The Man Who Raped Sheila Grant

Article excerpt

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. …