Jimmy McGovern wrote the filmscript for 'Priest', the film that Cardinal John O'Connor of New York called "evil" last week. Richard McClure interviews him.
IF JIMMY MCGOVERN iS apprehensive about the reaction towards his first feature film Priest, he shows few outward signs. As the writer of raw TV dramas such as "Hearts and Minds" and "Cracker", McGovern is no stranger to controversy, but even by his standards "Priest" has provoked heated debate.
The film concerns the arrival of an orthodox young priest, Fr Greg (Linus Roache), in a poverty-stricken parish in Liverpool. Having discovered fellow priest Matthew (Tom Wilkinson) is sleeping with the housekeeper, he begins his own affair with a man he picks up at a gay nightclub.
His inner torment is exacerbated by a schoolgirl's confession that her father is abusing her, and he is torn between her welfare and the seal of the confessional.
It isn't difficult to see why the Catholic church refused to allow filming of any of the scenes which were eventually filmed in an Anglican church in London.
"We found the Catholic church on Merseyside to be really obstructive," says McGovern. "Archbishop Warlock has done a brilliant job for Liverpool but I feel sad at his attitude towards the film. His main objection was the scene when the priest imagines his gay lover during the act of consecration the Archbishop found that particularly offensive. But with all these recent scandals now is the right time for Priest to be shown. There are definitely questions to be asked."
McGovern certainly doesn't shirk from asking those questions. He's critical of many aspects of Catholicism including celibacy ("harming the priesthood") and the Vatican's teaching on homosexuality ("absolutely bloody suicidal").
But though he rails against its ideology, McGovern still recognises the importance of the Church's role.
"The Church comes out of this film brilliantly," he insists. "The whole process of the Eucharist and Communion and what it means to people is really affirmed. It shows the priesthood to be worthwhile, indeed crucial."
Born in Liverpool in 1949, McGovern was "totally pious" until adolescence. "I still call myself a CathOlic because that's the way I was brought up," he explains. "That's my culture." • His grandfather was given Holy Communion by the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the subject of McGovern's first radio play, and Catholic themes have continued to inform his work.
He tried to persuade producers to introduce a priest on "Brookside", where he cut his teeth as a writer in the 1980s, while his first TV drama, "Traitors", told the story of Fr Henry Garnet, who heard Robert Catesby's confession to the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
"It's an old chestnut, the priest who hears a secret in confession but that's tailormade for drama. I've always been fascinated by this basic conflict the clash between life as it is lived on the streets and the man-made rules. The rules are so well established within the Catholic Church but they haven't evolved.
"1 would probably still go to
confession if I was so overwhelmed by something. But if people realised just how common and universal their thoughts are, perhaps there wouldn't be so much need for confession. 1 tend to explore those thoughts in my work".
His exposition of the Catholic psyche is set to continue.
The next series of "Cracker" also includes a priest„while his latest film script concerns a Catholic woman who struggles to come to terms with grief. "I don't think there'll be a priest in that one", he muses, "but, actually, there probably will."
But he doubts whether any future offering will surpass Priest. "I'm so cruelly objective about my work but I think this is the best thing I've done. I don't think I'll do anything as good ever again."
It's a view shared by others. Priest has already picked up prizes at film festivals in Toronto and Edinburgh and rave reviews in the UK, As McGovern says: "It tells a bloody amazing story and if it makes people sit up and talk about these issues, that can