The Weekend's TV: The Passion, BBC1
Gavin & Stacey, BBC3
Don't pass over this Easter treat
Monday 17 March 2008
"Coming Soon" read the title card at the end of the first episode of The Passion, as viewers were tantalised with teaser previews of the Easter story, and if someone had their tongue in their cheek about the millenarian overtones of the phrase (or the absurdity of treating this particular thriller as if viewers didn't already know the ending) nobody was letting on. You can do quite a few things with a modern-media passion play, but flippancy isn't one of them, and, so far, Frank Deasy's version of Christ's arrival in Jerusalem is unimpeachably serious about its subject. The Moroccan location and the dusty hugger-mugger of some of the street scenes mean that it is fleetingly haunted by the spirit of The Life of Brian, but only the most zealously dogmatic Christian could complain that it was irreverent.
Naturally, at least one dogmatic Christian has already volunteered his services. Stephen Green, the self-appointed pharisee who speaks for Christian Voice, has expressed disquiet at the fact that Deasy's account of Christ's last days should have been at pains to round out the motivations and character of two other notable players in the drama – Caiaphas, the High Priest, and Pilate, the Roman Governor. Mr Green wouldn't be satisfied, I suspect, unless both men appeared on screen accompanied by sulphurous gusts of smoke and a blast of the Carmina Burana. But for the rest of us, religiously minded or not, the prospect of a series diplomatically poised between revealed truth and historical speculation must be something of a relief. If you believe that Christ is your redeemer I can't so far see anything in The Passion that would have affronted that faith. And if you don't, its account of the politics of a week that was critical in world history proved surprisingly gripping.
The drama began with the Judean equivalent of a second-hand car deal, Jesus and his disciples shelled out the shekels for a donkey colt as they approached Jerusalem. This is important for the fulfilment of prophecy, as is the entry through Jerusalem's East Gate, and though some of his disciples questioned the wisdom of this move, Jesus himself insisted on the details. Is he fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy or exploiting it? Deasy leaves this open, I think, though, there's nothing self-seeking or cynical about Joseph Mawle's Jesus, who startles even those most devoted to him by his indifference to the old demarcations between the pure and the polluted. Caiaphas, meanwhile, is struggling to maintain a balance between Jewish resentments and Roman power, and Pilate is trying to keep the peace in a city that is already simmering with religious fervour because of Passover. The last thing either man needs is a messianic preacher to turn the gas up even higher.
In The Lost Gospels , the previous night, Peter Owen-Jones reminded us that the canonical gospels represent a considerably tidied-up version of Christ's story, one which suppresses accounts that emphasise the importance of Mary Magdalene or even question the nature of the crucifixion itself. The Christianity that survived, Owen-Jones argued, was a religion calculatingly shaped for survival, sanctifying the suffering that early believers would almost certainly have to endure. Deasy's drama never goes quite so far in questioning the standard theology, but it does effectively capture the sense that this is still a religion in the making, and that human reactions and errors and self-interest will play a large part in shaping it. That in itself will be regarded as heretical by some, but for anyone interested in drama, rather than a Lenten sermon, it was a considerable relief.
A different kind of second coming for Gavin & Stacey, with a second series arriving to general huzzahs and the waving of palm fronds. I might as well confess that I'm the bloke at the back of the throng grumbling because I was on my way somewhere else and the street has now been blocked by ululating maniacs. Yes, it's lovely that two relative unknowns should have scored such a success with comedy so good-hearted. And, yes, the series does have funny lines and a terrific cast. But I can't help but wonder about the weird way in which Gavin and Stacey continue to be stalked by their respective families, which seems less like a slice of life than a sitcom contrivance. And the very public way in which Smithy exposes his pining dependency on Gavin just looks psychologically implausible to me, as if he's obediently filling out one of his character notes.
Still, I'm wedged in by the crowd for the moment and the performances mean that some gags are very funny. I enjoyed Rob Brydon's performance as Bryn who struggled to get to grips with the concept of parascending, and Nessa's confession that she was still pregnant because she'd watched Vera Drake at the wrong moment struck me as ruefully truthful. Perhaps that other errand wasn't all that urgent after all.
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