A piece I wrote for The Times to coincide with the BBC’s new version of The Passion, back in the Spring of 2008. I remember it most for the hair-raising drive across the Atlas mountains from Marrakech to Ouazarzate, on the edge of the Sahara where I spent a couple of days with the production waiting for the weather to behave itself.
Mid-afternoon in the suffocating heat of the Moroccan desert, and a day that began long before dawn is at last building to its climax. On a ridge, overlooking a rugged, rock-strewn valley, a swarm of make-up artists, costume-fitters and prosthetics experts are applying the finishing touches to the loincloth-clad figure of the actor Joseph Mawle. Nearby, in-between swigs from small bottles of mineral water, a quartet of red-robed Roman centurions is rehearsing hauling upright the crude, T-shaped gibbet to which the young Englishman is about to be attached.
Until now the day has been bedevilled by small technical hitches that have put back filming. Mawle, facing the biggest challenge of his young acting career, portraying Jesus’s crucifixion at Golgotha, has been up since 3am. So when, a few moments later, the last-minute adjustments are complete and the call for quiet and then action finally goes out, the sense of excitement is mixed with a palpable sense of relief. Hundreds of hours of preparation and planning, both here in Morocco and back in the UK, are about to come to fruition. Or so it seems.
Seconds after the cameras turn over for the first time, a sudden gust of desert wind throws thick, red dust up into the eyes of Mawle and the centurions. Within moments tripods, chairs and other bits of equipment are being picked up and thrown over by stinging blasts of air. As all eyes turn heavenwards, a bank of dense, livid, purple and grey clouds is settling above the scene, obscuring even the vast Atlas Mountains in the distance. Soon fat gobbets of rain are turning the dusty landscape a dark, muddy brown, sending everyone running for cover. Minutes later, with the storm growing in intensity, filming is postponed.
At least producer Nigel Stafford-Clark hasn’t lost his desert-dry sense of humour. “There are times when I wonder whether I’ve walked into the Book of Job. This definitely feels more like it belongs in the Old Testament rather than the New one,” he says, huddled under a makeshift tent, looking up at the unruly heavens with a world-weary smile. “I do feel like having a conversation with God and saying, ‘Come on, we’re trying to tell this story, give us a break.’”
Stafford-Clark and his team are here in southern Morocco, near the town of Ouarzazate, to film an ambitious new, three-hour version of the Passion, the story of Jesus’s last week on Earth. Despite the fact that it is summer, this is the second time in a week that the production has been thrown by the capricious Moroccan weather. Last week, plans to film Jesus’s arrest by the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane were wrecked by a sudden and unexpected flash flood. “It was extraordinary. One day this place looked like it hadn’t seen rain for centuries, the next it was submerged in water that was roaring down from the mountains,” says Stafford-Clark.
Stoicism is the television producer’s stock in trade, but rarely can it have been required in such quantities. Encounters with biblical storms are far from the first tests Stafford-Clark and his production team have faced. Given the bold, brave and potentially controversial approach they are taking to retelling the story of Jesus’s final days, they are also unlikely to be the last.
The BBC conceived a new version of the Passion, to be broadcast episodically at prime time on BBC1 over four nights through Easter Week, more than a year and a half ago. The appetite for Biblical stories had been proved by the enormous box office success of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Stafford-Clark, who had just brought the acclaimed Bleak House to television in a similar format, sensed an opportunity to breathe new life into the subject.
“I had just watched Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew, which I’d loved when I’d seen it in the Sixties,” he says, by now safely installed in his office at the nearby Atlas film studios, which have become his base. “It is the only successful version I’ve seen of this story. The big American epics in the Fifties, and even the Zeffirelli version with Robert Powell back in the Seventies, were all very reverential. They all made you feel as if you were looking at it through a plate glass window, as if there was a distance between you and what was going on,” he says. “It always felt like King Arthur or Lord of the Rings, as if these events took place in a vacuum.”
Stafford-Clark wanted to ground the story in reality for the first time. “It’s billed as the greatest story ever told and in many ways it is. But in terms of storytelling it never seemed to make a lot of sense. Watching all these other versions, I didn’t understand what Palm Sunday was all about, for instance. He was just a humble preacher from Galilee. Why all this excitement? Why did the high priest react the way he did in condemning Jesus to death? Why did Pilate do what he did? When you are given the story normally, all these things have to be taken for granted. They are part of what you are told. I felt there was a chance to remedy that.”
