Jimmy McGovern: Soap Writer With Substance

Behind the charming accent and sweet demeanor hides a clever cynic. Angry at the injustice of society, Jimmy McGovern has a reason to write. In an unexpectedly controversial Bafta lecture, he covers generating story, professionally causing offense, and the gravity of hard work.

“You haven’t got to be better, you just have to work harder.” – Jimmy McGovern

The early days

jimmy mcgovernAlthough having spent a fair share of time in the shallow world of TV soaps, Jimmy McGovern is far from trivial. Enlightened, frank, and funny, this writer tells it like it is. 

“We spend our life thinking that “when we’re 30, we’ll be mature”, and we’re not. And “when we’re 40, we’ll be mature”, and we’re not. And “when we’re 50, surely..?” I’m 66, and I’m still as stupid as ever.”

Even after decades of writing, Jimmy McGovern humbly expresses his immaturity, and speaks fondly of his inexperience during the early days of writing for Brookside.

“I would follow the storyline slavishly”…”It took me about nine months to realize that you’ve got to give of yourself to that storyline.”

There’s certainly value in learning from those more experienced, but don’t hide behind them. A truly interesting story can only be created by a truly interesting mind. Make sure that’s you.

It’s easy to doubt your talent before you’ve gained recognition. Even so, Jimmy McGovern confidently states that he quickly recognized himself worthy of his place.

“Even though my scripts were not good, I could generate story.”

Generating story

Jimmy McGovern underlines the importance of generating story “from the smallest of incidents”. Find drama in the things you usually overlook, and your stories will intensify.

If you’re writing on assignment, and don’t have the luxury of writing whatever you wish, you may even have to write a story with a seemingly uninteresting storyline. It’s your job to make it interesting.

Jimmy McGovern laughs, remembering having to write an episode on Brookside with the storyline “Tracy wins a hair-dressing competition”.

“You had to explore the magnitude. You had to dig as deep as you possibly could.”

Now, “Tracy wins a hair-dressing competition” does not sound all that interesting. So, as a writer, you need to find what could make it so. What about Tracy’s character is interesting? What aspects of a competition could be compelling? What other characters/circumstances could increase the drama of this situation?

On the surface, any story could seem meaningless. Likewise, any seemingly meaningless story could become fantastic.

Putting in the effort

“I got what I wanted, because I was so well prepared. And that taught me something; you haven’t got to be better, you just have to work harder.”

jimmy1Dedication and persistence are essential elements of the writing profession, whether you like it or not.

If you’re not willing to put down the hours, not only to write – but to research, analyze and rewrite – then you’re going to bump into some trouble.

Jimmy McGovern used to walk five miles into Brookside to pick up the latest story, so he didn’t have to wait through the weekend to get it in the mail. Hence, he knew more about the story than anyone else and could demonstrate new ideas ahead of the other writers.

Now, that’s commitment.

Causing offense

Although known as a moral writer, Jimmy McGovern has written some rather controversial scripts. Sexuality and violence are things we’re used to seeing on TV today, but they were highly provocative in the 80’s.

“It’s my job to cause offense.”

Brilliantly cocky, Jimmy McGovern claims that Brookside simply told the truth, and questioned whether it’s the truth itself that was offensive, not the show.

“I do it for the story, not the principle. There’s no principle involved – I’m a writer!”

“A moral writer?”

Please, this guy is more interesting than that.

Although representing great values, Jimmy McGovern comes across – in no way negatively – as rather more indecent than his rumour has him pegged. One project in particular, Needle, seems to be sticking out in this category.

“It’s probably more ambiguous because it’s better than most of the stuff I’ve written. You just have to give the devil the best tunes, haven’t ya?”

There’s always risk of scandal if you choose to do the things nobody else will. There’s also risk of getting that acknowledgement you’ve been striving towards.

Maybe the risk zone is the best place to be at?

“We hired a writer who was a drug-dealer. And he hadn’t written a word. He’d never written a word in his life, but he had this story.” (The Street)

Again, it’s all about telling the truth. A drug-dealer could write more honestly about drugs than someone from the outside. There’s no question that commissioning this guy will have brought upon a more honest representation of the world they wished to show.

But what about the fact that this dealer wasn’t an experienced writer? Does that equal bad writing?

According to Jimmy McGovern, it seems quite the opposite. Although he’s personally learnt his craft through experience, he sees value in unfamiliarity. Before you’ve learnt anything, you also haven’t learned the clichés, and don’t as easily fall into the trap of writing without heart.

“You’ll know it’s personal. You’ll know the writer is writing it from somewhere in here (heart)”…”There won’t be any bullshit.”

Complexity of character

What it all comes down to is that drama is character-driven. A plot-driven story can certainly be interesting, but you need an emotional connection to your audience. That’s where your characters come in.

“At its best, we had simplicity of narrative and complexity of character.”

jimmy-mcgovern-pic-getty-images-611432646To strengthen the emotional drama, some writers just “add more” character. That’s not what Jimmy McGovern is talking about. He’s not saying more character, he’s saying complexity of character.

