Manchester: where Christ is crucified to sound of the Smiths

Jonathan Brown
Friday 27 January 2006 01:00 GMT

The passion of Christ is to be re-enacted on the streets of Manchester this Easter set to some of the most famous pop music to have emanated from the city over the past 30 years.

The unlikely live event, staged by BBC3 with the Church of England, will see an actor portraying Judas reflect on his betrayal as he sings along to an orchestra playing The Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" while Christ is flayed by Roman soldiers.

Earlier in the musical procession through the city centre, the son of God will have foreseen his own downfall, crooning along to Joy Division's dark anthem "Love Will Tear Us Apart". He will then duet with Judas on New Order's "Blue Monday". The procession will pass close to Manchester's gay village, culminating in Albert Square.

Onlookers will be encouraged to join in with tunes including M People's "Search for a Hero Inside Yourself". Unconfirmed reports suggested there may even be appearances by former Happy Monday and Celebrity Big Brother winner Bez, accompanied by the Stone Roses legend Ian Brown and the Black Grape saxophonist Martin Slattery. Speculation has grown that Jesus will dip into the band's back catalogue to perform the baggies' anthem "I Am the Resurrection" as the climax.

Suggestions that the piece was to include the penitent whore Mary Magdalene singing the Buzzcocks' hit "Ever Fallen In Love", left one senior clergyman in the city bemused. "I wouldn't know a Buzzcock from a ballcock so I couldn't really comment on the music," said Robin Gamble, canon evangelist at Manchester Cathedral.

The BBC, however, denied the Northern punk pioneers' classic would form part of the proceedings. Instead, in what is promised to be a "vibrant new twist" to the Gospels inspired by the way "Bach and other composers fused music and the Passion story", pop fans can expect the Manchester Passion to be a somewhat more sedate affair.

The musical director is the composer and arranger Philip Sheppard, professor of cello at the Royal Academy of Music. Not that he is a stranger to the world of rock, having collaborated with Oasis, Scott Walker and David Bowie.

The BBC's commissioning editor for arts, music and religion, Adam Kemp said: "We are excited by the possibility of introducing a new audience to the rich history of the Passion Plays. We're looking forward to involving the people of Manchester in this moving live event and hopefully encouraging them to look on familiar songs with fresh eyes." The crowd will be invited to help shoulder a large white cross in sympathy with Christ and bring along a symbol of their own burden. A Church of England spokeswoman, Gillian Oliver, said: "Something like this can translate the old story into new terms."

In a more conventional celebration of Manchester's musical heritage, it was announced yesterday that the former Smiths bass player Andy Rourke was to stage a charity concert for cancer research.

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