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Why Pioneering British TV Writer Jimmy McGovern Thinks American Writers Are the Lucky Ones

Why Pioneering British TV Writer Jimmy McGovern Thinks American Writers Are the Lucky Ones

At the fourth
installment of the BAFTA BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series held in London this week,

British television writer Jimmy McGovern spoke about how he was able to
tackle social and political issues on the small screen. 

British screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who introduced McGovern, noted: “I can think of no single British screenwriter who has subjected his own culture to such an extraordinary and dramatic scrutiny as has Jimmy McGovern. His work is always fiercely honest, incredibly funny, deeply moving, and above all substantive.” 

Few soap opera writers can claim to have such a warm reception. Ironically, McGovern attributes his success in the industry as part fluke. He was in his thirties when he began writing for  Channel 4’s hit soap opera “Brookside” and, at the time, he claimed that he was flat out immature and out of his league in many ways. “I think I was so lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

In fact, McGovern attributed being out of his comfort zone for any success he may have received from working on “Brookside.” He recalled the nervous energy of those days, saying, “for 12 months, I didn’t know what I was doing, nobody knew what they were doing on that show. It was the birth of Channel 4.”

Working during
Thatcher era in the 1980s meant that McGovern’s writing on “Brookside” inevitably had to deal with the issues its
audience was enduring; McGovern’ ability to write about unemployment became noteworthy to the masses as it skyrocketed to the highest
rated program during the ‘80s.

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Then in 1993, McGovern
created the ITV drama series, “Cracker,” about a criminal psychologist (which later airied in the U.S. on the A&E Network). His writing earned him
two Edgar
Awards
from the Mystery Writers of America, while his work on BBC One’s “The Lakes” (1997), “The Street” (2006) and “The
Accused” (2010) all followed suit in
McGovern’s “tell-it-like-it-is” style.

Although McGovern belittled his skillset, he also
admited the advantages he had from the beginning; it was gratifying for
McGovern to see that he had talent whenever they held script meetings. McGovern
said, “I knew, quite early on I knew I was worth my place. Even though my
scripts were not good I could generate story… Because if it was your idea
you’ve got more of a chance of getting commissioned, and that meant money and
your name on the telly.”

McGovern had a healthy-sized ego by this point, because
he knew he could generate an entertaining story. Oftentimes, it was because of
his background that McGovern felt so strongly about his writing.

“‘Brookside’ had an agenda then, it was political, and so
we’d all be fighting to get our angle…I would use, ‘Listen, I come from here,
I’m a working class lad,'” he said. It was a surprise to no one that McGovern draws from his own life
experiences and impressions: “Because you’re excavating the story, and you’re
excavating within yourself, to bring yourself to it. How can I make this me?”


He put all self-doubting screenwriters at ease when he
admitted that hard work is ultimately what gets the script written, not talent. “More times than not I got what I wanted
because I was so well-prepared,” McGovern revealed. “And that taught me something, that you haven’t
got to be better, you’ve just to work harder. And want it. Oh, I wanted it. Oh, my God, I wanted it, I was a mad man…I worked harder than any of them. And I
think the harder you work the more you learn as well.”

It is because of McGovern’s intense work ethic and
dedication to craft that he was able to stand by his words in the face of
public criticism. He chalked up the controversial reviews of his episodes to
the fact that television was conservative back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. McGovern said, “British television was a wee bit tame, apart from the obvious
ones: Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter. So it might have been that, but I can’t
for the life of me see why you would tell a story…I always go on about, why
has the BBC got a compliance unit?”

McGovern considered it his duty to raise
eyebrows. “That’s my job, to cause offense…I’m sure we did cause offense, but I
think we had integrity and we told the truth, and maybe it’s the truth that
causes offense,” he said.

Something similar happened when McGovern went to work on the drama “Hillsborough.”

“Nobody
even thinks about [how] law is designed to keep you away from justice. And you
don’t find that out until you’re embroiled in it, until you’re the victim of an
injustice, or your child gets killed,” he said. For McGovern, it’s when a
screenwriter presents opposing arguments without judgment and can “give the devil
the best tunes” that the audience can draw their own opinions and respect the
show for it.

McGovern’s final moment of candid insight had
everything to do with how the UK should be more like America. “You know the
BBC, they are so far behind the times, but every now and again they talk about
the writers’ room. We shall have to emulate the American writers’ room,” said
McGovern.

The difference between the two markets is based in
financial resources, according to McGovern. American television writers work in teams,
whereas British television writers aren’t always afforded that luxury. “Those guys get paid an absolute bloody fortune…’The Street’ and ‘Accused,’ I was taking scripts that
just were not working and because of the commitments we’d
entered into with that writer I would rewrite the entire script and get paid
nothing, get paid absolutely nothing,” he said. “I was subsidizing the BBC, because I cared
so much about the program.”

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