Ahead of the broadcast of it’s second episode, Chris Burgess unlocks legendary Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern’s new BBC series Broken, starring Sean Bean and Anna Friel.  

When a priest hears a confession, he takes on those sins. That had a real effect on Sean Bean.”

BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter Jimmy McGovern’s new drama series Broken began last week, with some very timely and moving scenes of social deprivation and the all-too-real struggles of those living below the breadline.

In Broken, which also stars former Brookside actress Anna Friel, Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar and Deadwood star Paula Malcolmson, former Game of Thrones star Sean Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan, a vulnerable and tormented priest struggling to help his parishioners in a community ravaged by hardship.

Although filmed in Liverpool – the city most people would associate with McGovern – the action takes place in an unnamed Northern inner-city. The themes and issues raised in the show are far from exclusive to the North of Britain though.

Last month, a special screening of the new drama (produced by Liverpool film company LA Productions) took place in the city.

However, instead of the usual cinema or purpose-built screening room for VIPs and A-list celebs, McGovern and his producer and collaborator, Colin McKeown, chose the church where McGovern spent his youth.

As a boy, McGovern was a pupil at St Francis Xavier’s in Everton before the school eventually moved to Woolton.

The gothic church on Salisbury Street remains a symbol of a part of Liverpool bound to the Catholic Church – as well as football, politics and crime, which are familiar themes to McGovern, renowned for hard-hitting dramas such as Hillsborough, Cracker and Reg.

The scripts Jimmy McGovern writes are known for their gritty realism and searingly honest portrayals of how morals, politics and the law collide in everyday life.

McGovern, 67, says the script has been in the works for three decades.

He came closest to analysing the Catholic Church in the 1994 film Priest, about a young Father struggling to cope with his sexuality and his clashes with the local community. And, despite no longer going to church regularly nor being a practicing Catholic, he was again drawn to examine the Church’s role in modern day, working-class Britain.

Speaking at the screening, McGovern said: “I first wanted to do it in the 1980s. I was working on Brookside at the time and I wasn’t classed as a writer. So, I went to the BBC and spoke to Michael Wayne, the Head of Drama, about an idea I had.

That was a 10 part drama centred on a Catholic priest and each episode is based on the Ten Commandments. He said, ‘No chance, Jimmy‘.

A while later I went back and told him about a seven-part drama centred around a Catholic priest and each episode is based on one of the seven deadly sins. He said, ‘No chance, Jimmy.

A few months after that I went back to Michael and told him about a four-part drama, each episode is based around one of the four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. He said, ‘We’re not doing that, Jimmy’.

And it became the single film Priest in the end, which was fine with me.”

Filming for Broken began in Kirkdale in late 2016. Sean Bean was McGovern’s first choice for the role of Fr Kerrigan but he thought the actor would not be cast.

He said: “We didn’t think we’d get Sean. He was the dream and you never get your dream. But once we got him, it was like a snowball effect.

“You know the scripts are good because we got great people and you just hope the directors will capture the magic. Which they did.

I think Sean saw a lot of truth in the script. He had a lot of questions to ask. When he was talking about Father Michael in the confession scenes, he said he was passive.

But I told him, it wasn’t passivity.

When a priest hears a confession, they take on the sins of the penitent and they leave lighter and the priest leaves heavier. That had a real effect on Sean.

Colin McKeown, McGovern’s long-time collaborator and producer of Broken, believes it is the best work the writer has ever done. He also says it is the best work he has ever produced and the probably best performance that Sean Bean has ever given.

McKeown adds: “My personal view is that Broken should be required viewing for every policy-maker and politician in the UK. But it is not just about politics and poverty; it is about faith, love, hope and human frailty and strength. People who have seen the whole series have found it a deeply moving experience. Painfully so, at times.

I’m astonishingly proud of the whole team here because I think we have produced a work of drama which will touch the lives of millions and be remembered for decades to come.”

Fr Denis Blackledge, the Parish priest for St Francis Xavier’s who advised on the series, spent 14 weeks teaching Bean about what it means to be a Catholic priest and how his own commitment to his parishioners has been tested over a turbulent 20 years for the Church.

He said: “I told him being a priest comes from your guts and through your heart.

You have to be somebody who is aware of his own brokenness and vulnerability and is compassionate and understanding, who has an ability to be alongside people in their brokenness.

Sean‘s character is going through a crisis and has a very low self-esteem, as some priests have, but he has to get over that for the people who rely on him, who think he is fantastic. But he doesn’t realise that himself, which in real life often is a good thing.

The Catholic priesthood has gone through a mangle in the last 20 years or so and rightly so because of the child abuse and so forth.

This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had faithful depiction of a Catholic priest, who is tormented and has his own demons – which everyone has in one way or another. But he is not afraid to show that and show he is a man, with his own faults.

It’s only through accepting your own vulnerabilities that you can cope with other people’s problems and understand what they’re going through.

The situations that Jimmy has created are real situations in Theresa May‘s Britain and they are issues that have to be dealt with from time to time by us priests.

I hope Broken gives encouragement to priests and there may be some people who consider risk doing this once they see the whole series. Life as a priest is tough. We are privileged though to be alongside people who trust us in their critical moments and that is a huge thing.”

Broken continues on BBC One on Tuesdays, 9pm. The first episode is available on iPlayer.