The man who raped Sheila Grant

`I'm not particularly fascist or racist or homophobic, you know - I try to lead a good life'
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WHEN Jimmy McGovern was teaching English in a Liverpool comprehensive in the early Eighties, the thing was to get a response. Any response. When you were doing a poem, for instance, there was no such thing as a right answer. If there were 30 kidsin the class, all reading the same poem, then there were 30 poems. What McGovern liked best was to stir up "massive, massive debates". These days he writes for television and the cinema. On Brookside he was responsible for the rape of Sheila Grant. In Needle he dealt with heroin in an inner city. In Cracker a black man rapes a white woman. The next few weeks will bring two new McGoverns. In the Channel 4 series Hearts and Minds, an idealistic new teacher at a Liverpool comprehensive burns out in a year. In the feature film Priest, a priest goes to a nightclub and picks up another guy. They go back to the other guy's place and have great sex. The same priest - a sincere, stricken figure - hears a father confess to abusing his daughter and because of the rules of the confessional he can say nothing.

There's going to be a massive, massive debate. Leader writers, talk-show hosts, taxi-drivers, victims of abuse, gay activists and Catholic bishops will all put their hand up and say something.

It was in 1983 that McGovern left classes of 30 for audiences of millions, and became one of the team of 12 writing Brookside. He himself wrote 80 episodes. After Brookside he wrote two one-off TV plays then hit the front-rank of British television writers with Cracker. He proved that he could turn explosive topics into fast-moving, popular drama. The realism was gutsy and witty and pulled in audiences of 10 million.

We meet at the West End offices of Electric Pictures, who are distributing Priest. He's soft-spoken and compact: a tense figure who perches on the edge of the sofa. He puffs on his ciggie and says that he uses the television as a kind of confessional. Itgives a new spin on why people call it the box. McGovern writes about sexism, racism and homophobia. But he writes about them in a way liberals find uncomfortable. He anatomises the "isms" and phobias in himself, then puts these thoughts on screen because he reckons they are your thoughts too.

"If I was 30 I wouldn't be writing this kind of stuff. I'd be too unsure of myself. When you're young you tend to think of yourself as unique and your perversions are your perversions alone. They're nobody else's, you're special, you know. And actually at some point you realise, well, no actually, we're all the same. There's nothing special about me whatsoever. And if I feel it, and I'm not particularly fascist or racist or homophobic, you know - I try to lead a good life - if I feel it, I'm bloody sureother people do."

HE WAS born in Liverpool in 1949, the fifth of nine children living in a two-up, two-down. Going without isn't something he needs to research - "I was used to poverty." Neither is Cathol-icism. He passed his 11-plus and went to the local Catholic grammarschool, St Francis Xavier's, SFX. "It was a hotbed of the faith, dominated by Jesuits." As a young man, McGovern read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "It was bang on. Bang on. I just love that novel. I so identified with it."

What was the school like? "Bloody awful."

He could quote "injustice after injustice" but limits himself to one. He and another boy were talking in class and they were sent to get their hands beaten. The other boy's father was an estate agent and Tory councillor. The school had recently moved to the suburbs, and needed all the money it could get. The Tory councillor's son did not have his hands beaten. McGovern did. It's a ripe anecdote for this writer, combining, as it does, education, politics, religion, violence and injustice.

To start with the young McGovern was very Catholic. "Up to about 13, totally pious, you know." He knew that there was no greater love than to lay down your life for another, so he kept looking for friends to fish out of the Mersey. Best of all would havebeen to die in the attempt and go straight to heaven. "Totally selfish." He prayed, went on retreats and examined his conscience. This left him with an eye for character motivation. A cynical eye. "I can analyse any motive - you know, no matter how altruistic - and I can find that trace of selfishness there."

The pious boy turned rebel and left school at 16. "Grammar-school boys at that time did not get their hands dirty." He worked in offices for 18 months, then got his hands dirty. He was a bus- conductor, a waiter, a hall porter, a chemical worker and a warehouseman at Marks & Spencer. They sacked him and he took them to court. It was a big union issue and he lost. Years later, unaware of the connection, M&S commissioned him to write a training video. He worked at British Leyland too. Like his time at St Francis Xavier's, the experience was bad, but the material was good.

"There's very few writers who know what it's like to do your first hour of a 10-hour night shift in a car factory. And then you understand why they walk. At the slightest provocation. You'd got 10 hours standing on a concrete floor, watching these bloodycars, you know. I understand that." But he had married young. "We had - bang, bang, bang - kid after kid. I was 23 years of age and I was the father of three children." The jobs never paid very well and he couldn't take the work seriously. "I would always cause trouble or agitate." He was writing, too: "short stories and bad poems".

He went back into education in his late twenties to get his teacher's certificate. It was a three-year course and he emerged an idealist, like the teacher in Hearts and Minds. "He's a guy who gets into education late. It changes his life, therefore it's going to change the lives of all the kids he teaches, whether they like it or not. He goes in with energy, enthusiasm and commitment and then encounters the staff-room politics, and the rules and regulations of the school, and kids who don't want to be taught." The character is an English teacher who gives, sometimes word for word, the lessons McGovern gave. "I saw lots of good teachers and some appalling ones. My line on education is really right-wing. Short-term contracts. Sack the lazy bastards."

