Wednesday, 17 August 2011

TV Drama: The Writers’ Festival – Jimmy McGovern in Conversation

“If you’ve not been told you need a psychologist, as a writer, you’ve failed.”

Photo by Jason Arnopp
One of the biggest treats of the festival was Jimmy McGovern in conversation with Kate Rowland. Frank and funny, a self-confessed “grafter”; here’s a man with wit, integrity, a commitment to revealing the truth through drama, and some highly quotable one-liners…

He said you have to “tell the story you want to write”; that it’s about “having a visceral response to a story” – and “a story that helps people”.

He would not write a story if it meant nothing to him. He said that he’s not “political with a big ‘P’”, but writes about issues that matter to him.

Asked “Why TV?” he said, “nobody’s going to go to the cinema to see Hillsborough; that most British and Hollywood films “are an insult to our intelligence” (he praised foreign films), and that most theatre writers “are crap”. On television, “you can tell intelligent stories about things that are important.” TV “gets done… If it’s any good it’ll get made”.

On Hillsborough, he said that all that mattered was telling the story. He didn’t expect the BAFTAs – and feels uneasy about that side of things. “People are still grieving.”

He talked about “forgiveness” as a theme, and said that he finds himself writing about it all the time. “Compassion; what it means to be a human being”.

He believes that “lousy journalism creates the need for good drama”, and that it should empower the people involved, whose stories are being told. “The process has got to be more than the product.”

For Sunday, he spent four years in Derry talking to everybody involved in the events, and stood by every word. He said that every detail in the drama was later revealed to be “spot on”, by the Saville Inquiry.

The idea that “law and justice are incompatible” informs the whole of Accused; and in Frankie’s Story, it’s about “the conflict between humanity and the need to kill (at war)”. The question examined is: “what does it take to get young men to kill other young men?”

On The Street and Accused (on which he works with other writers), he “never accepts a story unless (he) can write it” (because ultimately he “might have to”) – and he “tries to work with writers who are good”.

He prefers writing with other people, and gets “depressed” writing on his own. The “best times” are “talking story (and getting paid for it!)”. “No ego… none of that, thank you… It’s not about ego, it’s about story.” The aim? (“We fail!”) “…to end up with a story so pure… total integrity – it looks as though we found it in the street.” It “looks effortless”. The writing is “not present”.

He said, "if God spares me, I’m going to write a historical epic” – with writers he likes.

On writing and hard work: “we confuse writing with typing… writing is sweating blood.” It’s about “getting under the skin”.

He avoids writing the first way he thought of getting into a scene; as that’s just “adequate’. He finds a totally different way, and “gives five hours to it, not half an hour”; he “finds a way most other writers wouldn’t come up with” (the bonus being, that this makes it more gripping for audience, as they won’t have thought of it either).

He said, “we strive to write great drama,” but that in this attempt, “you (we) will fail, we all fail.” He believes that the way to succeed in this quest is to “employ brain and heart – and strive to write great drama”. “It’s all brain and heart - some writers only employ brain.”

He told the story of football trials as a child, and the way he’d get noticed, and said to: “write as the kid with his shirt outside his shorts… that’s how you demonstrate talent; that’s how you get the phone ringing”.

On Brookside, he would be “writing for eight actors… six who couldn’t act - pieces of wood”. “Write for the two who can act.” “What counts is the manifestation of your talent.” 

Update: Broadcast has more highlights of the conversation here.


  1. Hello Hannah. would you be happy for me to post a link to this on

    Helen Bang

  2. Hi Helen,

    Fine with me - cheers!