A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 June 2017.
BROKEN: Tuesday, BBC One
THE HANDMAID’S TALE: Sunday, Channel 4
The mere idea of rugged Sean Bean playing a troubled Catholic priest in a grey northern town sounds like a parody of Jimmy McGovern’s morally righteous social realist oeuvre.
Add Anna Friel – who, like Bean, has worked with McGovern before - as a working-class single mum struggling to support three children, and you’d be forgiven – nay, absolved – for assuming that his latest drama, BROKEN, is a perfunctory self-tribute to the man who brought us the peerless likes of Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street.
Well, you’d be wrong. And yes, I’m aware you’re being corrected for making an assumption I’ve just conjured on your behalf, but no one ever said life was fair. If McGovern has taught us anything, it’s that.
This poetic series is the raw, compassionate, heart-wrenching apotheosis of everything one of our greatest - and angriest - dramatists has been wrestling with on television over the last 30 years.
Bean plays Michael, a tireless Good Samaritan whose private demons and loneliness mirror the solitary anguish of the locals who turn to him in times of dire need. We’re all broken in one way or another, but we rarely have the courage to admit it. Softly-spoken Father Michael is there to listen and advise without judgement.
A damaged hero for our Godforsaken times, Michael acts as an emblem of much-needed kindness in an increasingly selfish, heartless society; he’s basically everything Gervais tried and spectacularly failed to achieve with Derek.
Michael may be a somewhat idealised figure, but he’s rendered utterly convincing by McGovern’s nuanced writing and Bean’s tender, understated performance.
Friel also excels as a woman so desperate for money to feed her family, she makes the terrible mistake of leaving her mother lying dead in bed for three days in order to collect her pension.
McGovern has a seemingly never-ending capacity for wringing tension and pathos from his stock conceit of forcing desperate characters into ill-advised courses of action. They’re tragic victims of circumstance, and always depicted as three-dimensional beings.
The trials of Father Michael and his flock allow the lapsed-Catholic writer to explore his recurring themes of guilt and atonement, but they also provide a vehicle for an attack on the injustice of poverty and the failure of every Tory government to protect the most vulnerable members of society. The real broken Britain.
Though often accused of didacticism – usually by ghouls who lack his humanity - McGovern always anchors his polemic in rich, riveting character drama leavened by dry humour.
On the eve of a pivotal General Election, a politically-charged McGovern psalm espousing decency and tolerance is exactly what we need.
Still, if you think the Dystopian present is frightening, it’s, well, it’s only slightly less nightmarish than our old friend the Dystopian future.
A serialised adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood, THE HANDMAID’S TALE envisions a near-future in which a totalitarian Christian government rules the United States with a puritanical fist.
Catastrophic environmental contamination has forced the few remaining fertile women into the sexual servitude of the ruling elite (represented here by Joseph Fiennes and his jutting beard).
This bleak premise is given a suitably nervy, suffocating treatment in an intriguing, visually striking drama starring Elisabeth Moss (aka Peggy from Mad Men) as a subjugated handmaid whose inner monologue reveals an undimmed spirit.
It’s a slow-burning, but potentially rewarding, commendably depressing and timely assault on misogyny, fascism and religious fundamentalism.
If you want a vision of the future, imagine Donald Trump sexually harassing a woman forever.