It takes a great leap of faith for a priest to stand in the wings watching a former Bond villain celebrating Mass and believe it.
But after coaching actor Sean Bean in his latest starring part in the BBC drama Broken, Fr Denis Blackledge admits it was so real it reduced him to tears.
Renowned for his all- action roles in cinema and TV – more than 20 of his screen characters have come to a grisly end - hard man Bean was hardly a shoe-in for the part of Fr Michael Kerrigan.
Yet Fr Denis, who as Broken’s religious consultant was his mentor throughout filming, confessed the Yorkshireman turned out just perfect for the part.
“I watched him grow into the role,” said the one-time priest at St Wilfrid’s in Preston. “Sean will cope with anything as long as it is instructed.”
Broken, a six-parter which airs for the first time tonight (BBC1 9pm), tells the story of a Catholic priest presiding over an urban parish in northern England.
Writer Jimmy McGovern created a character who is “modern, maverick and reassuringly flawed.” Fr Michael is plagued by his own secret struggles, is a man who must be confidente, counsellor and confessor to a community struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the realities of daily life in contemporary Britain.
It is a model Fr Denis can relate to after a lifetime as a Jesuit priest across the UK and abroad.
He has moved 17 times with his job and his latest port of call - St Francis Xavier Church in Liverpool - just happened to be McGovern’s local church when he was growing up on Merseyside. The writer wanted Broken to be set there and Fr Denis was in the right place at the right time when the producers sought an experienced man of the cloth to take Bean and the rest of the cast under his Catholic wing during filming.
“Jimmy was at school down the road and this church is simply the best there is,” said Fr Denis. “People come in here and literally go ‘wow.’ There can’t be a square inch of this church that hasn’t been captured on film during the shooting.”
McGovern, creator of such TV classics as Cracker, The Lakes, Dockers, The Street and Accused, was equally demanding when it came to who should play the lead role Fr Kerrigan.
“Jimmy wanted Sean - he wanted the top man,” said Fr Denis. “And I must say it was the right choice.
“I had to let him (Bean) know what it feels like to be a priest. I had to teach him how to say Mass. He was a quick learner, very easy to work alongside and very approachable. It was very satisfying for me to see how seriously he took his role as a man gifted with priesthood.”
Broken also stars Anna Friel who plays a working mum living with her three children and her mother. She struggles to put food on the table and the lack of money pushes her to the edge.
Fr Denis explained: “The two directors, Ashley Pearce and Noreen Kershaw, were meticulous in their preparation, determined to make the personality and humanity of Fr Michael come over with total authenticity.
“They wanted to know what it was like to be a Catholic priest working in an urban environment in the early 21st century. I told them it starts in the guts, then it goes through the heart of a man who knows his own strengths and weaknesses, vulnerability and personal history. Eventually it comes out in a compassionate understanding approach, with open eyes, listening ear and heart, taking individuals as they come, no matter what the situation.
“For the whole 14-week shoot, from September to just before Christmas, they asked me to be the religious advisor. They used our church here for nine full days of filming in total and I was on tap at all times if they wanted something.
“It was great to see the amount of trust they put in me as religious consultant. When they were filming over 12-hour days I would be on call in the house and they would send a runner for me to ask it this was correct, or that was how it should be done.”
Game of Thrones star Bean, 58, had worked with McGovern before on Accused and admitted he found the role of Fr Michael “very exciting.” But he also confessed the role was “nerve-wracking.”
“I’ve been in church and seen priests in front of me, but when you’re actually up there, looking the other way, and you’ve got the vestment on, it’s quite a different story.”
So he turned to Fr Denis for assistance. “He’s a very approachable man,” he said. “Very knowledgeable and he helped me through that process and making the character look authentic.”
Fr Denis, an ex-pupil of Preston Catholic College and former Father Superior at Stonyhurst College, added: “Sean was determined to get the part absolutely right. The day before filming began he turned up in church with his PA to the Sunday family Mass. As I was coming in I saw some of the young mums pointing and whispering. And there he was, sitting in the front row. I just gave him a nod. He clearly wanted to see how it was done.
“Also one day we had 200 extras in the church including around 40 kids. The kids came in cold and we had to teach them how to receive communion reverently.
“Halfway through the day Sean came up to me dressed in his vestments and said: ‘Denis, they aren’t doing it right.’ He was so determined everything should be correct.”
Fr Denis, keen not to give away the storyline, revealed the final scene in the drama was so emotional he had tears rolling down his cheeks.
“I’m not saying why, apart from they were tears of joy and positive emotion as much as anything,” he said. “I was just so content.”
Broken, with a star-studded cast, runs for six consecutive Tuesdays in the prime time drama slot on BBC1. It has been described as “a state of the nation piece.”