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01 March 2008

The Passion comes to prime-time

The Passion comes to prime-time

The BBC will broadcast a new high-profile drama about Jesus during Easter week.
Krish Kandiah finds out more...

It was busy, but I sat alone waiting anxiously. I kept glancing up at the clock and down at the phone, and then over to the door, hoping nobody I knew would come in and interrupt. As the clock struck 5pm, I dialled the access code and after three rings he picked up. I could have been a spy in an episode of Spooks, downloading information from Danny in L.A.

Well, I really was speaking to Danny from Spooks, or at least the actor who played him, David Oyelowo. He had agreed to speak to me about his role in another BBC drama, The Passion.

David's rise to fame began when he landed a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and attracted significant media attention when he was cast as Henry VI - the first black man to be a king of England in an RSC production. He subsequently appeared in such TV productions as Shoot the Messenger and Spooks, and on the big screen in the acclaimed The Last King of Scotland, as well as Kenneth Branagh's recent As You Like It.

Now an upcoming Hollywood star, David was cast in the part of Joseph of Arimathea in the BBC's prime-time Easter production about the death of Jesus. David told me, "When I first was offered the role, my immediate thought was this is the BBC and HBO: fantastic organisations but not renowned for their sympathies with Christianity. When I got the script, I was sceptical; I thought it would be a watered-down take on the Christian message. I was very surprised and excited to find that it was the Gospel as I know it as a believer of 15 years."

Gospel guardian

Before David relocated with his family to Los Angeles, his home church in the UK was the London International Faith Centre, which he attended regularly. As the only professing Christian in the cast he appointed himself, in his words, "guardian of the Gospel". He was amazed at the immense opportunities for the Gospel even while filming on location in Morocco.

"I arrived on set, and they were hanging on the cross. I couldn't hold it together"

Joseph Mawle, who plays Jesus, is not a Christian, but David describes him as "a wonderfully humble and sensitive actor". He approached David to ask for help, recognising that he was "portraying a character that millions of people build their lives around". He would openly and honestly ask David what Jesus meant to him, and David explained how he "was able to direct him to the parts of the Bible that get to the nub of the matter".

What a great mental image: David in the middle of the Moroccan wilderness dressed in first century clothes, sitting next to a man who looks the spitting image of Jesus and teaching him with an open Bible. It made me smile and also reminded me of the significance of praying for Christian actors in their unique positions of influence.

David described Morocco as "an extraordinary country: timeless in a way, as you don't have to drive out far and you are in a place that feels like Bible times". The reality of the Christian story struck home, and when it was time for him to ask Pilate for the body, he was particularly moved.

"There was a scene with the actors who were playing Jesus and the criminals on the cross. I arrived on set, and there they were hanging on the cross. I couldn't hold it together. It was like being transported to see the image on which you have based your whole life. Basically I wasn't prepared for it."

A phenomenal opportunity

Jesus - The PassionDavid, who feels he has experienced spiritual growth through this drama, is passionate about the potential of the production. "This is a phenomenal opportunity for the Church," he says, describing the series as a high-quality production with a great cast including Mawle, James Nesbitt, Paul Nicholls, Ben Daniels, Laura Fraser and Denis Lawson. Michael Offer (Silent Witness) is in the director's chair, and the screenplay is by Frank Deasy (Prime Suspect).

Episodes will begin on BBC1 on Palm Sunday, 16 March, and will conclude on Easter Sunday, 23 March. From His entry into Jerusalem to His resurrection appearances, Jesus is central in the drama, and He along with His disciples, the Romans and the Pharisees, are intimately characterised. Viewers, like the early disciples, are left at the end trying to understand what has happened and what the resurrection might mean.

David explained that there were struggles in how to depict the resurrection. "This is a deeply spiritual thing and sometimes the best way to depict things is not to show everything in its entirety," he says. "When I give my testimony there always comes a point when I am trying to explain the divine, but how do you explain that to someone who has not seen it yet? We have done it as best as possible."

Of course, since the story is dramatised, the theological, historical and personal details may not be entirely accurate. But the fact is that during the most important week of the Christian calendar, people everywhere, believers or otherwise, will be learning and talking about Jesus.

Andrew Graystone of the Churches Media Council says, "Let's take a break from discussing the state of the Church or the finer points of theology. Instead, let's take our cue from this series and focus our discussions on the person of Jesus."

Make the most of this opportunity...

  • Raise awareness of the series in your church, school and neighbourhood.
  • Express appreciation to the BBC by writing a letter.
  • Contact the Bible Society for a pack of educational materials to accompany the series: www.biblesociety.org.uk
  • Encourage church members to invite friends and neighbours to watch it together over drinks or a meal.
  • Check that your church events calendar does not clash with the programme times.
  • Train church members to answer frequently asked questions about the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus
  • Work with other evangelical churches in your community to advertise Easter services and/or a follow-up course.
  • Consider holding debates, discussion groups or talks in homes, pubs or coffee bars
  • If you are holding an event in connection with the series, contact the local press with a story or an advert.
  • Join the online debate, offering comments in grace and truth in internet discussion forums at www.bbc.co.uk or elsewhere.
  • For information, resources and updates, email info@churchesmediacouncil.org.uk

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