. But regardless, he steps up and looks after his mum all the same. Christina is a hardworking, proud woman with three kids to support. We see her helping them with maths homework and her shame that they have no money for school lunches. Despite her hopeless reality she is aiming high for them – “nothing is too good for you” she tells her daughter, and in that moment she means it. She is loving, but we see her rage at the system. She’s the main breadwinner, out of work with dependants but claiming benefits is unremittingly hard work. There’s no flexibility and no support unless she meets certain strict criteria. Unsurprisingly the tone is very political. Everyone is struggling with austerity, everyone is dishing out life lessons for the viewer. These are the people behind the splashy tabloid headlines about benefit scum.
Christina’s pride is her undoing. She refuses food bank vouchers and when her Mum suddenly dies she thinks she can cope by claiming her pension and keeping the death a secret. She balks at selling Mum’s rings, even though she sold her own. Unfortunately this kind of fraud seems common and, when he’s finally called to give the last rites, Father Michael warns Christina, but it’s all too late. Out of sheer desperation she’s already crossed the line.
Jean is the betting shop manager who kept sneering at Christina’s three children and got a punch for it. We later learn she’s suffering because she can’t have children. The situation escalated so quickly partly out of her own jealousy. Suddenly her motivations are revealed and we empathise with her. Father Michael is at the heart of things, as confessor, a linchpin for the community even if they don’t realise it. I guess through him the viewer will meet all of these seemingly small characters and learn their stories. It seems a very natural way to bring life to this community.
Broken is filmed in Liverpool but set up so that it could be almost anywhere. Mr H (who is from oop north) was irritated to see his homeland as shorthand for poverty, desperation and general grimness yet again. He’s quite right that you wouldn’t get this sort of drama set in Hertford, Hereford, or Hampshire. Is this grumble a real concern? Should we have moved on from Ken Loach and Cathy Come Home? It’s been 50 years since that film was broadcast, so yes, of course. But money-grubbing austerity, cutting back of essential public services and our Tory overlords (still clinging on at time of writing) mean as a country we’re stuck in the past. Whole sections of society are stuck, and living standards are getting worse not better. These stories have not been consigned to the past so we need to see the awful truth on tv, and if it feels authentic for it to be set in the north, then that’s where it should be. In the words of Sean Bean himself “It’s important, because it’s happening. It’s happening everywhere.”
Broken is on BBC1 on Tuesdays at 9pm. The full series so far is on iPlayer now.