For all the many words written about the Hillsborough Disaster in the last 23 years, some of the most powerful have come from the Liverpool writer and playwright Jimmy McGovern. His 1996 drama about the disaster is being repeated on British TV at the moment but, before watching it, I wanted to go a little further back. McGovern also wrote the criminal psychologist show ‘Cracker’ and the episodes that make up the story ‘To Be a Somebody’ – screened two years earlier than ‘Hillsborough’ – are worth tracking down if you haven’t already seen them.
Robert Carlyle’s performance as Albie Kinsella, the Hillsborough survivor struggling to cope with his father’s death from cancer, allows McGovern to explore reactions to the disaster from a number of different perspectives. He shows us the police struggling to decipher the significance of Kinsella writing the numbers ‘9615498’ in his victim’s blood at the scene of their murders, a brazenly nasty journalist insisting that she as only freelanced for The S*n her conscience is clear, while Albie asserts that:
We’re getting treated like wild animals. And, yeah, one or two of us start acting like wild animals and the cages go up and ninety-six people die.
There are many details here which, while familiar to football fans in general and Liverpool fans in particular, must have shocked when broadcast on a popular, national, primetime show just five years after the disaster. The intervening years have seen them lose none of their impact. Viewers are reminded exactly how grim the early nineties were for large parts of England, our sympathies constantly provoked and confused. We are led to feel desperately sorry for the grief which has destroyed Albie Kinsella’s family and those of his victims, yet disgusted by the journalist’s joy in instigating a bidding war for the story of her encounter with the killer. Despite telling his wife that he enjoys police work, psychologist Fitz almost gleefully tells a roomful of Manchester’s finest that Albie has:
got to kill 96 people in revenge for Hillsborough, and if there’s any justice in this world, most of them will be coppers.
Words that will return to haunt him later in the story. This was always one of the strengths of ‘Cracker’, that the police officers and title character were as flawed and three-dimensional as those they were seeking to lock up. As McGovern explains in this 2008 interview with journalist Paul Du Noyer:
I always say the thing about ‘Cracker’ was that it was post-Hillsborough, that was the key thing for me. The way contempt for a huge sector of humanity could lead to something like that.
That mistrust and disquiet threads through the tale, perhaps most noticably in the family of a murdered shopkeeper. Of course, a major difference between drama and reality is that while McGovern’s story has the trauma of 15 April 1989 turning a gentle man into a murderer, many of those traumatised by what they witnessed on that day instead turned the anger in on themselves and died by their own hand. Others still live with the psychological effects of the disaster:
Hillsborough took away my life. It is hard to cope with sometimes. It is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last think about when I go to bed. Every day, 365 days a year.
It is running through my head like a video tape: people screaming for help but that help never arrives – they were in pure pain and agony, that’s what goes through my mind most of all.
According to McGovern, following the screening of ‘To Be a Somebody’, members of the bereaved families asked him to help tell their story, which he did to great effect in ‘Hillsborough’. These episodes are then an invaluable prelude to that perhaps more complete story, but as drama they stand alone – as testament to what Stephen King calls,
the truth inside the lie
of fiction – that it often does as much as a factual report to illuminate and inform. It is arguable whether the Hillsborough Independent Panel report would have been commissioned without the campaign by the families which Jimmy McGovern’s writing did so much to assist. This is television at its best, controversial but not for the sake of it, challenging and ambitious in scope, disconcerting and disturbing, yet always compelling and intelligent without losing its capacity to entertain. And so I am reminded, once again, of George Orwell’s words:
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.