A lavish new version of the Easter story was unveiled by the BBC this week, and it brought with it the usual murmurings of discontent about the message behind the crucifixion of Christ. Is it about Jesus and his Judean followers wrestling with their consciences? Or maybe a tale of religious fear and Roman heavy-handedness?
To me, though, the message has never been clearer: If you wanted to hang around with the Big Guy and tool about in the desert witnessing miracles and spreading the Word, you’d better have a decent beard.
In the opening scenes from The Passion we had everything from straggly (Jesus) to smoothly conditioned (Judas), but more pertinently, in the case of some of the fresher-faced actors playing the disciples – clearly stuck on.
A headache, then, for the make-up and continuity departments: “Pass the nail scissors and sticky tape, Sheila, Peter’s coming away at the edges again.” Or: “Andrew’s having trouble joining his ‘tache to his goatee – has anyone seen my black felt tip pen?”
Plainly, in the desert of Galilee, JC was far too busy preaching to have time for Timotei. But what I hadn’t ever realised was that he also had that time-honoured beard problem - namely those bits that don’t quite join up.
Jesus - Nagging bald patches
Chin coverage and moustache were healthily lush, but, frustratingly, the sideburns didn’t quite come up to scratch, leaving some nagging bald patches at the jaw. A kind of reverse John McCrirrick, if you will. I don’t want to be crass here, but, in my eyes, the Messiah ought to be able to knock together some decent facial hair if he wants to be taken seriously.
No such worries for Judas, who was sporting the full Brian Blessed – luxurious and rich, and supplemented by a splendid chest rug. Indeed, during the fateful “betrayal with a kiss scene” I was half expecting a family of field mice to leap out and bite Jesus on the nose.
Judas was (somewhat improbably) played by Paul Nichols – remember him from Eastenders? Waif-like and irritatingly tortured (aren’t they all) with a brassy northern accent and the mother who couldn’t act. Joe, his name was, except of course the mother would pronounce it “Jaw” and would wail it tearfully ad infinitum: “Come on Jaw! We have to get out of Albert Square before Grant pummels us to death with a length of lead piping! Oh Jaw, what will become of us?!”
A precursor to Bianca’s much lampooned “Rickkkaaaayyy!” only more sorrowful and pathetic – frankly I would have been delighted if the Mitchell brothers had apportioned them the kicking they so richly deserved. Sadly though, they always got away.
But I digress.
I’m sure there were plenty of other familiar actors disguised behind the impressive face-fuzz – Dean Lennox Kelly out of Shameless was billed, but I never figured out which one he was. With so much hair on show, it makes it that much harder to work out if Matthew or Luke have ever been in Holby City.
Best of all was Caiaphus, the leader of the temple and chief villain – sinister, malevolent, eerily akin to Jafar out of Aladdin. He had the best beard AND the meatiest lines.
I don’t know if it was a deliberate conceit, but while all the disciples sported reasonably verdant beards, the blinkered temple-dwellers all tended to favour the mad grey WG Grace sprawl. “A carpenter from Nazareth claims to be the Son of God?” they would splutter through acres of grey fluff. “What infamy is this? I’ve seen the blasphemer – his beard doesn’t even join up at the sides! String him up.”
Anyway – I thought it worked quite nicely, and it certainly helped in separating the goodies from the baddies – always a bonus is this thorniest of stories. To help matters further, Caiaphus’s sidekicks were all given absurd pointy hats.
Occasionally a Billy-No-Beard, would pop up, making one gasp in wonder at the nudeness of his chin. These included one of my favourite crap actors, Danny from Spooks (David Oyelowo) as Joseph of Arimathea, whose nude chin left his dearth of facial expressions cruelly exposed. Luckily, old Joseph only really had to look outraged or baffled, so Oyewolo was a triumph.
Beards of Evil...
Anybody know a good barbers?
But, of course, the man who has drawn the most column inches among the weekend’s reviewers is wee Jimmy Nesbitt whose first trick was to provide the startling revelation that Pontius Pilate came from the suburbs of Belfast and had a penchant for gentle comedy and romantic pratfalls.
Pilate didn’t have a beard either – the Romans were evidently sticklers for close shaves. He did have some stubble at one point though, but that was just because he’d been dragged out of bed by Caiaphus. Being serious for a moment, this was probably the coolest scene in the whole series – mainly because it involved some real conflict and aggression – not just Jesus cooing at trees and birds and God and stuff. And I’ve always empathised with Pilate who was forward-thinking, realistic and not about to kowtow to the religious freak-shows in either camp.
Despite the easy criticisms (AA Gill once called him the laziest actor in Britain, though by my calculations he has the hardest-working eyebrows), Nesbitt was the best thing in The Passion by some distance.
The BBC has always subscribed to the theory that Costume drama = Good. One commentator made the shocking (and surely libellous) claim that the Beeb are reusing leftovers from the swords-and-sandals epic Rome which was doing the rounds a few years ago. Unbelievable. But I think I would rather see my licence fee frittered away on a couple of camels and a shiny new helmet for Nesbitt than another series of Peter Serafinowicz.
Anyway – these cossies can’t have stretched the budget too much. Some sack-cloth for the disciples and a couple of pointy hats for the Sagan and his temple heavies – job done.
And I’ll take a Beeb period piece over ITV any day of week. Oh, unless it’s Midsomer Murders.
A quick aside: I have become embroiled in an absurd charade at my office recently, whereby a charming female colleague and I (through circumstances too dull to go into to) have resorted to instant messaging one another about the quirky high jinks of John Nettles and friends in the interests of work avoidance.
How this happened, I do not know, because I’d never actually seen an episode, but I was therefore obliged to concoct a tissue of lies regarding my affection for it and found myself falling back on trusted Ironside/Columbo/Diagnosis Murder plot devices to cover my tracks. Turns out quality daytime detective drama series are more or less interchangeable so I got away with it, but how nice to have a British model.
And now the pretence is over – I am furnished with real life knowledge because I’ve actually seen an episode. This one was feature-length AND post-watershed which meant not only were there a glut of cameos from esteemed RADA members trying to off each other in amusing circumstances, but there were also NAKED BREASTS!
Any programme that contains naked breasts AND George Cole and Donald Sinden wheelchair jousting using baguettes as lances or Warren out of This Life jumping into a remote-controlled combine harvester to prevent it chopping up Samantha Bond is going to tick most of my boxes, let me tell you.
Sorry. I digress again.
So The Passion was good – better, I think, than Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ which lost watchability points by being in Aramaic. Nice try, Mel, but I think I’ll suspend my disbelief for a while – even if Jesus does sound 80% too northern:
As for the religious debate angle – I’ll leave that for the experts - suffice it to say that the ending was a trifle gloomy and predictable. One of reasons I’ll always lean towards Midsomer Murders is that you never know until the last minute whether the perpetrator was Richard Wilson in the Library with the cordless Black and Decker Hammer Drill, or Penelope Keith in the Conservatory with the poisoned Kendall Mint Cake.
Plus it is unlikely that John Nettles will be tortured to within an inch of his life and then nailed to a cross to atone for our sins. Not on ITV1 anyway.