Jimmy McGovern: Street life

Jimmy McGovern's new TV drama follows the fortunes of six neighbours in the North-west. He tells James Rampton how the series was inspired by the stories he hears in the pub
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The Independent Online

The writer Jimmy McGovern has launched his new drama series, The Street, in characteristically outspoken, headline-grabbing fashion. "If I see a drama on at nine o'clock on ITV, I'd never tune in to it because I know it's going to be crap," he fulminated. "I've tuned in to so much shite over the years. You could say that about nine o'clock on BBC1, too." Presumably the writer was excluding his own drama from that sweeping judgement, given that it starts on Thursday on BBC1 at, er, nine o'clock.

Alongside Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies and Andrew Davies, McGovern is one of the few writers working in British TV with what is known in the industry as "green-light status" - his name attached to a project is enough to get it commissioned. He has penned some of the most absorbing TV dramas of the past two decades - Cracker, Brookside, The Lakes, Dockers and Gunpowder, Treason and Plot - and the mere mention of McGovern's name is sufficient to have lured a cast of A-listers to inhabit The Street, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks and Sue Johnston among them.

The new series does not disappoint. With the tagline "Behind every door in every street, there's a story waiting to be told", it comprises six compelling stand-alone dramas, each set within a different household on the same terraced street in an unnamed North-western town.

The first episode focuses on Angela Quinn (played by Horrocks), a mother of three who is experiencing a 15-year itch in her marriage to Arthur (Daniel Ryan), a builder. She spices up her life by embarking on an affair with her smooth-talking neighbour, Peter Harper (Shaun Dooley), a travelling salesman. But a tragic accident transforms Angela's life and brings her into bitter conflict with Peter.

As the drama unfolds, characters we have yet to meet can be glimpsed in the background. Is that Spall in a woolly hat painting his windowsill on the other side of the street? And can that really be Broadbent walking down the garden path in a brown anorak? Sita Williams, the show's executive producer, thinks that this is good way of setting up the series. "The accident brings a lot of characters out on to the street. There is something delicious about briefly seeing Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. It's not so much of a tease or a way of showing off as a means of introducing viewers to the characters and placing them within The Street."

It also shows how people are - sometimes unwittingly - connected. "If you throw a stone at someone, it not only puts the person who's been hit off balance; it also affects their family and friends," Williams continues. "It has a ripple effect. We live in communities and in neighbourhoods and in families. We don't live in isolation."

With a glass of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, McGovern can finally relax at the end of filming. Now 57, this charismatic former teacher, who has lived in Liverpool all his life, is a man of rare intensity.

McGovern, who is executive producer as well as creator of The Street, admits that there are some similarities between his new drama and Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Black Stuff and, more recently, Abbott's Clocking Off. "That was a really good series, and it also had a handful of recurring characters you would spot in the back of a shot. So every now and then, you'd see Christopher Eccleston walking across the background. I wonder how much that cost!"

But the main inspiration behind The Street was McGovern's belief that something fascinating has happened to everyone during their lifetime. He advertised across the North-west for people to send him their stories, and was inundated with offers. "Everyone has at least one story to tell," McGovern reckons. "I know that from bitter experience because every time I go into the boozer, someone comes up to me and says: 'Have I got a story for you!'

"I go to this card school every week in a certain Liverpool pub, and it can be quite annoying - I'm trying to play a hand while someone's telling me their life story. There are some great stories out there."

According to Williams, "Jimmy knows that we're endlessly fascinated by other people's lives because they help us to understand our own better. That's why the soaps are so popular - those characters become part of your family. It's no surprise that both Paul Abbott and Jimmy started off writing for the soaps."

McGovern certainly creates characters we can all relate to. "I place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, but in every episode we can still identify with those characters and think: 'There but the grace of God, go I.'" A case in point is the fifth episode of The Street, in which a put-upon taxi-driver (Spall) brings home an African asylum-seeker, Ojo (Jamiu Adebiyi) - much to the horror of his wife, Margie (Ger Ryan). "The episode is about understanding that people find the subject of asylum-seekers difficult," says Williams. "When she objects to Eddie inviting Ojo to stay, Margie says: 'It's not because he's black. It's because he's an uninvited guest in my house.' You could project that as an attitude across the country.

"Jimmy never gives us an easy ride. He does not, for instance, depict Eddie as a holy liberal. We all have prejudices and there are always grey areas. Jimmy doesn't write about saints - he writes about people in all their complexity. That's why people love his writing - because they can see themselves in it."

Horrocks also praises the nuances inherent in McGovern's work. "His drama is not all tied up neatly," says the actress. "As in real life, things go horrifically wrong and families don't recover. They don't carry on having nice cups of tea as though nothing has happened."

Horrocks goes on to emphasise McGovern's willingness to tackle unfashionable subjects. "Look at the second episode, where Jim Broadbent's character, Stan, is just left on the scrap-heap when he retires. These days you rarely see a mainstream drama about an older man who's made redundant and is contemplating suicide. It's such a youth-oriented market that it's great to see a story about a man in his sixties. Ageism so often prevails in television."

Much of the writer's best work is fuelled by righteous ire - like Hillsborough, his film about the official failures that led to the football stadium disaster. "You do mine your own anger," McGovern says. "Look at Iraq. We've been led to war on a lie, and that makes me very angry. That fed into a scene in the second episode of The Street. In a flashback, Jim Broadbent's character recalls his dad coming back from the Second World War. As he embraces him, the father tells his son, 'We're sick of war and death, and that's why we're going to vote Labour.' Every Labour Prime Minister since 1945 has been aware of that tradition, and the best government we've ever had came about because of war. But Tony Blair went to war at the drop of a hat because he has no Labour tradition. He told us that we couldn't find the weapons of mass destruction, but that the invasion was still worth it because it removed a tyrant. Does he think the US needed us to do that?"

McGovern has written a new episode of Cracker, which will be screened on ITV1 later this year. He is also working on a musical about the history of the Lancashire cotton mills and a drama about the First Fleet that sailed to Australia in the 18th century. But for the time being, his mind is still residing in The Street. A second series is already being planned.

"There is no danger of Jimmy running out of stories," Williams says. "Unlike a cop or hospital drama, this format is not limited - it allows you to explore so many different emotions and issues and people."

McGovern chips in: "You can take it anywhere. I could even set it in Australia. In fact," he adds, warming to the theme, "that's a really good idea. Next January and February in Oz as opposed to Manchester? I quite fancy that!"

'The Street' starts on BBC1 on Thursday at 9pm