Tag Archives: Easter

There be monsters



Some time ago, I discovered Stephen Prince’s website A Year in the Country.  It sought to investigate the strange, frightening and paranormal aspects of the English countryside through his own photography and also by analysing other artistic work such as the writing of Alan Garner and John Wyndham, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and A Field in England, music by folk-rock artists of the 1970s and some later musicians like Kate Bush and Virginia Astley, and some neglected TV drama.

I have since found that Prince’s successful completion of one year has spawned several more, plus a published book and music production.

A recent musical work which fits perfectly into the ambit of A Year in the Country is Pastoral by Elizabeth Bernholz, who performs under the alias of Gazelle Twin. I was guided towards it by two trusted sources, the BBC Radio 3 programme Late Junction  and the online publication The Quietus, who both regarded it one of the best albums of 2018.

The title suggests its subject is a peaceful and stable English countryside. The landscape on the album sleeve evokes the sylvan landscape of painters like Claude Lorraine. The tracks have titles like “Little Lambs”, “Tea Rooms” and “Sunny Stories”.



However, Bernholz’ music shows that she does not believe in an idyll of stability and safety. It is cluttered and dissonant. Sometimes there are heavy bass-like beats, sometimes the sounds are higher-pitched and meandering. The instruments will mostly be keyboard synthesisers but others sound like the flute and the harpsichord. Singing voices are sometimes individual and female, sometimes in choral ensembles. Various speaking voices interject, both male and female, which are usually unhappy and anxious and angry: “it was much better in my day…the streets were safe then…trust no-one…picking the wound bleeds, pus flows…is it not just criminal…I don’t know what I’m doing here…dirty brawl by the town hall.”

The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually characters who disturb the equilibrium and challenge the established order, such as the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. The figure on the cover of Pastoral appears to be a contemporary equivalent, dressed in red and white motley but also with a baseball cap, a balaclava mask and training shoes.

The tone and atmosphere of Pastoral is similar to what I understand is the tone and atmosphere of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Where the countryside is vulnerable to the modern urban infections of crime and drugs and where one larger-than-life individual demonstrates that the ideal of a settled community respecting tradition no longer applies.

Journalists are fond of linking every piece of contemporary arts work to the UK electorate’s recent vote to leave the European Union  and to the UK parliament’s debates and disagreements about how and whether this should be carried out. But it is true that the populations of small towns and villages are often older and socially conservative and that they did tend to vote to leave the EU as they seemed to feel membership was responsible for their poverty and deprivation and poor economic prospects.

The Gazelle Twin website describes Pastoral as “a deranged absurd reflection of deranged and absurd times”. Certainly an alternative vision for Easter and St George’s Day.


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A welcome to new life


Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.


I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  





“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 


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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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Good Friday in the city streets


Over the centuries, Holy Week and Easter were the focal periods for the creation and performance of many music and drama events. That this tradition was deeply rooted I could see during my first three decades of television viewing. That such programmes have become significantly rarer more recently is clear testament to our society’s chosen secularisation.

I thought that the BBC’s Manchester Passion was one of the better religious popularisations in recent years. When it was first screened in 2006, I was pleased at first simply by the idea of its live broadcast on BBC3 and the later repeat on BBC2 – then, as now, BBC3 was designated as a young person’s channel with an output which did not always appear substantial. Watching,  I was struck by how well many of these Manchester pop/rock songs worked in the different setting, led either by acoustic guitar or a broad bank of strings.   A third strength was Keith Allen’s narrator, exemplified by his grandstanding  introduction: “Manchester…founded by the Romans…bombed by the Nazis and the IRA”. Finally, the form of the whole performance:  the main stage in the centre of the city with the two peripatetic groups heading there through the streets for the inevitable conclusion and conflict; the actors playing Christ and his disciples, the real-life observers carrying in procession the Calvary cross.

Although songs and performances are not uniformly strong, it is a production which I have frequently returned to via You Tube, especially since my recent trip to Manchester gave me closer acquaintance with its city centre locations.



Albert Square in front of the Town Hall – the main setting of the Manchester Passion.



Jesus and his disciples first gather near Manchester’s Anglican Cathedral.



The procession carrying the cross passes near the Central Library as it arrives at Albert Square.




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The drama of Emmaus


The Gospel story of the two disciples travelling near a village called Emmaus on the evening of Easter Sunday who meet a stranger whom they eventually realise is the resurrected Jesus Christ has always made a deep impression on me.

Partly it is to do with seeing at an early age a reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting, where the startling chiaroscuro and the figures’ outstretched arms  made it so much more dramatic, so much more alive than more conventional, flatter biblical scenes.

Partly also it related to my early interest in historical fiction and drama, the genre where real life events and characters are readily mixed with the writer’s imagination. As a Christian child who was fascinated by stories, I was particularly intrigued by the occasional biblical examples, of which the best known is definitely the film of  Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.

Perhaps a school holiday which combined brighter spring evenings with its religious feast helped me to imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the observers of that event taking place as the sun was setting on that Easter Sunday. 

The narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter was presented theatrically from the Middle Ages through mystery plays, and most Christian church services during this season have continued to employ some dramatic elements.  

