Russians pull the strings in Jesus, the puppet show

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A dark, semitic-looking Christ is the star of a new pounds 6m film of the life of Jesus, with Russian puppet versions of the Messiah and his disciples.

It is being produced by Channel 4 Wales and BBC Wales in association with a Russian co-producer, Christmas Films of Moscow, and will be shown in cinemas in 1998.

The surprise about the film, currently being worked on in Moscow and Cardiff, is that with British model animation leading the world in the wake of Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit, Channel 4 and the BBC wanted the Russian co-producers to do the model animation scenes for The Jesus Story.

It has an all-star cast of voices, with Ralph Fiennes of Schindler's List fame playing Jesus. And although they are only voices and are not seen, there were moments of method acting. The executive producer Chris Grace recalled yesterday that for the crucifixion scene Fiennes took off his sandals in the voice studio, stood on tiptoe and stretched his arms wide.

Mr Grace, who is director of animation at S4C (Channel 4 Wales) said yesterday: "There has been great success in Britain with Wallace and Gromit et al but the Russians give their model animation a different language. It's more representational and more realistic. Wallace and Gromit is more stylistic. With the Animated Shakespeare, which we did with the Russians as co-producers, we found they made the animation models real people, and 10-year-olds were completely absorbed."

The production team spent time in Jerusalem taking advice from archaeologists and other Biblical experts. Speaking of the physical portrayal of Jesus, Mr Grace said: "He looks Jewish, rightly. He is slightly dark, Middle Eastern-looking. We deliberately wanted to get away from the traditional white with blond hair and blue eyes figure."

The language in The Jesus Story, whose target audience is aged 9-14, is contemporary and laced with Biblical allusions. Some of the story is told in flashbacks to Jesus's youth, of which there is little mention in the Bible. One scene has him as a carpenter working on a building site for a new synagogue.

Also in the cast of voices are Miranda Richardson as Mary Magdalene, Ian Holm as Pontius Pilate, David Thewlis as Judas and Richard E Grant as John the Baptist. The National Theatre actor Michael Bryant is the voice of God, and the voices of Julie Christie, Antony Sher and William Hurt are also in the cast.

Only yesterday it was revealed that BBC Radio 4 had dropped an irreverent comedy series Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus, written by and starring Irish comedian Michael Redmond. It joked about Mary's virginity and called the Good Samaritan "an insufferable prat". The decision to cancel it was taken by Radio 4's new controller, James Boyle, who is a Roman Catholic. The producers of the new feature film about Jesus were determined to avoid controversy and showed their script to an inter-denominational panel which included Lord Habgood, the former Archbishop of York.

Voicing his approval, Lord Habgood said: "It is a moving and imaginative treatment of the story, basically faithful to the text, and set in dramatic form."

Dr Margaret Brearley of the Institute of Jewish Affairs said the script was "extraordinarily moving - the compression, the pared language, the emotional intensity; the effect is at times startling".