UK 1995, 105 mins
Director: Antonia Bird

Priest arrived as the Catholic Church was under intense media scrutiny, with an ongoing ‘paedophile priest’ scandal and the ‘outing’ of a number of allegedly homosexual priests by gay pressure group Outrage. Priest, though, had a tortured 12-year history behind it, beginning as a rejected storyline for Brookside, on which lapsed-Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern served his TV apprenticeship, before expanding to a ten-part take on the Ten Commandments. In 1991, the BBC commissioned a three-part (later four-part) series, only to axe the project after some eight drafts. It was thanks to that rejection that McGovern threw himself so ferociously into Cracker, and it was thanks to that series’ success that the BBC suddenly rediscovered its interest in Priest, now proposed as a cinema feature.

During his research, McGovern interviewed a gay priest, whose sexual and spiritual torment was exacerbated by his extreme political and moral conservatism. His story became that of Father Greg, who arrives in inner-city Liverpool when his predecessor is unceremoniously ‘retired’ and soon clashes with the older, Guardian-reading Father Matthew, who scandalises Father Greg with his openly political stance on poverty and deprivation and his relationship with housekeeper Maria, in breach of his vows of celibacy. Greg’s moral outrage, however, is undermined when he finds himself charged with public indecency after a gay fling.

Father Greg’s faith, meanwhile, is tested when he learns of a young girl’s incestuous abuse but is powerless to stop it thanks to the sacred seal of the confession. Helpless and desperate, he looks to Christ, but sees in His crucified form not salvation but ‘a naked man, utterly desirable.’ The truth is finally revealed thanks not to divine intervention but human weakness, when Greg, distracted, ends a church meeting early, allowing the girl’s mother to return home and discover her husband’s abuse. The revelation, however, only isolates Father Greg further.

With its powerful themes, Priest was bound to provoke. Barred from Liverpool churches, director Antonia Bird (who had shown a taste for confrontational material with her 1993 homelessness drama, Safe) filmed some scenes in London. The American Catholic League issued an 11-page condemnation of the film, accusing it of attempting ‘to convince the public of the Catholic Church’s malevolence,’ and launching a boycott against Disney, parent company of Priest’s US distributor, Miramax. The UK’s Catholic newspaper The Tablet, however, thought it ‘well-made, honest, courageous and sensitive’.
Mark Duguid, BFI Screenonline,

‘Priest’: a contemporary review
Snorting like a bull limbering up for the matador, an elderly priest levels the wooden beam he’s carrying and charges full-tilt at the elegantly diamond-paned windows of the Bishop’s palace. His improvised battering-ram is a five foot crucifix. Outrageous, powerful and brutally funny, the pre-credit sequence of Priest gives fair warning of what’s in store: a none-too-subtle but trenchant assault on the smug hypocrisies of our time, using organised religion, and specifically the Catholic church, as the chosen blunt instrument.

Jimmy McGovern, here making his debut as a feature film writer, has never scrupled to show his hand, and the sermon he puts in the mouth of the radical Fr Matthew makes it clear enough where he thinks the Church should be standing: ‘If you exploit your workforce, shut down schools and hospitals… aren’t you interfering in Creation and spitting in the face of God?’ ‘That wasn’t a sermon, it was a party political broadcast for the Labour Party,’ comments Greg sourly. But the film pitilessly exposes the futility of his own attempts at priestly duties, gabbling Last Unction over an insensible body on a speeding hospital trolley, or embarking on an ill-fated round of pastoral visits. (Gratified at last, after countless slammed doors and obscenities, to be invited in, he finds himself faced with two Jehovahs Witnesses eager to make converts.)

Not that Priest attacks religion as such; if anything, it affirms the validity of faith by setting it against a backdrop of those who abuse it, the time-servers and bigots – recalling G. K. Chesterton’s comment that Christianity wasn’t tried and found wanting, but found difficult and not tried. The film never descends to facile anti-religious jibes, and even – by tight cross-cutting between Greg’s desperate prayer and Mrs Unsworth catching her incestuous husband in the act – hints at the possibility of direct divine intervention. In the final reel Greg, forgiven by the abused child Lisa, achieves something close to a Bressonian grace.

Bressonian austerity, though, is in fairly short supply. This final scene already packs a massive emotional punch: garnishing it with a solo piano rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ might be thought to verge on overkill. Still, lapses like this scarcely matter, given the fury and savage humour of McGovern’s writing and the energy of Antonia Bird’s direction. Bird draws from her cast – especially Tom Wilkinson as Matthew and Christine Tremarco as Lisa – performances of raw intensity, but the film’s most chilling moment goes to Robert Pugh as Lisa’s father, justifying himself (‘It’s the one thing we’d all like to do’) with wet-lipped relish. The Catholic hierarchy probably won’t be any too pleased about Priest. They should be, though – if only for a film that pays religion the compliment of taking it so seriously.
Philip Kemp, Sight and Sound, March 1995

