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Blog Coverage of the BBC Drama Broken, June-July 2017

Last week saw the start of the much anticipated drama series Broken (BBC  One, Tuesday nights). It was postponed by a week out of sensitivity over the Manchester bombing, though I’m not quite sure as to why.
Sean Bean stars as Father Michael Kerrigan, an inner city priest struggling with his own demons and the problems of his varied parishioners, and I think it’s one of the best things Bean has ever done. He manages a quiet but strong empathy, portraying Fr Michael as a gentle soul, confident in his work but bothered in private by flashbacks from what seems a difficult childhood.
The show, written by Jimmy McGovern (Brookside, Cracker) is reminiscent of the work of director Ken Loach, sharing some of his concerns about poverty, social welfare, bureaucracy and more.  I was reminded of Kes (the hawk in the flashbacks) and Raining Stones (parents splashing out more than they can afford for first communion outfits), and there were similarities to a US show from the mid 90’s Nothing Sacred, which also featured a priest in a socially deprived parish.
I was most impressed by the touching prayer scenes, and any of these would suit class work on the theme of prayer. In one, after saying he wasn’t Our Lady’s greatest fan, which a bit jarring, he turned it around by saying a heartfelt Hail Mary with a woman who has just found out she can’t have children, while in another he prays the Our Father with a woman, Christina, whose mother has died. Christina is the other main character so far, a vulnerable single mother not coping very well with the demands of family life. She is so well played by Anna Friel, a versatile actress who can do everything from whimsy (Pushing Daisies) to psychosis (Marcella).  Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) appears as Father Peter, but his role is as yet undefined - in his only scene the role seems to be that of counsellor, for now.
On the whole it’s an adult drama, with a modest amount of bad language and some dirty jokes at a comedy club but overall it has huge heart and sensitivity. The cinematography and music are excellent, though the flashback scenes feature a poetry-quoting priest who cruelly slaps the young Michael because he reckons he got help writing a poem for class. It’s not all nasty church imagery though, and the young Michael seems imbued with a sense of wonder in the church, and inspired by the poetry of Hopkins. In an early scene, Fr Michael seems dismissive of the idea that first confession children would have any sins at that age and is strong on the idea of general absolution for all at the ceremony, but apart from that he is neither trendy liberal or cranky conservative.

Have just caught up with the third episode of Broken, shown last Tuesday on BBC 1. While still very good and emotionally credible I found it the weakest episode so far. It focused on a police cover up after the events of Episode 2, and went all 'Line of Duty', with many of the stereotypes of the genre, e.g. conniving police authorities. The main emphasis was on a young policeman who is pressurised to conform to the official account of what happened. His crisis of conscience is dramatically portrayed, and Fr Michael plays a central role in advising him. This policeman prays with his young child, has the support of his mother, but fears he hasn't the courage to tell the truth. Fr Michael also feels compromised as he failed to take a call on the night of the incident, because he was tired and didn't grasp the urgency of the situation.
His flashbacks continue and it becomes clearer that he was a victim of clerical child abuse and cover up - there's an intense scene when he confronts an the now aging ex-priest who abused him - this guy is pathetic but also arrogant and unrepentant. We've had so many portrayals of clerical child abuse, and it does feed in to an unjust stereotyping of priests, but this treatment is marked by a sense of the importance and credibility of genuine religious practice, as seen in Fr Michael and many of his parishioners.
There's also an early scene where Fr Michael, normally subtle in his approach does a bit of a rant on the Church's attitude to women and the need, as he sees it, for women priests, bishops and popes! Somehow it didn't ring as true as the rest of the show and felt like a big glob of somebody else's agenda landed in Fr Michael's mouth ... the art suffering at the hands of the ideology.


Well, my initial enthusiasm for Broken (Tues nights BBC 1), is wearing off some more after this week's fourth episode. It's still absorbing, and, largely unique amongst modern drama series, takes religion seriously. But Tuesday night's episode, focusing on the suicidal gambler who came to Fr Michael in an earlier episode, was disturbing to say the least. The woman in question is in some respects a victim (of addiction), and Fr Michael wants to campaign against the proliferation of betting shops in a poor area, but much of the time she is quite unsympathetic, in her dealings with her family, the workplace she has stolen from and with Fr Michael who is doing his best to keep her alive, offering practical advice as well as assurance of God's love. Her chief sin seems to be that of pride - she is not really sorry for the wrong she has done, and doesn't want to live with the shame of people knowing what she has done. There were so many twists and turns in this episode that had me going through a gamut of intense emotions. I'm not sure how pleased suicide prevention services would be with the way this was treated. That being said, the emotions rang true and the acting, especially by Sean Bean as Fr Michael and Paula Malcolmson as the woman in question was outstanding. Catholics will also be bothered by the way the seal of confession is treated, and by the unecessarily crude suggestion made by the woman to the priest. There wasn't much in this episode that would be useful for school/RE classes, and considering the theme, quite the opposite.

