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Son of Man (1969)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Son of Man (1969)
For The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 16/4/1969
91 minutes, black & white
DirectorGareth Davies
ProducerGraeme McDonald
Story editorShaun MacLoughlin
ScriptDennis Potter

Cast: Colin Blakely (Jesus); Robert Hardy (Pontius Pilate); Bernard Hepton (Caiaphas); Brian Blessed (Peter); Edward Hardwicke (Judas)

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The story of Jesus Christ, from his struggle with his own divinity in the wilderness, up to his crucifixion on Golgotha.

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Dennis Potter's secular retelling of the story of Christ, Son of Man (The Wednesday Play, BBC tx. 16/4/1969) eschews most of its standard representational elements. There are no miracles, no resurrection, no Mary Magdalene, no Last Supper and no thirty pieces of silver. In their place it offers an occasionally violent, frequently fascinating dramatisation, focusing on the psychological underpinnings of the characters. It opens with a powerful juxtaposition: Jesus in the wilderness, shivering in an agony of self-doubt, while religious agitators in the city are murdered by the Romans during a mass gathering.

Colin Blakeley is a gruff and often combative Jesus, consumed by both uncertainty about his own divine destiny and his overwhelming need to deliver a message of universal love. His ambivalent and contradictory feelings are crystallised in the ten-minute sequence set around the crucifixes when he finally seals his own fate and tells his disciples to let the people of Jerusalem know that he is coming, and that he is their true Messiah. There is also humour to be found in the scene however, when Christ clutches a cross and exclaims "It's good timber, this!"

Judas (splendidly played by Edward Hardwicke) is presented as an essentially loving but timorous and weak-willed figure, unable to stand up to Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton) the High-Priest, who himself, at the end, displays uncertainties about his actions, while the dissolute Pilate (Robert Hardy) is clearly also unnerved when Jesus tells him not to be afraid.

Provocatively shown just after Easter 1969, the play met with little controversy or resistance, perhaps due to its evidently low budget. Potter later expressed regret that it was "shot on video in three days in an electronic studio on a set that looks as though it's trembling and about to fall down". While there are numerous technical infelicities (the boom microphone is clearly visible in one shot when Christ speaks to his disciples at the cross), the production nonetheless has a powerful starkness, a quality enhanced by the total absence of music. This also made the script eminently suitable for stage adaptation, the first of which premiered six months after the television broadcast. Potter's theatre version has a less cruel conclusion, with Christ crying "It is accomplished", instead of the chilly finale of the BBC version, in which there is only silence after Christ's dying utterance, "Why have you forsaken me?"

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. A new Messiah (2:17)
2. Two leaders (4:40)
3. 'Stupid, selfish, murdering Man' (3:06)
4. Save him from himself (2:27)
Second Coming, The (2003)
Blessed, Brian (1936-)
Hardy, Robert (1925-)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)