A helping hand in an award-winning portrayal of a priest

By Simon Hart

'When we were filming the final episode, we were in between takes and Jimmy said, "Denis, it's all about the Eucharist".'

These are the words of Father Denis Blackledge, recalling a conversation with screenwriter Jimmy McGovern during the making of 'Broken', the acclaimed BBC TV series about a priest. It was just one of many conversations that took place between the two given Fr Denis's role as adviser for the drama, which was filmed at Liverpool's St Francis Xavier Church where he is parish priest – and where McGovern attended Mass as a boy. 

This conversation, though, had a particular pertinence for the 'broken' aspect. 'The concentration on the Consecration was Jesus taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread,' Fr Denis explains. 'None of us can give self away unless we've gone through the broken process as well. And I think the way both Jimmy as writer and Sean as actor made flesh and blood of it was fantastic.'

The Sean in question is the 'very humble' Sean Bean (pictured), whose preparation for a Bafta-winning turn as Father Michael Kerrigan, the series' protagonist, began with a visit to Sunday Mass at SFX, where he sat on the front pew before joining parishioners for tea and coffee afterwards. 'Before we started I spent a couple of hours with Sean and with Ashley Pearce who was director for four of the six episodes,' continues Fr Denis. 'I said to them, "This is what it feels like to me having been a priest for forty-odd years – it starts in your guts, goes through our heart, you deal with your own stuff and then you're hopefully fit to be alongside other people and help them with their stuff".'

Overall, there were nine days' filming at SFX and Bean's performance reduced Fr Denis to tears in a final scene where Fr Michael's parishioners spell out their appreciation for their priest. 'It made me weep with joy at the way he caught this bloke who'd spent himself, who knew his own brokenness.'

The native Lancastrian's own life as a Jesuit priest had never taken him to Liverpool until his arrival at SFX in spring 2017. 'I'd worked 12 miles away in the '70s on retreat work at Loyola Hall,' says the 75-year-old. 'But I only moved to Liverpool in the April as we began filming in September so it was just providential I was here.

'I've been a parish priest in Blackpool, Preston and Bournemouth,' he adds, 'and I've worked as a curate in Edinburgh. When I was in Lancashire from 1988 to 2005 I used to work every week on BBC Radio Lancashire.' He has also worn the hats of communications officer for Lancaster Diocese and chaplain of the Catholic Stage Guild. 'I've done retreat work, parish work, media work, safeguarding work. I've had a wonderful time as a priest and this capped it, being on the other side and helping a real professional – not just Sean but all the others – to do their best and get things right,' he adds of 'Broken'. 'It was a privilege to have six [television] hours of a Catholic priest working in the inner city with current problems. Sean did us proud and given all we've been going through the last 20-odd years with all the abuse scandals about priests, this put us in a good light for a change.'

• Jimmy McGovern will be discussing 'Broken' with Fr Denis at two special screenings at SFX on 7 and 8 September taking place as parallel events to the Eucharistic Congress. The events start at 11am with Exposition, Mass and refreshments followed by an episode and discussion from 1.30pm.