Broken: stunning, timely and beautiful BBC drama

For “Broken” read “broke”.
For “Broken” read “society terribly broken”.
For “Broken” read “heartbreaking”.
For “Broken” read “compassion”.

Broken is a six part drama by Jimmy McGovern set in the north of England (filmed in Liverpool). It is Daniel Blake-bleak. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer.

There are many great performances. Sean Bean makes an excellent priest (playing Father Michael Kerrigan) and Anna Friel plays the part of a single mother well past the end of her tether. They do “broken” very well.

We only get hints about the reasons for Father Michael’s brokenness. He has been shamed and shaming and he is willing to break himself for the rest of his life. We see his brokenness mending as he seeks to make amends for his past, and we see the brokenness around him mending through his offering.

The parish could be any urban area in northern England. It is poverty stricken. The people walk, they don’t drive. The shops are closed. The only shops left open are the betting shops – their gaming machines having bled the community dry reducing people to dire debt and desperation.

Sam Wollaston, in his review for the Guardian, is right when he says: “This is a portrait of poverty in forgotten Britain, minimum pay and zero hours, crisis, debt and desperation.”

This is where people live and where they stay. Father Michael also sounds like a man who isn’t going anywhere. He has a strong regional accent. He sounds as if he comes from somewhere. It isn’t surprising that the priest and people love one another dearly. They might be from different places, but they both belong somewhere – as opposed to the urban metropolitans who could belong anywhere and often can’t be trusted because of that. (See note below about the Anywhere and Somewhere tribes.)

Father Michael is the person people turn to – they rely on him. They trust him above all others. But he is not the “heroic leader”. He is wounded himself, shamed and vulnerable, hoping for heaven. He is unassuming, self-effacing. He knows “it’s easy to forget Christ’s here, giving us strength, easing our pain,” and so he lights a candle as he invites people to open the heart of their troubles.

I could be critical. It is very clerical. But is that liberalism speaking? Is that the criticism of a metropolitan who could belong anywhere. There is no criticism from the people who are THERE, broken. He can be trusted. He is there. He is on their side utterly. They need someone to be on their side. The institutions they should be able to rely on repeatedly let them down. They need his ministry.

Christina played by Anna Friel is desperately poor. Just when we think she can go no lower her mother with whom she lives (and who helps share the living costs) dies. She pretends that she is still alive so she can claim her mother’s next pension payment. She’s arrested. Father Michael goes to court as her character witness. He calls her “this wonderful woman” who does everything for her children. I have no doubt that anybody would ever have called her “wonderful” before, but there was evident integrity in Father Michael’s statement. He uncovered the truth through his love and practical wisdom.

There is a moving scene n the confessional. A woman confesses that she is going to kill herself because she has stolen a vast amount from her employer (to feed her gambling addition). She recognises Father Michael’s vulnerability and witnesses his own confession.

We need more drama like this. We need to know more about people like Christina. We need to understand how wonderful they are. We need her to have more of a say in our national life. We need more priests like Sean Bean. We need more people to know they are “wonderful”. We need as much as ever to find our way through brokenness, and we need our Prime Ministers to learn from the witness of the faithful ministers in our broken communities.

I wonder how many priests, having watched this, will be left wondering how far they have moved from their calling – going somewhere else. And I wonder how many will be left wondering whether they are called to be priests – at any rate, whether they are good enough to be a friend broken for others somewhere just like that.

NOTE: David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics (2017) claims that there are two tribes, the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The Anywheres are light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”.  The Somewheres are grounded in place, uneasy with the modern world, experiencing change as loss. Goodhart used this theory to explain Brexit decision.

A Rev review

It was the long awaited return of Rev to BBC2 last night. You can watch last night’s episode here. The clip above shows one of the many moving pastoral encounters from the previous series which are typical of ministry.

Rev is poetry, not prose. It is inner city parish life dramatised, moving and comic. It rings so many bells.

There is a wonderful cast of actors playing a wonderful range of characters. This series introduces the Area Dean, the Diocesan Secretary, the local Imam and Baby Smallbone. Colin is still there, staking a claim as godparent for baby Smallbone, and crack addict Mick offers to babysit for money to visit his dying Mum in Southend (hasn’t she already died three times?).

There are signs that Reverend Adam Smallbone is an endangered species as the Area Dean and Diocesan Secretary scent blood and are on the tracks of pastorally reorganising St Saviour in the Marshes out of existence. There are signs that there is no room in ministry for the Micks and Colins of the world. Presence and engagement are what satisfies the Adam Smallbones of the Church of England. Up and down the country clergy are present, engaged and overwhelmed by the poverty and deprivation of their parishes. (And research suggests that clergy have the most satisfying occupation.)

Area Dean, Diocesan Secretary and Archdeacon all scoff at Adam’s “presence and engaging”. They probably think that Adam has had his chance. If he was any good he would have a larger congregation. (Archbishop Justin later apologised for the impression he gave that good vicars mean growth. It’s not as predictable as that.) I hope the Area Dean and Diocesan Secretary don’t win. There aren’t many people who Colin can talk to, and there aren’t many doors that Mick can knock on. Presence and engagement ought to be the measure of ministry in such communities, not bums on seats.

It is true that Adam is out of his depth. He probably did do better in his previous country parish. But here he is in inner-city London. He and his achievements look very small when compared to the Imam and his achievements. Adam wonders whether his ministry would be more successful if there were more rules. But, unlike Islam, little Christianity is very short on rules and perhaps feeling out of our depth should be typical for clergy. Isn’t it natural to feel overwhelmed by the dilapidated children’s playground, the crushing poverty and the huge culture gap between church and community?

Adam Smallbone, Reader Nigel, the congregation of St Saviour in the Marshes and the community they are a part of need our support. They need a pastoral reorganisation that makes their presence and engagement more sustainable and fruitful. Area Dean and Diocesan Secretary please take note.