27 March 1987: Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern on the subversiveness of soap

From our correspondence.

27 March 1987

Once again Brookside is vilified in the NS, this time by Harriet Gilbert (NS 6 March). All soap opera, she seems to say, is a load of apolitical or reactionary rubbish. Six days before her article appeared, Bobby Grant was castigating a workforce who wanted to go back to work in an asbestos polluted factory. Bobby laid the blame for this fairly and squarely on Thatcherism. If that is apolitical rubbish, let’s have more of it.

Furthermore, there is nothing more obscure about the potential for subversiveness in soap opera. People get to know its characters over years, rather than minutes as in a one-off play. People know, for example, that Brookside’s Harry Cross had no political axe to grind. The day dawns, however, when Harry can’t get his wife into a hospital bed and he makes a bitter speech that is political to its core. Because it is Harry and not Bobby Grant making this speech, because the audience has grown to love Harry’s wife almost as much as Harry does, and because the situation relates so much to their everyday experiences, his speech had added impact – enough, anyway, to draw an official protest from the Tory party. That, Harriett, is “subversiveness”.

Jimmy McGovern, Liverpool

The television screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. Photo: Getty Images.

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue