TV parish drama explores modern priesthood

Fr Denis (second left) with director Ashley Pearce, Sean Bean, Colin McKeown of LA Productions and Jimmy McGovern
Fr Denis (second left) with director Ashley Pearce, Sean Bean, Colin McKeown of LA Productions and Jimmy McGovern

A British Jesuit commissioned to help one of television's tough guys to portray a sensitive, vulnerable north country Catholic priest says the experience was "very satisfying", with the production team keen to be authentic and showing immense trust. His account of the experience is the cover feature in the spring edition of Jesuits and Friends, which is now available from Jesuit parishes, schools, chaplaincies and spirituality centres throughout Britain. It is also available to download.

The venue selected as the fictional parish of St Nick's for the BBC drama to be shown this spring was Liverpool's St Francis Xavier's (SFX); and parish priest, Fr Denis Blackledge SJ was asked to mentor actor Sean Bean in his role as Fr Michael. Broken was written by the well-known Liverpool writer and alumnus of SFX College, Jimmy McGovern, and was produced by LA Productions. Sean Bean is best known for his roles in Sharpe, Lord of the Rings and, most recently, Game of Thrones.

"They wanted to know what it was like to be a Catholic priest working in an urban environment in the early 21st century," explains Fr Denis. "It starts in the guts, I told them; then it goes through the heart of a man who knows his own strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and personal history. Eventually, it comes out in a compassionate understanding approach, with open eyes, listening ear and heart, taking individuals as they come, no matter what the situation."

Meticulous preparationSean Bean at the First Communion Mass, filmed at SFX Liverpool

Fr Denis says he was greatly impressed by how the directors were meticulous in their preparation and were determined to make Fr Michael's personality and humanity come over with total authenticity. And Sean Bean himself attended Mass at SFX himself beforehand to understand fully how the Eucharist should be celebrated. "It was very satisfying to see how Sean grew into the part," says Fr Denis, "and how seriously he took his role to be a man gifted with priesthood."

At the heart of the priesthood – and key to the entire series of Broken – is the Eucharist, which gives the drama its title at several levels. "Only by accepting his own brokenness can any priest truly live a Eucharistic life," according to Fr Denis, "and echo Jesus in his compassionate approach to those whose lives he is privileged to reach out to. This comes across strongly in this TV series."

Broken is due to be screened by BBC One (with a potential global audience) some time after Easter, and Fr Denis – writing in the spring edition of Jesuits and Friends – says that it has given him hope and encouragement, as a priest who has himself worked in parishes up and down Britain. "When the six episodes are screened … it will be fascinating to see the impact on the way the priesthood is viewed in the Catholic Church in 2017," he writes.

Read the full article and see photos from Broken in the spring edition of Jesuits and Friends.