Broken, BBC 1 (iPlayer) written and produced by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Ashley Pierce.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08s323v/broken-series-1-episode-1

I watched Episode 1 of Jimmy McGovern’s series Broken. It was meant to be on last Tuesday, but because of the Manchester bombing was held over for a week. I’m a fan of Jimmy McGovern. His dramas are usually about working-class people that are broken, in some way, and have to find a way forward.  A sympathetic portrayal, and counterpoint to the propaganda from sources such as the Daily-Hate-Mail and Channel 4 and 5’s programmes with tag lines ‘Welfare’. McGovern runs his own production company and is pretty much guaranteed a prime-time slot, like last night, when he sells his work to the BBC.

Using the motif Broken there are a couple of narrative strands up and running. The lead is easiest to identify. Christina Fitzsimons’s (Anna Friel) life is shit. She has three young kids, no partner and no money. McGovern follows a simple dramatic rule (which I often use myself) when thing are bad, make them much worse. So in the first scene Christina’s phone is ringing, even though she’s in chapel, a meeting before her daughter makes her first holy communion (or for the Catholics among us, First Holy Communion).

Ironically, I’m going to a First Holy Communion this Sunday. The usual jokes about the chapel falling down apply. But here, down-to-earth and salt-of-the-earth Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) who is trying to work miracles in a working-class, Northern town, where everybody is skint rubs one of his parishioners up the wrong way by suggesting, to save money, First Communicants didn’t try to outdo each other with bridal-type dresses and fancy suits and should simply wear their school uniforms. But the world doesn’t work that way, not even in skint Northern towns. Little girls like to dress up and their mum’s like to show off they’ve got the dosh for a big spread.

Here’s the second narrative thread. Father Michael has doubts and somehow they’re related to his dying mum. He has flashbacks and there are reference points to Kes that coming-of-age, Northern, drama based on Barry Hine’s book A Kestrel for a Knave. I’ve read the book and seen the film but can’t remember nowt about it, apart from it’s a about a bird, probably a Kestrel. And there’s lots of kids getting smacked about the head at school and getting the belt. Father Michael relives the same experiences in flashback and there’s something about his mum, he doesn’t want us to know. He’s a priest, probably that old chestnut, a promise to his mother that he’s felt duty bound to keep.

So let the dominoes fall. Christina’s extended meeting about white, wedding-type dresses for eight-year-old girls means she’s late for work. Her boss isn’t happy. She’s a Catholic too, but she’s a boss, which means she’s nasty, pays the minimum wage and sacks Christina for being late and leaving an IOU in the till for £60, which she wasn’t supposed to see. They get into a fight. Christina goes home with a burst lip and is sacked. She promises her wee girl that white dress. But then she goes to the buroo. I can see what McGovern is trying to do here. Christina is telling the supercilious DSS worker that she’s worked all her life, never took a penny even though her partner was a shit and didn’t pay  a penny for their kids and you know the rest…Barred for 18 weeks from all benefits because she intentionally made herself unemployed.

Good drama, but that’s not the way it works. Benefit claimants such as Christina don’t get to meet a real live ex-Chancellor George Osborne type figure that rejoices in telling them they’re scum and deserve everything they get which is nothing and did they ever consider foodbanks for starving children?  No. These things are all done by phone. The equivalent of drone strikes and unsuspecting targets whose lives are changed forever. It’s not good on the screen, and that’s why we don’t have it here.

The other big dramatic moment was Christina’s mum dying suddenly. She’s clutching the phone, trying to phone the priest and book a place in the heavenly choir. Christina tries to hide her mum’s death so she can cash her pension. She does the latter and phones the priest three days later. He immediately says she’s been dead for a couple of days and you’ve probably hidden the fact to cash her pension. Wow, he’s good. A direct line from Peter Falk’s Columbo, up above. I know somebody that did that, but they didn’t need to keep their mum hidden under the sheets. They just needed to keep cashing the book – until they get caught – as Christina is and will be. The domino effect. Make it worse. I’ll probably not watch the other episodes. I know what is going to happen. Things are going to get bad, so bad the Tories are going to call an election and win by a landslide. They’ll probably lock up people that don’t vote Tory. People like McGovern and Christina. I’m all broke up about that. I don’t mind telling you. Fuck the Tory scum.  Anyone that votes Tory will surely go to hell. That’s the way I see things, but god might be more understanding, but I doubt it, eye of the needle and camel and all that… I’m going to pray on Sunday not to hate Tories so much.

