I admit to having been a little sceptical about this production beforehand - it's had plenty of pre-publicity, and the 'hook' that the media used this time was the supposed new take on various key 'baddies' - Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas Iscariot - each of whom was said to be presented in a way that attempted to explain his motivations and paint him as a multi-faceted character dealing with his own concerns in his own way rather than some pantomime villain.
I watched it anyway - although I refuse to watch anything which I know will be blasphemous (such as the awful Jerry Springer opera), most reports emphasised that the producer in this case claimed he was making an honest attempt to be faithful to the Gospels.
I can also remember year after year in which I have looked at the TV schedules for Holy Week, only to comment in despair that the only nod towards the importance of this week for the huge numbers of Christians in the country is perhaps a repeat showing of 'Jesus of Nazareth' at 3 am on Good Friday on one of the digital (ie, not universally available) channels.
So for the beginning as well as the end of Holy Week to be marked with a dramatisation of the events leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection - framing the week with prime time BBC1 programming recognising the place of Christianity in the life of this country and the place of this week in the lives of Christians - is, I think, an occasion for some celebration. It even has a couple of big names as an added pull for the audience - James Nesbitt, Paul Nicholls...
Tonight, I just noticed in time that the first episode was about to start. As an interesting point of contrast, New Man and I had just been watching Pasolini's 'The Gospel According to St Matthew' on DVD. I love this film, but it has two defects in my eyes - there are too many Significant Silences With Brooding Looks, and Jesus' preaching is angrier and shoutier than I imagine it to have been in reality (to be fair, that might just be because it's in Italian - Italians often sound to me as though they're arguing when they're just having a lively chat!).
'Jesus of Nazareth' is another good attempt, but also suffers from the Significant Silences With Brooding Looks, along with the fact that whenever Jesus is about to perform a miracle, He looks as though He's suffering from severe constipation. And Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' is just too violent for me.
So I was in a receptive mood when 'The Passion' began this evening, with the entry into Jerusalem. It's not perfect, and people will always find things to quibble with. But I found it extremely watchable, and am greatly looking forward to tomorrow's episode.
Joseph Mawle's portrayal of Jesus as a simple man of great charisma is outstanding. The scene where Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. And I loved the scene where Jesus and His followers were gently tending to the beggars at the pool. I also loved the little vignette between Jesus and His Blessed Mother - even though I wasn't entirely happy at the way Our Lady was portrayed (as a little disillusioned, jaded perhaps). Yes, it's a total invention - but I can just imagine a headstrong young man (and let's face it, Jesus was pretty headstrong) having a conversation like that with his mother.
What we saw today emphasised Jesus' humanity, and His great love. It also showed how simple yet radical His message was. I hope to see more of His divinity as the story unfolds, but this is a Jesus I can relate to, with a message I want to listen to and no trickery to distract me from that message. One of the things I didn't like at all in Mel Gibson's version was the computer-generated devil that kept appearing to hammer home to us that something wicked was going on. For me, it was a cartoonish device that wasn't necessary and actually detracted from the simplicity and power of the Gospel message.
This adaptation aims to show some of the historical background to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. It shows the tensions between the Jews and their Roman rulers, the underlying unrest and the fears of the high priests that they would have their authority taken from them by their Roman masters if they were unable to keep the peace.
Is it a whitewash of the villains of the piece? Well, Judas Iscariot felt such guilt at his betrayal of Jesus that he committed suicide. Pontius Pilate could find no fault with Jesus, and washed his hands of him. Look at Matthew 27:24:
Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent. So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said, "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern."
So instantly we see that, while this new interpretation takes some poetic licence to explain the background to the potential riot, and brings in (invents) a whole new sub-plot with the murder of a tax collector by Jesus Barabbas and the latter's subsequent arrest, it doesn't come from nowhere. And maybe it does help us to understand the context in which it was possible for Jesus to be arrested and put to death when all he had done was preach a message of love and peace.
But you know what the best thing is about this new adaptation? As soon as it was over, I rushed to my New Testament to remind myself how the same events were portrayed in the Gospels. And a hugely watchable prime-time TV drama which provokes a bit of thought and causes anyone to reach for their Bible is one which I think should be welcomed. Mel Gibson never did that for me.