It’s a drama series about a much loved Catholic priest – Fr Michael – presiding over a parish on the outskirts of a major city in northern England. Sean Bean plays the troubled priest in the six-week series which follows various strands – Fr Michael’s own abuse at the hands of another Catholic priest; the killing of a troubled young black boy; the suicide of a woman who robbed her firm to feed her fruit machine addiction, and more – an insight into the everyday life of a 21st century parish priest.
Liverpudlian writer Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, Hillsborough) didn’t shy away from anything. He said, “Words are rungs on an emotional ladder. I’ve been in floods [writing this]. You can’t expect an actor to cry unless you cry writing it.”
Through a series of flashbacks – always at the point of the prayer of Consecration in the Mass (“this is my body, broken for you”) – we saw the insidious abuse Fr Michael had suffered as a schoolchild. The older priest’s hand sliding under the hem of Bean’s school shorts left little to the imagination.
I gather that Bean worried that he was too passive in the way he played Fr Michael – especially in the confessional scenes – but I think they were made more powerful by being underplayed. The people who came to him were overwhelmed by the weight of their sin, the simple act of lighting a candle bringing God into the picture.
The series covered many of the ills in today’s society, from food banks to the benefits system, biased cops to mental illness – all the messiness of human life was there.
Fr Michael’s interaction with the mess is captivating. He has to mediate between a bullying, devout Bible basher and a loving, caring gay man. We agonise with him as he remembers not answering his phone late one night to help a teenager with mental health issues – the boy is subsequently killed by the police. Fr Michael’s struggle with his own brokenness is one with which every priest will identify.
What made this series stand out from other programmes with a priest as the central character was the honesty with which the role was portrayed. He’s the sort of priest we all want in times of trouble or hardship and he has an integrity that all priests aspire to. He isn’t perfect, he’s broken, and we can identify that with our own brokenness. When he finally manages to get through the Mass without the flashbacks, we rejoice.
However, the ending was – unlike the rest of the series – unrealistic. Fr Michael is feeling low about how the locals will react to his honesty in not answering the phone on that fatal night and each parishioner supports him by responding during Mass to the words “the body of Christ, broken for you” with the words “Amen, you wonderful priest”. I tried to imagine how I might feel if that happened to me, and I heard alarm bells sounding!
McGovern himself says he felt called to the priesthood at one point: “I seriously considered it...but I’d have been a terrible priest.” Sadly, we have no way of knowing – but I’m glad he decided to write instead so that we could have such a brilliant series as Broken.
Cindy Kent MBE is an ordained priest and broadcaster who began her career with the popfolk group, The Settlers. For more opinion on the latest trends, topics, news and culture from a Christian perspective, visit premierchristianity.com/blog