So what does that mean?

Human beings are complex beings with contradicting emotions and traits. A common mistake is to assign each character one major trait; one guy is compassionate, one is a lone wolf, and another has anger-management issues.

These, unless evolved, are simple characters.

But look what happens, if we compile all these traits inside one person? Suddenly, we have a compassionate loner with anger-management issues.

Suddenly, there’s complexity. The character becomes interesting. We don’t understand him at first glance, but become invested in figuring out who this person really is.

If you were to, as Jimmy McGovern claims ridiculous, turn things around and have simplicity of character and complexity of narrative, then what?

In short, you’d end up not caring very much. Instead, you’d find yourself trying to figure out what’s going on with the plot. These are the films where you have to pause and ask your partner; What just happened? Who was that guy?

As a screenwriter, that’s probably not what you’re looking for.

Disguising your effort

One thing that has, or will eventually, become painfully clear to any writer is that persistence is vital.

“When we got it really, truly, right, we’d end up with something approaching a final draft that was bloody good. And then, we wouldn’t leave it at that.”

Jimmy-McGovern-011Every time you write a screenplay, you learn something about writing a screenplay.

So never consider a “fine” script finished. If it’s fine, that means it’s not amazing. In writing it, you’ve learnt something, so chances are, the rewrite will be better.

Jimmy McGovern speaks of the seeming absence of the writer. That is, when your words flow so effortlessly that readers consider the story, rather than the writing itself.

“At its very best, it’s as if we found a story in the streets”.

If you really work out your story, and build beautiful characters into it, then they will tell the story for you.

“You cannot expect your character to laugh, unless you too laugh with the joke. And you certainly, certainly, cannot expect your characters to cry, unless you cry writing it.”

Grave news perhaps, but if you’ve created your characters, then they are, on some level, mirroring something within you. Find out what it is, and see if you can’t find it in your heart to understand them.

Feel with them, not for them.

The dreaded feedback

After having presented idea upon idea, and receiving zero response, Jimmy McGovern decided to switch tactics. Instead of waiting around for a great idea to hit him, he took one he already had, and changed it into something better.

“I actually went away and I made it a good idea. You can do that. It makes you attack your script from somewhere else.”

Good shit doesn’t always come and find you, so there’s really no point in waiting around for it. Nobody’s going to appear at your door with the idea for an award-winning script. Create the opportunities yourself, and you’ll gain control.

But what about when you already have a great script, and someone else comes in and tries to change stuff around? It’s your story after all, so who are they to poke around in it?

“No script editor is going to write your script. Everything’s gotta come from you anyway.”

Feedback, whether good or bad, is a fantastic opportunity. The rewrite will still be written with your words, so taking in the thoughts of someone who isn’t you, doesn’t make it any less yours.

Rejecting feedback is not only unnecessarily defensive, but plain stupid.

Jimmy McGovern’s Evolution

jimmy3Having survived long in the industry, Jimmy McGovern has gone through different stages of his creative process.

“You start off life, and you have this creative angel on your shoulder”…“You’ve got energy and enthusiasm, and you write. Your creative angel is telling you it’s marvelous, and the critical devil can’t get a word in…”

There’s always that beginner-phase where you naively believe that what you’re doing is flawless. This is a great phase, and a necessary one, that should not be over-looked.

Whenever you start a new project, take the time memorize that excitement. And, when you reach the point where you want to give up, go back and remember it. Remember why this particular story is amazing and why you wanted to tell it in the first place.

“I think, as you get more and more experienced, the creative angel and the critical devil sort of equal each other.”

There’s always, in every project, a moment of doubt. The critical devil approaches. You should probably listen to it, to a certain extent, since it’s your common sense talking. Just don’t let it take over, or it may be your downfall.

“The bloody critical devil is bigger now, hence the paralysis of page one.”

At a third stage of his life, terrified by the idea of aging, Jimmy McGovern seems to be facing his inner demons.

Can it be that our common sense eventually starts making too much sense, taking away from our creativity?

As it seems, there are issues and perks with all phases of life. Give the creative angel too much room, and you may lose perspective of reality. Give the critical devil a lead role, and you may not produce at all. Whichever phase you’re at, make sure you find that balance.

Life as a writer is evidently not easy. To sit down alone and write word after word, day by day, is hard. To a lot of writers, however, the writing is actually not the worst part of being a writer.

Our screenplays may drive us to insanity, but it’s breaking away from the comfort of our keyboards to go out to sell our stories, that’s most troubling for the introverted writer.

As always, Jimmy McGovern speaks the truth:

“I think that’s why so many writers are fond of a drink. We’re solitary people, and yet we have to go out and meet people. And we don’t like it.”


-Camilla Beskow

2 thoughts on “Jimmy McGovern: Soap Writer With Substance”

  1. ‘Make characters complexed, rather than plot’ – that’s an interesting take away from my perspective. Worth thinking about!


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