Some late news just in. It took 27 years for the truth to be affirmed by a second inquest that the 96 people who died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 were “unlawfully killed,” and that their senseless deaths resulted from a grossly negligent South Yorkshire police force, a failure of ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care (as well as poor design of the stadium). Not a single football supporter was to blame. The verdict, which sent a palpable wave of relief through the whole of Liverpool and was justly celebrated, led to immediate calls for action regarding the police cover-up identified by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. South Yorkshire Police chief constable David Crompton was suspended, and lawsuits are now pending.
I remember the day vividly, watching the horror unfold on live TV at a friend’s house (he was a Nottingham Forest fan), and I remember outrage at the tabloid reports. I also remember watching Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in December 1996. It was wisely repeated on ITV at the weekend and it’s as powerful today as it was then, 20 years away from justice.
I interviewed McGovern, something of a fan, in 1997, on location for series one of The Lakes in Glenridding, Ullswater. We ate scampi and chips in a pub, and enjoyed the clocking-off buzz of afternoon beer. Having written somewhere in the region of 80-100 episodes of Brookside, McGovern told me that he fell out with the Merseyside mandarins over a storyline he’d proposed set around Hillsborough’s first anniversary, in which Tracey Corkhill organises a public burning of the Sun. He said that one of the show’s producers, whom he described as “a bourgeois feminist”, wouldn’t buy it. So McGovern walked. He would subsequently find two outlets for his obsession with Hillsborough: the 1994 episode of Cracker, To Be A Somebody, starring an unknown Robert Carlysle as Albie Kinsella, seeking bloody payback for the tragedy at Leppings Lane; and, more head-on, the Hillsborough dramatisation itself.
I wrote: “To underestimate the impact of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Leppings Lane in 1989 on McGovern’s outlook on this country, is to undermine the man himself.” He warmed to the theme over a second pint: “What happens when an influential sector of society has total contempt for another sector, and nobody supports them? You think, My God, what have I been believing in all my life? These are my comrades, people I grew up with, held in total contempt, and treated like animals, herded into a pen and squashed to death.” (He even described Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz from Cracker as “post-Hillsborough man.”)
Hillsborough, the “docudrama” (demeaning term), still resonates loudly with the same sense of wounded, bereaved injustice that turned to relief and affirmation last Tuesday. The two most recognisable actors in it were McGovern trustees from Brookside and Cracker, Ricky Tomlinson and Christopher Eccleston as John Glover and Trevor Hicks respectively, although McGovern fans will also have known Mark Womack (as Eddie Spearritt) from Hearts and Minds. The rest of the cast were less recognisable, which added to the verité effect. This was not a star vehicle, although watching it again now, you’re basically looking at the future casts of Clocking Off and Shameless; so many people making such an impact in small roles and securing careers. It’s packed with believable, emotional acting performances, chief among them Eccleston’s controlled anger, Tomlinson’s collapse into grief, Annabelle Apsion’s almost unbearable refusal to accept the truth as Jenni Hicks, and Maurice Roeves implacable but fallible as Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Interesting, too, to see Tony Pitts, future stalwart of Red Riding and Peaky Blinders, as a fresh-faced PC in the control booth, and a young Stephen Walters as the tragic Ian Glover (then: Growler off Brookie; now: Dickensian, Outlander, The Village).
It may be McGovern’s finest hour, and it has a lot of hours to compete with. The clarity with which the build-up to catastrophe is paced; the decision when to let the screen go blank, and when to home in on the grief and despair; the power of simple instructions in the infrastructure of self-interest and cover-up, such as the officer telling younger constables not to put any of it in their notebooks (and one defying his order, saying, “Put everything in”). Director Charles McDougall, who went to the US and has recently directed episodes of The Good Wife and House Of Cards, manages to make the disaster itself as tense as a thriller and yet repellent at the same time – you can hardly bear to watch – and captures the moments of humanity in the immediate aftermath with minimal melodrama. This is really happening, before our very eyes.
Hillsborough is available to view for 28 days. If you watched it at the time, please do watch it again; if you didn’t, or are too young to remember the day itself, please put aside preconceptions about HD and sit down with it. (Actually, the grainy ’90s look assists in its newsreel-like verisimilitude.) You won’t forget it in a hurry. I remember it as clearly as when I first saw it 20 years ago. If ITV Drama seems to be going through another renaissance at the moment, Granada was in a purple patch in the 90s, with Gub Neal and Nicola Schindler producing Cracker, Hillsborough, Band Of Gold and Prime Suspect. (Her Red Productions would subsequently make Clocking Off, which arguably made more stars than Skins.)
Like Fitz, we are all “post-Hillsborough,” but what McGovern meant by that in 1997, it no longer means in 2016.