Last Tuesday night I saw the fifth episode of BBC's drama Broken, and my disappointment after initial enthusiasm continues. The suicide related story continued briefly but the focus this time was on homosexuality. To me it felt like it was dragged in to tick some diversity box as a new character was created for the occasion, a sort of gay deus ex machina. Carl McKenna (played by Irish actor Ned Dennehy) was a neighbour of Helen, whose son Vernon was treated unjustly by the police in an earlier episode. Though the area figured large in earlier episodes there was no sign of neighbour Carl until now. Cue the arrival of Helen's brother Daniel who is so homophobic that he won't even shake hands with Carl. Wouldn't you know it the one person who objects most to homosexuality is offputting, unkind, holier-than-thou - in one bizarre scene he goes to Confession to Fr Michael (Sean Bean) to convince the priest that he hasn't sinned! The specific incident was when Daniel punched Carl because Carl used the 'n' word after Daniel hadn't made his children apologise for using the 'q' word. Carl is no saint either, and eventually Helen gets annoyed with both stubborn men. This takes place during a meeting facilitated by Fr Michael to ease the tension - a rather awkward sequence where various perspectives on homosexuality are spoken by the characters - more dcumentary and even ideology driving than drama. The usual myth is perpetrated that the Church teaches it's a sin to be gay. Fr Michael largely toes the Catholic line in public though his main approach is to practice kindness and tolerance and also seek reconciliation.
I think the programme makers could have left it that, opting for subtlety and prompting viewers of all shades to think. But for me they spoiled it all with a heavy hand by have Fr Michael going on a foul mouthed rant against Church teaching on sexuality, in private with his mentor Fr Peter, who doesn't even disagree or challenge him. In case we didn't get the point Fr Michael says all priests he knows feel the same. It felt like a case of cynically using the character to push an agenda rather than letting the character breathe.
Another thing worth mentioning is how much this series is about mothers. Fr Michael has had a troubled relationship with his mother in the past but now in some of the drama's most touching moments he looks after her now that she is very ill, praying and singing with her on his weekly overnight visits. In the first two episodes we had single mother Christina (Anna Friel) and issues with her own mother. The suicidal gambler was also a mother, to teenagers, and this made her intentions all the more painful. Helen suffers much frustration as she looks after her son Vernon who has serious mental health issues. Carl, who is in his 40's, has always lived with his mother and is grieving after her recent death. The betting shop owner wanted to become a mother but couldn't and was upset about that. Easy to see why the show is called 'Broken'.


Well, I'm glad to report that Broken (BBC 1) was back on form last night with a deeply moving sixth episode to bring the series to an end. I suspect the return to top quality was due to the fact that, like the first two episodes, Jimmy McGovern, the show's creator, was the sole scriptwriter. Many of the storylines were brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and perhaps the ending was a tad sentimental, but I'm not complaining! What struck me most about this episode was the way the theme of forgiveness was woven through the story. Fr Michael (Sean Bean) was described by Fr Peter (Adrian Dunbar) as a man who forgave others quickly but was slow to forgive himself. Past guilt plagues him particularly at the consecration . He feels he's an imposter and hypocrite at this high point of the priesthood .. but is being too hard on himself. His crisis gets worse in this episode and his personal journey is painful but deeply human. Other strands from the series get some sort of closure, especially his touching relationship with his mother, though it wasn't always that good. There's an incredibly tense inquest sequence which works really well and is totally absorbing. The gambling issue is somewhat resolved, with a stirring sermon against such evils, but the consequent breaking up of slot machines was rather melodramatic. I felt for the sympathetically portrayed betting shop worker who had to sit through that sermon.
Actually, on of the many great points of the series has been how those who would, in more clichéd dramas, be portrayed as nasty villains, were humanised to varying degrees. Even the betting shop owner is in forgiving mood at one stage after his machines are broken, like so many hearts in the story. I've seen some critics giving out about the misery in the show, and there is certainly social deprivation and personal disaster, but it's thoroughly human and sympathetic to, and understanding of people, especially those who are broken in so many ways. Though sad at so many times I found it ultimately positive and uplifting.
Religion fares better than in most other mainstream shows. It's an affirmation of the priesthood, of prayer, of sacrament and of service. I don't think I've ever seen so many prayer and Confession scenes in TV drama. Yes I'd have issues on the general absolution issue and on attitudes to Church teaching in the middle episodes. It's an adult show and teachers looking for scenes to use in RE class with have to choose carefully!
Finally I must say something about the haunting and most appropriate music - the show opens with Randy Newman's 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' sung soulfully by Nina Simone - the key words are "human kindness is overflowing". At the end there's Ray Davies song 'Broken' - "We might be bruised but we're not broken" - see video above.