The theory that the two disciples were actually a man and a woman, Cleopas and his wife, gives the familiar narrative a fresh perspective. In addition, Kenny Wordsmith’s analysis of Caravaggio’s painting offers one particularly insightful comment on the drama. Referring to the fact that Caravaggio’s youthful unbearded Jesus  was once controversial, he says this could be the artist’s way of depicting the moment when Jesus, to use Luke’s expression,  “was recognised when he broke the bread” : someone who looks totally unfamiliar and unbelievable at first is now identified correctly, both by the disciples with him and by us, the viewers.


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Jerusalem the Easter city


In the same way that Bethlehem is the Christmas town, Jerusalem is for Christians the city of Holy Week and Easter.  The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection, as originally told in the New Testament, and the later subject of writing, films, and many factual and fictional TV programmes, takes place in and around Jerusalem.

The  Gospels of Mark and Luke both say that it was around the town of Bethany that Jesus’ disciples  obtained the donkey which would carry him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday,  and Matthew and Mark both agree that it was in Bethany that Jesus spent that Sunday night. The town features earlier in the Gospels as the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus’ raising of Lazurus from the death is commemorated by a church designed by the Italian Antonio Barluzzi.



The mural of Jesus raising Lazarus to life inside the Church of St Lazarus in Bethany.


Matthew and Mark both record that Jesus was also staying in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper when he was anointed with ointment by a woman, thus foreshadowing his death. John also records this event but says the anointing was carried out by Mary at their home in Bethany.  

Bethany is only a short distance from Jerusalem (four kilometres or about two and a half miles) but the construction of the separation wall has made a visit much harder for the modern pilgrim.



Part of the separation wall outside Bethlehem.


En route to Jerusalem, according to Luke, Jesus wept over the city’s future fate. The location where this took place is marked by the Dominus Flevit church, another of Barluzzi’s several churches in the region.



Through the window of the Dominus Flevit church can be the seen the Moslem Dome of the Rock on the Mount of Olives.


After the Last Supper on Holy Thursday,  Jesus went to pray quietly at the garden at Gethsemane, but this is now one of the least quiet pilgrim sites in modern Jerusalem. 



This view of the Church of All Nations at Gethsemane gives a hint of its popularity. The name of this Barluzzi church apparently relates to its international funding but might also hint at its varied architectural influences.


There is still a small garden where some olive trees may date from the time of Jesus. One more modern one has significance as having been planted by Pope Paul VI in 1964, the first pope since the Middle Ages to visit the Holy Land.



The one olive tree in Gethsemane whose provenance is clear and identified: the sign says that it was planted in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.


When Jesus was arrested, he was first taken to the Jewish high priest Caiphas. According to tradition, the site of Caiphas’ palace is below the present-day church of St Peter in Gallicantu. There are dungeons where early Christians were imprisoned and where, according to tradition, Jesus was also detained before being taken to Pontius Pilate.



The church of St Peter in Gallicantu. The name means “cock crow” in Latin and refers to Peter’s denial of Jesus while the latter was under arrest in the early hours of Good Friday.



Information about the dungeons below St Peter in Gallicantu.



The view into the dungeons.


Outside the church, there is a set of  steps, called the Maccabee Steps, which certainly date from two thousand years ago, and along which, tradition says, Jesus walked as he was transferred from the custody of Caiphas to Pilate.



The Maccabee Steps.


The Gospels recount how, on Good Friday, after having been condemned to death by Pilate,  Jesus carried the cross on which he was to be crucified through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of execution on Mount Calvary. Although the exact route of Jesus’ journey is not known, tradition has dictated the particular route of the Via Dolorosa through today’s narrow, busy cobbled streets. 



Crosses left by some pilgrim groups at the end of the Via Dolorosa.


The whole area of what is believed to be the site of Mount Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and  the tomb nearby in which he was buried, is actually now enclosed within the 12th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre.



The chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which marks the site of Calvary.



The rear view of the shrine which marks the site of Jesus’ tomb.



The entrance to the shrine, built in this form by the Orthodox church in 1810. A long queue invariably precedes any visit to the shrine.



In the courtyard outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Reference :

Baldwin, David (2007)   The Holy Land : A Pilgrim’s Companion   London : Catholic Truth Society


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Images from Holy Week


As we move towards Holy Week, secular artists who use its distinctive setting or imagery to deal with ideas of suffering and redemption come to mind.

Rudyard Kipling uses Gethsemane as an image of suffering which cannot be avoided, and also, perhaps, suffering endured as a sacrifice for others.

Ted Walker’s  more recent narrator seems to be an agnostic who wishes to avoid the religious observance associated with Christ’s death and resurrection.  The image of the crucified fox leads to more great description : “like a coloured plaster Christ in a Spanish shrine”, “plugged with black blood”, “stretched on the banging barn door”.

And Walker’s image of the fox recalls for me the artist John Bellany’s similarly powerful use of marine life.


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The bright lights of spring




The daffodil, the cheeringly ubiquitous sign of  the UK spring, is finally appearing.  However, it looks as if, this year, due to the settled cold spell of February and the early Easter, A.E.Housman’s observation that the flowers will have come and gone by Easter Sunday will not be true!


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