It was while he was still teaching that he met Phil Redmond, who was setting up Brookside for Channel 4. Redmond hadn't read anything that McGovern had written, but as they talked, two qualities were clear. "One was an intense honesty. The other was a mischievous sense of humour," remembers Redmond. "They were the two things I was looking for for Brookie." McGovern also had the background. "He'd been a teacher, been unemployed, worked in the Lakes. I was looking for a writer with a wide experience in the world. Not a literary recluse."

McGovern worked on Brookside for seven years. He began with episode 14 when the houses in the close were still being built. There were 12 writers and each month only four would get the commission. "You could always tell a Brookside writer because every fourth Friday they wouldn't go out. They'd sit by the phone, willing it to ring, and then it would ring and it would be some other writer saying `Have you heard yet?' `No, get off the line, they might be ringing!' " The way to get the phone call, they alldiscovered, was to quote personal experience or make a big principled speech. He had rows, particularly with the women whom he would attack as "bloody bourgeois feminists who'd never seen a day's hardship in their life". They would attack him back. Whatdid they call him? "Oh male, or something."

The writers thought they were setting an alternative agenda for Thatcher's Britain. The alternative agenda could run into some mainstream problems. There were nurses living in one of the houses in Brookside and the writers wanted to use them to do a story attacking private health care. That was until "Phil realised that one of the main advertisers in the slot was Bupa".

McGovern was best on Sheila Grant, played by Sue Johnston. "We wanted to keep Sue Johnston. She was getting itchy feet. So I came in with four ideas and the big one was rape." Luckily for him it was an idea that appealed to the feminists around the table. So the rape was on, but the focus soon shifted.

"EastEnders had this timebomb. Who's the father of Michelle's baby? That was my big thesis. We need a timebomb. We need a timebomb. That's the body under the patio now. I was always going on about that. Timebomb. Timebomb. EastEnders had this beautiful timebomb. So it became `Who Raped Sheila Grant?' not `The Rape of Sheila Grant'." There were four candidates for the rapist, but it turned out to be a taxi-driver whom no one had ever seen. McGovern thought that "a big let-down".

Redmond says McGovern didn't write well just for the Grants. "He used to write very well for the Collinses, once he got over them being middle-class. We said, just pretend it's the Grants and we'll Wirralese it for you." But McGovern wrote for the Grantswhenever he could. "I'd have me storyline and there'd be major characters in that episode, and I'd just change them round so I had the Grants. You actually wrote for people who could act rather than people who couldn't." Peter Ansorge, commis- sioning editor at C4, says: "He was doing the very best Brookside scripts. We all knew, everyone knew that Jimmy had talent."

McGovern kept pushing other storylines. He wanted a Catholic priest (one was introduced after he left - "which pisses me off"). He wanted Tracy Corkhill to be doing something very mysterious for a year, which would turn out to be the organising of a massburning of the Sun newspaper on the anniversary of the Hillsborough football disaster. Another writer said that the storyline was a blow against free speech and equated it with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It made for a lively script conference. "Well, there was blood on the wall, you know." His anger at the Sun didn't go away: the second series of Cracker (1994) featured a serial killer, still seething about the Sun's behaviour, who went after journalists who had links with the paper.

McGovern also had a big speech about the sinking of the Belgrano which he kept putting in the mouth of any character that he could. Here is a quick precis of his Belgrano speech: the Falklands war was there to entertain the Great British public who wouldvote Tory in gratitude at the next election, thus allowing Mrs Thatcher to close down British industry, so young men would have to leave the North West in search of work, which would drain the cities of young blood. The speech was eventually given by Bobby Grant, the Brookside trade unionist.

When Phil Redmond looks at what McGovern is doing now he says, "I see some of the things that Jimmy wanted to do and I wouldn't let him." The odd thing is that when McGovern left Brookside his plays didn't become more overtly political. There was a tricky couple of years, says Ansorge, when he was taking his time to find his voice. Was he the second Alan Bleasdale, the third Willy Russell? Leaving a soap means suddenly having to come up with characters of your own.

McGovern was a lapsed Catholic who became an ardent socialist, but in "post-ideology Britain" (he uses the phrase several times) he had a second loss of faith. This new disillusionment strengthened him as a writer. The cynicism, the moral ambivalence, the sheer complexity of issues, fed into Cracker and gave us one of television's most memorable characters, the criminal psychologist Fitz. "Everybody wanted to do a series on a criminal psychologist because Silence of the Lambs had been a huge hit." If the general idea was everyone's (Lynda La Plante, for instance, thinks it was hers), then "Fitz is mine".

