Monthly Archives: March 2015

The old TV Holy Week




Covering statues in purple during the final stages of Lent is no longer common in Christian churches in the UK, but was practised in this Catholic church in Trinidad, Cuba, in 2014.


The BBC Genome project is strange and wonderful. What possible scientific or cultural value can there be in endless lists of BBC programmes from the past? It seems aimed solely at weird folk like me who are keen to check their memories of childhood viewing habits.

It did offer a source of evidence against which to test my theories about how BBC television’s coverage of Holy Week has withered during my life-time.

When the UK still regarded herself more as a Christian country, and a church-going country, the national broadcaster screened far more religious material. Services each Sunday morning and Songs of Praise in a prime early-evening slot. Drama and documentary often dealing with religious themes, and especially during Holy Week.

One Good Friday in the early 1970s I saw a fascinating documentary called According to the Rules. I needed BBC Genome to remind me of the title and the precise date (1972) but I remember vividly the impact it created. It concerned the libel case brought by a London doctor and ex-Auschwitz prisoner Wladislaw Dering against the writer Leon Uris in 1964, about allegations that he had carried out medical experiments on fellow prisoners. Making my early steps into adult fiction, I had just read Uris’ novel Exodus and been affected by his descriptions of Jewish suffering and heroism. A preview (possibly in the Sunday Times) had described the programme as “painfully relevant to Good Friday”.  Few mainstream journalists would use the phrase today.

Some years later, the BBC1 Play of the Month was rescheduled from mid-evening to tea-time on Easter Sunday for The Chester Mystery Plays. I remember at least part of Tom Courtenay’s performance as Jesus and it is intriguing to see now that the cast included some who later performed in Bill Bryden’s different stagings of The Mysteries : Brian Glover, Paul Copley, John Normington, Tony Haygarth.   I wonder if this version played any part in the genesis of that great National Theatre long-runner. It would be good to see now how it compares.

In the way that the craftsmen of medieval Mystery Plays adapted the Bible text into vernacular English which, in Bryden’s production, was brilliantly rendered by Tony Harrison, a translation into Scots was written by one William Laughton Lorimer. Bryden’s script for The Holy City  in 1986 was based on Lorimer’s New Testament. This updating of the Passion to contemporary Glasgow had a great cast and some fine moments, and it would be interesting to see again now whether the strengths outweighed the flaws.

One other feature of the 1980s on BBC1 was single-actor recountings of the story of Christ’s Passion day by day through Holy Week, filmed outdoors. This must surely have been inspired by Alec McCowen’s successful one-man theatre show of St Mark’s Gospel.  I remember Tom Fleming, Peter Barkworth and Roger Rees, but had failed to notice that each year’s version used a different evangelist’s gospel. As these were short programmes, they were usually screened twice a day, mid-morning and last thing at night.

1987 looks like some sort of high-water mark. That Holy Week you could have seen on BBC1 both The Gospel According to St Luke presented by Bernard Hill and a nightly series called Music from the Masses featuring music from the Mass settings of composers like Berlioz, Brahams, Britten, Fauré and Mozart. On Good Friday itself between both channels were full performances of Verdi’s Requiem and Wagner’s Parsifal, a documentary about the Christian shrine of Walsingham and John Stainer’s oratorio The Crucifixion.  Culture both high and Christian, and still able to be fitted alongside more mainstream fare like Neighbours, Wogan, The Clothes Show and Dallas.

Into the 1990s, and Alec McCowen’s influence could be seen again in the multi-actor, casual-dress performance of The Gospels, with a script written by Giles Havergal. This had already been a Lenten success at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in 1991, and the TV version worked equally well the next year, even with some higher-profile cast additions like Timothy West and Paul McGann.

Holy Week dramas in subsequent years preferred to keep their connection to the New Testament a looser one, with two series of single-actor stories called Easter Stories and Easter Tales imagining the thoughts and experiences of characters like Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, the gardener beside Jesus’ tomb and a serving girl. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was probably a model here. The BBC Genome confirms that for the second series the more secular original title of Tales from the Madhouse was modified.

The classical music and opera inspired by the Passion story had always been a feature of Holy Week television, and some of this was still available on BBC2 in the 1990s. The fashionable young James McMillan introduced a programme of Arvo Pärt choral music on Good Friday 1993 and his own Seven Last Words from the Cross was broadcast each night of Holy Week the next year. On Good Friday in 1994 was Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a semi-dramatic version directed by Jonathan Miller, and in 1998 something similar was done with Poulenc’s Stabat Mater.

In the 21st century, material relating to the Passion story continues on radio. Lent Talks has been a feature on Radio 4 for several years. Radio 3 always has appropriate music throughout Lent as well as the regular EBU day of Holy Week music, usually on Palm Sunday.  Progressively less on TV, though. A religious service of some sort is still screened by BBC1 on Good Friday morning but other programmes on that day or elsewhere in Holy Week whose subject matter could be described as spiritual or sacred, like The Manchester Passion, are rare exceptions.

Shifts in BBC practice in religious broadcasting have of course taken place alongside well-reported long-term reductions in Christian church attendance. For example, a drop in the proportion of the population who consider themselves Anglicans from 37% in 1986 to 20% in 2012.