The key, for him, was to create a drama that allows the audience to feel as if they were in the thick of the action 2,000 years ago. “If you had been in Jerusalem in AD32 you would have witnessed this. You would have seen the crowds, the excitement of his arrival, you’d have got wind of what was going on in the temple. And then you’d have heard rumours that he’d been arrested,” he says. “It’s something that actually happened. This is the thing we are trying to get across.”
The first challenge was to find a writer capable of evoking the turbulent, chaotic political melting pot that was first-century Judaea. He appeared in the unlikely form of the Emmy-winning, Irish-born writer Frank Deasy, best-known for hard-hitting contemporary dramas like Real Men, about child abuse, and Looking After Jo Jo, set in the world of Scottish drug gangs. Deasy’s fast-moving, episodic script shows the tumultuous events of Passover week in Jerusalem from the perspective of all those who took part in it, not just Jesus and his disciples, but Pontius Pilate, the Romans and the Jewish temple authorities too. “As a dramatist, the big challenge was to evoke a world in which this story has not taken place, a world without Jesus or any Christian churches or any of the Christian concepts that are so familiar to us,” he explains.
As well as reading the Gospels and conducting his own research, Deasy spoke to Professor Mark Goodacre, a leading New Testament scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, who was engaged as a historical consultant to the series. It allowed him to add dramatic depth – and potentially controversy – to the orthodox version of the story. Deasy was determined that every character had a story of his or her own. “By the end I hope people feel they have been on a very deep journey with these characters, that they feel they have shared the most powerful week of their life. So everyone had to have a motive that we could understand, a logical psychology to the things that they do,” he explains.
As a result, for instance, Mary Magdalene, played by Paloma Baeza, is portrayed not as a prostitute but as a woman who is, effectively, one of Jesus’s sponsors. “There is increasing evidence that she was a wealthy widow who supported Jesus’s campaign. As he emerged from Galilee, he needed backing,” says Deasy.
Pontius Pilate, played by James Nesbitt, is also revealed in a new light, as a career soldier posted to one of the most troublesome outposts of the Roman Empire. “We see him as a man with a wife and a career and a villa in Rome to worry about,” says Deasy. “Again I wanted his decisions to be plausible. He’s a guy managing a career and a volatile political situation. I think Pilate is an interesting contemporary figure. You can almost view the current situation with the Western powers in Iraq or Afghanistan in the things Pilate says. He is someone who is dealing with people with huge convictions about things that mean very little to him and he is trying to impose order,” he says.
The character who emerges from the shadows of history most strongly in this version of the story is the high priest of Jerusalem’s temple, Caiaphas. In most versions of the story the man who condemns Jesus to death at the hands of the Romans is a one-dimensional figure, the most identifiable bad guy. Through his research, however, Deasy began to see a man who was part priest, part politician, a leader who was faced with keeping a lid on the cauldron of intrigue and insurrection that was Jerusalem during the biggest festival of the year, Passover. So when Jesus appears in Jerusalem, fulfilling an ancient prophesy that the Messiah will arrive on a donkey through the city’s eastern gate, Deasy’s Caiaphas, played by Ben Daniels, is motivated not by bloodlust, but by the need to protect his people from the violence the Romans routinely meted out when tensions rose within the city. “I became more and more fascinated by Caiaphas,” Deasy says. “He is usually a cartoon villain. But he is trying to protect his world for noble reasons. He loves his people and his family. By going down a very human route with Caiaphas it led me into really interesting dramatic territory.”
At the heart of the drama, of course, is Jesus himself. Like Stafford-Clark, Deasy wanted to move away from the image of an otherwordly figure. “In so many other treatments Jesus is pure, floating on a cloud 2ft above the ground,” he says. “He has to emerge as a person to other living people.”
The key to this was giving him a voice that was rooted in the world, something Deasy found in an unexpected place. “I was struggling, so I talked to a friend of mine who is a priest. Every day he makes these concepts fresh to a contemporary audience so I asked him how he did it. He gave me a really simple piece of advice,” he explains. “He said to think of Jesus as coming from Newcastle, as a working-class man from the north of Palestine who speaks Aramaic to fishermen and peasants, who comes to London where people speak Hebrew and are more educated. And he starts to preach the Gospel. He has got to use words that are quite simple, clear and rough at times. He has to explain concepts like redemption, righteousness, forgiveness, in plain, everyday language. This idea of Jesus coming from a real place worked. After that I found a voice for him that was easy and conversational, simple, without being patronising.”
