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Fanatics, The (1968)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Fanatics, The (1968)
For Theatre 625, BBC2, tx 29/4/1968
90 minutes, colour
DirectorRudolph Cartier
ProducerMichael Bakewell
AdaptationMax Marquis
Original TV playStellio Lorenzi
 AndrĂ© Castelot
 Alain Decaux
MusicNorman Kay

Cast: Alan Badel (David de Beaudrigue); Leonard Rossiter (Voltaire); Rosalie Crutchley (Mme Calas); John Paul (Jean Calas); Alex Scott (Maitre Chalier); Cyril Shaps (Moynier)

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In eighteenth-century Toulouse, protestant Jean Calas is unjustly accused, tortured and executed for the murder of his son. Voltaire, shocked by the case, fights to bring to account those who perpetrated the injustice.

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Adapted from a successful French television play, 'The Fanatics' is a powerful and haunting drama about religious persecution. Set in eighteenth-century France, the play tells the tragic true story of Jean Calas, a Protestant tortured and executed by the Catholic judiciary following his son's suicide. It was an early colour production, directed for BBC2's Theatre 625 anthology by Rudolph Cartier, whose extensive television career betrays a preoccupation with persecution and fanaticism.

Calas's story is seen in flashback as it is related to the writer and philosopher Voltaire, who fights to clear the dead man's name. Leonard Rossiter's nuanced performance as Voltaire lends the part the determination and moral outrage required of such a formidable figure. John Paul is also notable as Calas, moving from disbelief, to desperation, to defiance of his persecutor. However, Alan Badel makes the greatest impression as the zealot De Beaudrigue, hounding Calas beyond all reason. Badel plays De Beaudrigue not as an evil villain, but as a man blind to his partiality, sincerely believing in his course of action; the character is all the more chilling as a result. Cyril Shaps also appears in one of the 'little man' roles that the actor made a speciality, here the legal clerk Moynier, whose honour forces him to make a stand against the prejudice of his superior.

The bulk of the play was recorded in the studio over two days, with Cartier taking full advantage of the possibilities for retaking and recording scenes out of story order, luxuries that had only recently become available. It made for a particularly polished production, with none of the rough edges familiar from dramas of just a few years earlier. Cartier also made characteristically good use of pre-filming, with scenes shot in advance at one of London's Catholic churches. Overlaid with Latin chants and subtly lit, the sequences of the sinisterly hooded White Penitents are highly atmospheric. Equally effective is the play's striking opening scene, depicting Calas on the scaffold. "Confess!" intones Badel as the victim's limbs are smashed and back-lighting turns the figures into silhouettes.

The torture scenes - considered graphic in their day - attracted some criticism from viewers, but the play was otherwise highly lauded following its sole transmission. 'The Fanatics' is an ever-relevant study of extremism and injustice, and remains Cartier's most potent study of persecution.

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. 'Confess!' (1:19)
2. 'You murdered your son' (3:50)
3. 'Have you heard of the White Penitents?' (2:26)
4. A 'Bloody handed lackey' (3:52)
5. 'Am I the fanatic?' (1:45)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)