Director: Antonia Bird
©: BBC
Production Company: BBC Films
Executive Producer: Mark Shivas
Producers: Josephine Ward, George Faber
Associate Producer: Joanna Newbery
Production Executive: Geoffrey Paget
Production Manager: Paul Judges
Production Co-ordinators: Frances Graham, Mary Hare
Finance Assistant: Tanya Latif
Contracts Executive: Maggie Anson
Location Managers: Lisa Gravelle, Donna Rolfe, Ann Harrison-Baxter
2nd Unit Location Manager: Bruce Abrahams
Post-production Supervisor: Ruth Mayorcas
Production Runner: Steven Jones
Production Operatives Supervisor: Harry McClusky
Production Operatives: Mike Hennessey, David Jackson
1st Assistant Director: Brett Fallis
2nd Assistant Directors: Jamie Annett, Amanda Neal
3rd Assistant Director: Fiona Murray
2nd Unit 2nd Assistant Director: Debbi Slater
Script Supervisor: Cecilia Coleshaw
Casting: Janet Goddard
Script Editor: Anna Price
Screenplay: Jimmy McGovern
Director of Photography: Fred Tammes
2nd Unit Camera: Nigel Slatter
Focus Puller: Nick Turnbull
2nd Unit Focus Puller: Robert Shipsey
Clapper Loader: Alwyn Davies
Lighting Gaffer: Steve Blake
Best Boys: Ronnie Mckay, Steve Casey
Electricians: Gary Donahue, Kenny Redford, Mark Clark, Nigel Woods, Mitch Spooner, Bill Tracey, Dave MacKenson
Key Grip: John Rundle
Grip: Keith Elliott
Assistant Grip: Steve Martin
Stills Photography: John Jefford, Nicky Johnston
Film Editor: Susan Spivey
Assistant Editor: Maria Walker
2nd Assistant Editor: Kethi Ngcobo
Production Designer: Raymond Langhorn
Art Director: Sue Pow
Design Assistant: Debbie Reynolds
Production Buyer: Lena Kelsall
Carpenter: Denis Fortune
Painter: David Kirkman
Riggers: Clive Andrews, Michael Redmond, Mickey Seymour, Anthony Rubini
Costume Designer: Jill Taylor
Costume Design Assistant: Jane Hamnett
Dressers: Christopher Bradshaw, Sarah Moor
Make-up/Hair Designer: Ann Humphreys
Assistant Make-up: Carol Galley
Title Opticals: General Screen Enterprises
Lighting Equipment supplied by: Michael Samuelson Lighting
Camera Equipment supplied by: BBC North, I.C.E. Films, Video Film and Grip
Originated on: Eastman Color Film from Kodak
Processing by: Technicolor
Music: Andy Roberts
Music Recording Engineer: Tony Philpott
Children’s Choreographer: Colette Penlon-Byatt
Sound Recording: Dennis Cartwright
Boom Operators: Kate Morath, Steve Thomas
Dubbing Mixers: Aad Wirtz, Adrian Rhodes, Hugh Strain
Sound Editors: Roger Mitchell, Mark Auguste
Assistant Dubbing Editors: Jan Cholawo, Gordon Brown, Derek Lomas
Fight Arranger: Gareth Milne

Linus Roache (Father Greg Pilkington)
Tom Wilkinson (Father Matthew Thomas)
Robert Carlyle (Graham)
Cathy Tyson (Maria Kerrigan)
Lesley Sharp (Mrs Unsworth)
Robert Pugh (Phil Unsworth)
James Ellis (Father Ellerton)
Christine Tremarco (Lisa Unsworth)
Paul Barber (Charlie)
Rio Fanning (Bishop)
Jimmy Coleman (funeral director)
Bill Dean (altar boy)
Gilly Coman (Ellie Molloy)
Fred Pearson (Patrick)
Jimmy Gallagher (Micky Molloy)
Tony Booth (Tommy)
Guiseppe Murphy (man in lift)
Kim Johnson (Mrs Gobshite)
Keith Cole (Mr Gobshite)
Adrian Luty (Jehovah’s witness)
Mandy Walsh, Stephanie Roscoe, Ann Haydn-Edwards, Mike Haydn (guests at wake)
Bobby Martino (Bobby)
Victoria Arnold (girl in confessional)
Gareth Potsig (boy car thief)
Ray Williams (boy with stutter)
Valerie Lilley (Sister Kevin)
Kevin Jones (boy at beach)
Michael Ananins (charge sergeant)
Mickey Poppins (reporter)
Matyelok Gibbs (housekeeper)
John Bennett (Father Redstone)
Charley Wilde, Euan Blair (Tommy’s sons)
Rupert Pearson (man on skateboard)
Marsha Thomason (nurse)
Mauricio Venegas (Chilean band leader)

UK 1995©
105 mins

In Celebration
Mon 27 Mar 20:30; Sun 23 Apr 18:10
Northern Soul
Thu 30 Mar 18:15; Sat 15 Apr 20:40
The Wednesday Play: No Trams to Lime Street + Armchair Theatre: The Hard Knock
Fri 31 Mar 18:20
Of Time and the City
Sat 1 Apr 20:40; Tue 18 Apr 18:20
Saturday Night Theatre: Roll On Four O’Clock + Play for Today: Kisses at 50
Tue 4 Apr 18:10
Billy Liar
Thu 6 Apr 20:30; Fri 14 Apr 18:15; Thu 27 Apr 20:50
Letter to Brezhnev
Fri 7 Apr 18:20; Thu 20 Apr 20:50
Sat 8 Apr 20:40
The Arbor
Tue 11 Apr 20:40; Sun 30 Apr 14:30
Play for Today: Comedians
Sat 15 Apr 15:15
Play for Today: The Land of Green Ginger + Armchair Theatre: The Pity of it All
Sun 16 Apr 15:20
Rita, Sue and Bob Too
Sun 16 Apr 18:30; Sun 30 Apr 12:10
Northern Voices Forum
Sun 23 Apr 15:00
Laughter from Liverpool + intro
Sat 29 Apr 14:50

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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