 

William McIlvanney (2016 [1975]) Docherty

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I think this was the first William McIlvanney novel I read. It won the Whitbread Award for Fiction. When McIlvanney was writing the book there were still such a thing as a coalminer. There’s probably a picture of one in the Daily Mail hate archives, the equivalent of a Lascaux cave drawing to remind them what these men that held the country to ransom, the aristocracy of the working-class, trade-union movement, looked like. Coal powered the industrial revolution, but the men who dug it out saw little of the rewards. Such was its value coal miners were exempt from conscription in the First and Second World Wars. In the latter war 1939-45,  men could be conscripted not only to the army, navy, or air force, but also to the coal face and coal mines near the industrial heartlands. Bevan’s boys kept the machinery of war and killing going   It must have been around the 1980s when I read the book. And according to the right-wing hate mail propaganda machine, Arthur Scargill, and the coal miners were again holding the country to ransom. The strike of 1984-85 was notable for the coal miners out on the streets collecting donations and food – we had food banks even then. Scargill, of course, suggested that Thatcher and her cronies, including Ian MacGregor, had stockpiled coal and oil and set out to break the unions and to do away with the coal-mining industry. History proved Scargill right. It doesn’t take Agatha Christie to tell us there were 84 000 coal miners then there was none. Policing operations were particularly inventive. The cover up at Hillsborough part of that sad tradition. Hi, you might be shouting, what happened to the book you’re meant to be reviewing?

Well, it’s quite a simple book, a love story of the working class. It’s quite a difficult job to make a superhero out of an ordinary working man, Tam Docherty, who died, how he lived, a working class hero, laying down his life for another. There is another argument that the real hero of the book is Jenny, his wife, who gave him three boy and a girl, but who, with little money and loaves and soup pots works miracles that Jesus would be jealous of. He only fed the 5000, Jenny has to do it every day for over 25 years. You’d need to look at Maheau’s wife in Emile Zola’s classic story Germinal to show how one wage is never enough and each child is sacrificed to the pits, for an adequate comparison of how little miners made and how far it had to stretch. Or Jenny’s daughter, Kathleen, who marries Jack, who beats her and spends his wages on booze. Realism begins with reality and not fake news.

Mick, Docherty’s oldest son, loses the sight in one eye and one arm in the trenches in the First World War and he accepts he’s one of the lucky ones. He made it back. But his search for  meaning has contemporary resonance and one of the books he reads to make sense of the post-war world is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. What he says to his wee brother, Conn, after his fight with his other brother Angus, is relevant today as it was then. Angus has broken with his father and his family. He’s got a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. He marries someone else, Annie, and fathers another child. But Angus represents everything his father detests. Individualism, an atomised life, and every man for themselves. Tory dogma. Angus’s brute strength, he deludes himself into believing, will safeguard the future of his family. The older brother’s bitter experience, when the sky might be up and it might be crashing down, has taught him better.

‘Whit’s happenin’?’

‘Whit’s happenin’? is that folks don’t ken whit’s happenin’. They just want wages an’ they canny accept that they’ll hiv tae tak mair. Tae get whit ye want, ye’ve goat to settle fur mair, that’s a’.’

His father understood that better than anyone, he lived it. A community is not a collection of individuals looking after number one.

‘He was only five-foot four. But when yer hert goes from yer heid tae yer toes, that’s a lot of hert.’

The William McIlvanney’s and Docherty’s of this world would have their work cut out making sense of Tory councillors elected in Ferguslie and a moron’s moron elected as President of the United States. It makes a pleasant change to read about a working-class hero without the tag, Benefits, being added. Coal miners, aye, I remember them well and I understand what they stood for, what they stand for.

‘Nae shite from naebody.’