It’s a drama series about a well-respected and much loved Catholic priest - Fr Michael - presiding over a large parish on the outskirts of a major city in northern England. Sean Bean plays the troubled priest and plays it with all his body, mind and spirit. The six week series followed various strands – Fr Michael’s own abuse at the hand 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 urban parish priest.
Liverpudlian writer Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, Hillsborough, and others) 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.” We saw, through a series of flashbacks – and always at the point of the prayer of Consecration in the Mass (this is my body, broken for you) - the insidious abuse Fr Michael had suffered as a schoolchild. The older Priest’s hand sliding up and under the hem of Bean’s short school trousers left little to the imagination (but the programme makers didn’t feel the need to actually show what happened), and the abuse he himself had put young women and prostitutes through in his adult life.
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 in there were overwhelmed by the weight of their sin and he took that from them and brought God into the picture.
The series covered many of the ills in today’s society, from foodbanks to the benefits system and biased cops and mental illness – all human life was there. When a young attractive single mum confesses her theft of hundreds of thousands of pounds to feed her gaming machine habit and tells him that she’s going to kill herself, Fr Michael invites Jesus into the conversation by lighting a candle to show that he is present. He’s wracked with guilt over knowing what she’s going to do and breaking the seal of the confessional. In the end she has the last word by changing her mode of suicide.
He has to intervene between an arrogant bullying devout Bible basher and a loving, caring gay man. And we agonise with him as he remembers not answering his phone late one night to help a teenager with mental health issues – the one who is subsequently killed by the police. His struggle with his humanity and imperfection is one with which every priest will identify.
But 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 with that with our own brokenness. When he finally manages to get through 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 his life could have taken a very different turn and that he did feel he was 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 so that we could have such a brilliant series as Broken.