Nevertheless, these programmes, and others similar, are probably still sitting rejected on shelves or in computer files. Are they really only a memory from the past rather than a cultural resource for the present?



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The death of the Wild West, the birth of…


As the Western gradually became a less popular genre within Hollywood film production during the 1960s and 1970s, its writers and directors dealt more often with the grittier details of life in those US frontier states in the two or three decades after the American Civil War. Many of these films were small budget affairs, like Bad Company and The Culpepper Cattle CompanyI remember Clive James describing, on the Cinema TV programme, how the latter made the West look “about as glamorous as a clogged sink”.

Two released in 1969 were The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill. The Wild Bunch featured established actors William Holden, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine, while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cast the already famous Paul Newman and made a celebrity out of his co-actor Robert Redford. Both narratives, however, are set in the early 20th century, well past the frontier’s most celebrated times. Particularly interesting are those sections in both films which highlight how the world is changing around these ageing gun-slingers.

The Wild Bunch opens in a law-abiding town, populated by well-dressed families, which is disrupted violently by a shoot-out between Pike’s band of outlaws and the band of bounty hunters hired by railway boss Harrigan.  Instead of coins or bullion, the gang’s bank break-in gains them only metal washers.  This is just one symbol of how their way of life has become old-fashioned and redundant.  Another is where these horse-riders encounter the powerful presence of the new automobile owned by the Mexican general Mapace.

The film presages the imminence of World War One through the character of the German arms expert investigating the availability of American munitions. The later use of the machine gun demonstrates the brutally efficient methods of killing which are now becoming available, while Pike’s gang are still involved in the business of stealing rifles.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begins with a summary of the past exploits of the Hole in the Wall Gang as presented by the new whirring movie camera with accompanying melancholy music . As the film’s opening holds the sepia colours of the previous newsreel, Butch Cassidy is presented with evidence of changing times. A “beautiful” old bank has been replaced by something more secure but uglier simply because “people kept robbing it”.

Comparable to the Wild Bunch’s meeting with the automobile is a scene in Butch Cassidy where a bicycle salesman takes advantage of the crowd assembled by the marshal to raise a posse in order to publicise his new product. Just as Pike in The Wild Bunch seems knowledgeable and impressed with the new motor-car, Butch Cassidy is attracted to the bicycle. He is seen riding it both solo and with the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend Etta Place as a saddle companion, demonstrating that, although dissatisfied with the modern design of banks,  he is comfortable with other examples of technical progress.

Both outlaw gangs are aware of the need to adapt to changing times. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns, those days are closing fast”, exhorts Wild Bunch leader Pike.  He and colleague Dutch have several reflective exchanges about personal limitation, the risks of armed robbery as a lifestyle and the importance of integrity.

Butch Cassidy suggests at first that he and the Sundance Kid should join the army to fight in the Spanish-American War but they eventually opt to move to the east coast of the USA and then to Bolivia to escape the authorities. Their plight is clarified most vividly by a friendly sheriff:  “It’s too late – you should’ve let yourselves get killed a long time ago when you had a chance … your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody and all you can do is choose where.”

Both groups of outlaws are thwarted in their efforts to move with the times.  The Wild Bunch agree to acquire weapons for the Mexican army, but the contract becomes complicated by their Mexican member Angel who wants to help local villagers in their struggle. Some of the weapons are transferred to the villagers, with unhappy consequences. Moving to Bolivia, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid find legitimate jobs as payroll guards for a mining company which immediately lead to people being killed, and to the very first time, according to Cassidy, when he has been required to shoot anyone face to face.

Towards the end of Butch Cassidy, the outlaws, returning to crime, are involved in a gunfight with the local police, which has them  wounded and pinned down. The final ending of their violent deaths at the hands of dozens of Bolivian soldiers becomes a freeze frame which changes further into a archetypal sepia newspaper photo.  The elegiac music from the opening returns;  romantic individual daring and ambition have been crushed by anonymous modern military might.

The final gunfight at the end of The Wild Bunch comes after they have failed to negotiate Angel’s release from the Mexican army. As Pike starts random shooting, his face wears an expression of scorn and anger. He first shoots the German arms negotiator perhaps because he is a character of notable corruption, but mostly they are killing because it is all they know how to do. Women, children, possessions and buildings are destroyed in the mayhem which the Wild Bunch have begun.  After the battle, the wind and the exodus of survivors from the fort suggests that it has been in some way an essential episode of cleansing.  Certainly it encourages Thornton, the former colleague who has been leading a group of bounty hunters in pursuit during most of the film, to join Sykes (the last surviving member of the gang) and the Mexican villagers in what might be a more committed revolutionary enterprise against the Mexican authorities.

Only a year after its release, around 1970, the compilers of The Sunday Times Cinema series were already confident in choosing The Wild Bunch as one of the Ten Great Westerns.  I recall that the brief recommendation about the film  (written I think by Tom Milne) ended with “this really is the death of the West”. Actually, I always felt that the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the more bleak and tragic. I might also add that, while its conclusion could be said to foreshadow the excessive slaughter which will soon be repeated a million-fold across the Atlantic Ocean, the end of The Wild Bunch might hint at how similar equipment and attitudes will be employed differently elsewhere, starting with the Russian Revolution.


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