Nearly 25 years separate Ken Loach’s 1993 film Raining Stones and the first episode of Jimmy McGovern’s 2017 television series Broken but they are united by the questions they raise about individual and collective responsibility, the relationship between people and society, and the struggle to maintain humanity and dignity in the face of a system which threatens to destroy hope and self-respect.
Despite Ken Loach being a humanist and a secularist and Jimmy McGovern being a former Catholic, both dramas feature priests as key figures, and in both the struggle to buy a little girl’s First Holy Communion dress provides a focus for observations about class, society and human dignity.
In Loach’s film, written by Jim Allen, Bob’s determination to buy a first communion dress for his daughter highlights the demoralising effects of being jobless and skint and ducking and diving to keep your head above water. At least there is a support system which provides some cash for those who sign on for the dole, unlike in Broken, where we see a welfare system whose calculations are finely-tuned in order, it seems, to withdraw the safety net just when it is most needed.
In Broken, Christina, saving up buy her daughter a communion outfit, can’t get any money for 13 weeks because she was not fired from her job, and is left with nothing to fall back on. No job, no money, no food and not eligible for an emergency loan. In desperation, she tries to conceal her mother’s death for three days, risking a prison sentence for fraud, in order to be able to draw her dead mother’s pension. These are the sums of despair.
There is much humanity but little room for humour in Broken, whereas humour in Raining Stones is a painful counterpoint to the reality of Bob and and his mate Tommy’s situation.
In Raining Stones, Bob needs the money right away, but the van which is essential for work is stolen. Their first disastrous attempt at getting some cash is to steal a sheep and get a butcher to agree to turn it into money-making cuts of meat, in exchange for putting in a fireplace for Tommy.
The slapstick comedy as they capture the sheep is good fun (well, not for the sheep) but the note of despair when they net about £4 for their efforts runs through the film. The contrast is repeated in the enterprise to steal turf from the North Manchester Conservative Club Bowling Green, a scene which has a timeless, almost comic book ‘sock it to the toffs’ delight, and when Bob’s attempts to make some money cleaning drains culminate in the comic pratfall picture of him covered in ordure.
But beyond the laughs, the darkness hovers. A woman takes an overdose after being caught fiddling the meter. Thugs working for loan companies lie in wait for a debtor to collect his dole money, steal the cash and beat him up. We know that Bob’s time will come.
And indeed the film reaches its darkest moment when Bob can’t keep up repayments on the loan which he takes out to fund the communion outfit. The debt is sold on to a loan shark who turns up at Bob’s home and threatens his wife and child. This scene is truly frightening. There is no physical violence, but the shouted threats, the looming, overbearing presence of the two men, the vicious ‘Do you want your daughter to stay pretty?’ create a scene of pure terror.
Tommy’s ebullient wise-cracking facade cracks just once when his daughter, whose rather skanky appearance and evasive manner bely her claim to be a successful cosmetics saleswoman, pays a short visit and gives him some cash. Torn between pride and need, Tommy takes the money and, when alone, breaks down in tears. The money, of course, comes from her drug-dealing, which adds another layer to the complexity of the film’s moral universe.
In Raining Stones, Bob’s fixation on getting Coleen the whole expensive outfit — dress, shoes, headdress (the most popular style is that little bit more expensive, the saleswoman tells them) and gloves is out of all proportion to his ability to pay, and the same of course is true of Broken’s Christina. Why, we might ask, do they buy into the dressing-up, the pageantry, the competition to have the flashiest ensemble?
It is not because of pressure from the church — far from it. In both dramas the priests are opposed to the tradition which imposes huge expense on those who cannot afford it.
Broken’s Father Michael Kerrigan tries to persuade the school to get all the youngsters to wear their school uniform for the ceremony, but in vain.
In Raining Stones, Father Barry offers Bob a secondhand dress in perfect condition. He doesn’t take the offer, of course. We see that the poorer and more desperate people are, the more it matters to be able buy the best for their children, to be seen as being up there with the rest. Theirs is not the world of smart finds in charity shops or snips on ebay, or workwear worn as ironic fashion.
Michael Kerrigan is a more fully realised character than Father Barry, of course, since he will be developed across six episodes. But enough is established in the opening hour to draw us to this compassionate, tormented man whose care for those in his community is based on spiritual belief and tirelessly encompasses physical need. He visits Paula to give her spiritual and emotional sustenance, but just as important, food vouchers.
In Raining Stones, Father Barry’s wonderfully pragmatic solution to Bob’s moral dilemma, that he should not say a word about his part in the vile loan shark’s demise, makes you think that he deserves the free job Bob does on his drains, and hope that those in his parish who can afford it keep him stocked up with whisky.
The significance of a person’s name, its connection with dignity and self-respect, runs through both works.
Bob signs his name on his dole application. His name is written in the nasty little book of debts kept by the loan shark. Over and over again he says he wants his name out of that book.
As Broken continues, we see Roz driven to despair by the shame of being known for her fraudulent signatures, and a young police officer wracked by his decision to place his signature on a false statement.
Arthur Miller’s plays come to mind — Eddie Carbone in A View From The Bridge crying out ‘I want my name!’ and in The Crucible, John Proctor choosing to die rather than sign a false declaration: ‘How may I live without my name?’
How do people keep it together, or as the old folk song asks, How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live? Friendship, support and understanding provide some kind of glue.
Love, faith and prayer don’t put food on the table, but in both works we see the solace of community, of ritual and tradition, and the importance of compassion, forgiveness and self-forgiveness.
The journey to individual responsibility and redemption is fraught with compromise and conflict, but the case for joint responsibility is as clear-cut in the present-day society of Broken as it was in that of Raining Stones, a quarter of a century ago.