The first draft was enough to attract Robbie Coltrane. "My daughters said it was a brilliant choice, because what I'd written was an out-and-out bastard. Robbie comes in with this massive legacy of affection. In the second drafts he could become darker, and a bit wittier." Fitz doesn't just recreate the thought-processes of the criminal, he relishes them, homing in on the common ground between the mind of the murderer and that of the ordinary citizen. Cracker is a police series where the dramatic fulcrum is not the murder, or the arrest, or the evidence, or the trial, or the verdict. It's the confession.

IN THE beginning is the word and the word is the title. Priest, Needle, Traitors, Hearts and Minds. There is no sly allusiveness here. The themes are big and obvious and have been in Mc-Govern's system a long time. After failing to get the Catholic priest into Brookside, he had an idea for a 10-part series about the Ten Commandments. There would be one hour on each commandment - the same idea Krzyzstof Kieslowski had in Dekalog, which may be the only thing they have in common. The hour about honouring your father and mother was going to be a story about child abuse. "But I wasn't trusted by anybody. I was nothing but a soap-opera writer."

When he was researching this story a priest told him the story of Father Garnett and the Gunpowder plot and McGovern wrote a stark, intense BBC studio play called Traitors (1991). Then he went back to his fictional priest: in the next draft he was havingan affair. In the one after, an affair with a man. George Faber, Head of Single Drama at the BBC, which funded the film, "has a whole shelf of scripts" for it.

When Cracker came out, in September 1993, McGovern found himself in both the ITV Top 10 and in the hearts of the critics. Everyone wanted something by McGovern ("it helps to be hot"). McGovern took two longstanding storylines off the shelf - the one about the homosexual priest and the one about the confession of child abuse - and put them together into a Screen 2 feature film called Priest.

Hearts and Minds is another long-distance idea. McGovern has discussed this with Channel 4 since he was working on Brook-side. The script has gone through about as many rethinks as our education system. In fact, it's hard a job keeping up. When Hearts and Minds was first suggested, one of the main storylines - that the school opts out - didn't exist.

I imagine the first draft of a Jimmy McGovern script as a dark, sulphurous monologue that comes off the page like a head-butt. Later drafts fill out the storyline and other characters. Ansorge says that Hearts and Minds went through "a hell of a lot of drafts before Jimmy felt that he was getting the balance right. The early drafts implied that things were black and white and right and wrong. But as the central character became more complex the issues became more involving."

Frequently the meaning is not in what is said but in how it is said. He directs me to a scene in Needle. "They've all been on heroin. They're all off the cake. And there's like eight speeches, all at the same time. George Faber lost his bottle and he cutthe scene down. I wanted it all. I wanted it to go on for 10 minutes. It's just people talking. I'm sure you'll enjoy it."

There's a scene in the first Cracker where the suspect is arrested coming out of hospital. "They're just talking - bam! bam! bam! bam! bam! - and you don't really hear it, but you're with this guy who's been arrested and he's getting this in this ear andthis in that ear, and the sound you're hearing is aggressive questioning, they're softening him up. That's all you need to know. What's actually said is incidental." He likes the extra layer of noise - helicopter blades, walkie-talkies, trains, nightclub singers. It builds up the rhythm, as he cross-cuts between multiple storylines (something he learnt on Brookside) without losing the urgent pulse.

When we meet he'd just been writing a scene with someone up a tree. "You know the way they come to chop off the overhanging branches, I wanted him up on top of a tree screaming down at a guy who's screaming questions up to him. But in reality I thought they don't do that kind of work in June. They wait till autumn. So I didn't do it." Instead he made him a dustman (to get the noise of the bins) and the business has been privatised so he can't stop, he's in a hurry. They're nice touches, these, but "often expensive touches as well". Compare that to a soap. This interview, he says, is a soap-opera scene. "Camera there. Shoot it quick."

He's strong on texture: the zip of the body bag, cutting up the corpse down at the morgue, the turd on the classroom floor. When there's a dead body in Cracker, it's not glib. There's a gloomy aftermath. Relatives need to be told, and someone - usually, because she's the woman, Detective Sergeant Penhali-gon (Geraldine Somerville) - is going to be shown telling them.

McGovern is matter-of-fact about his work. Plays are "things". Writing is "stuff". A key choice - such as making Fitz a criminal psychologist - is "part of my brief". Tell him that Priest seems to go beyond the traditional three-act structure and he'll tell you "that's because the original structure was a four-part drama."

He starts work next month on a new film script for Working Title, who made Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's about a heart transplant. Why waste time going for an audience's throat when you can go for its heart. The working title - yes, you've guessed it- is Heart. "I was thinking, well, this isn't Catholic. Well, actually, it is. At the heart of the film is a Catholic woman who's grieving. It's the heart of her lover. Or her son. I haven't decided yet." Would he be writing, then, if he wasn't a Catholic? "I probably wouldn't be a writer. I don't know. Debatable that." Could he write a script without a Catholic theme? He considers the other options for a moment, then laughs. "It's so rich in story, though, isn't it? That's the problem."

! `Hearts and Minds': C4 from 16 Feb. `Priest' opens on 17 March.