Perhaps the boldest decision Deasy made was the last one. The final episode of the six-part drama depicts the resurrection of Jesus in a way that is open to individual interpretation. In keeping with the Gospels, he reappears to his former friends in different ways, leaving them to decide what it is they have seen.
“A lot of accounts skip the resurrection,” Deasy says. “We have followed the different gospel accounts faithfully. There are lengthy discussions among the disciples about what it means. They are the conversations we would have today in the light of an event like that. It resolves itself in that there is a resurrection of hope among the disciples. There’s a sense of new life, that suffering has been transformed into something meaningful. The extent of what that means as a viewer is up to you.”
While Deasy was completing his script, Stafford-Clark was turning his attention to filming. When he decided to shoot in Morocco during summer, director Michael Offer thought he was crazy. “The old phrase about mad dogs and Englishmen sprang to mind,” laughs the Australian director. “The heat has been challenging, particularly for the actors wearing beards and robes.”
The Atlas film studios have been a favourite location for film-makers from David Lean to Ridley Scott, who filmed sequences for Gladiator here. Every aspect of The Passion’s look was carefully researched. For instance, production designer Simon Elliott and his team went to great lengths to ensure that the last supper was an authentic meal from the Judaea of the time. “The Passover lamb eaten during the festival would be part of the meal, along with herbs and green vegetables,” says Elliott. “There were dates and raisins and unleavened bread and a sausage made of honey and dates.”
In a similar vein, Elliott and his team tried to recreate the crucifixion as realistically as possible. Historical evidence suggests that Jesus would have been nailed to the cross in a way that is at odds with the image that has dominated Christian iconography for 2,000 years. “There has only ever been one archaeological find of a crucified skeleton, in Palestine in the Sixties,” explains Elliott. “The body was in a slightly different position to the classic one, with the legs tucked up and under. Historians think it shows the crucifixion was fiendishly designed. If you could bear the pain of having the nails driven through your ankles you could take the weight and lift up your chest. But if you were put in a position where you couldn’t lift yourself up you died of asphyxia – you were basically suffocated. That’s the reason they broke your legs, so you would very quickly suffocate.”
If the burden of retelling the greatest story ever told was heavy for the production team, however, it was greater still for the man chosen to portray Jesus. A relatively little known actor, acclaimed for his work in the BBC2 drama Soundproof and most recently seen in the gay drama Clapham Junction, Joseph Mawle was Stafford-Clark and Offer’s first choice for the role. He admits he has found it hard and lonely work. “It is incredibly daunting,” he says. “It is in some ways the biggest role you can take on. There were times I got quite shaky about it and thought, I’m really scared, to be quite honest with you. If we don’t like Jesus, then we are in trouble.”
The key, he says, has been to play him as flesh and blood. “He was a man. No two ways about it. The only way I could approach him was not as a god, but as a man,” he says. He has, he admits, been particularly wary of the crucifixion scene. “I am pretty scared about it. I want to get it as right as possible, to play the reality as much as possible and to tell the story as best as possible.”
Frustratingly, however, he will not be doing it today. As word comes through that filming has been abandoned for the day, Mawle heads off to begin preparing to film an interior scene at the studios.
Nigel Stafford-Clark, meanwhile, is in his office, anticipating battles much further down the line. Aware of the scrutiny that the film will get, both here and in the US where the BBC’s co-financier, HBO, will show the drama, he has already begun dialogue with the Christian community. “We have told them what we are doing,” he says. “It’s very important that it doesn’t come as a shock to people, particularly to those for whom it is the most important story in their lives. The reaction has been very positive.”
He is too old and wise a hand to expect it to avoid controversy completely. When he made Bleak House he had to field complaints from the Dickens Society and, faced with a rather broader constituency this time, he is braced for criticism again. He is unapologetic about the approach he and his team have taken, however. “My job is telling stories. The fact that it is the backbone of one of the world’s great religions is what, for me, has stopped it being told properly as a story before because people back away from it. It’s not just a story that is told in churches. It really happened,” he says.
“Our version is not remotely controversial. There is no attempt to twist anything – you don’t see Jesus sleeping with Mary Magdalene or anything like that. We have tried to make it feel like it is really happening. And because you understand why people are behaving the way they are, what Jesus is doing becomes even more extraordinary.”
“With the world the way it is at the moment,” he continues, “anything that is about something that goes beyond your everyday existence is of value. People are looking for something beyond their new car. Telling a story like this quenches that thirst. It makes you feel there is something beyond your own limited existence.”
And with that he leaves his office to head back out towards the set – checking nervously for the arrival of another Biblical storm.