Sunday, 25 January 2015

Son of Man (1969)

Son of Man is a 1969 edition of the BBC's Wednesday Play strand. Written by Dennis Potter, no stranger to controversy, it tells a truncated version of the Gospel story from the Temptations in the Wilderness to the Crucifixion, excluding the miracles and the majority of the parables, to depict a very human Jesus Christ - as befits the play's title and one of the names Jesus is said to have referred to himself by - played by a fiery, blunt and enthusiastic Irish Colin Blakely.

Described as less the Messiah and more 'Brendan Behan holding court in a public house' Potter's Jesus as brought to life by Blakely angered many, including the NVLA's watchdog Mary Whitehouse who unsurprisingly enough wanted Potter prosecuted for blasphemy. It's a shame really because, whilst Potter deliberately moves away from what he called 'the milk and water Christ' traditionally depicted to show us a man with all the doubt and faults associated with humanity, he does not stray from the Christian message which is palpable - and perhaps even more relatable as a result - throughout.

As Potter said himself;

"There's this brave, witty, sometimes oddly petulant man striding around in an occupied territory knowing and then not wanting to know that he's bound to die and die painfully. And in the middle of it all, to say things that have never been said, and are still not said, about love. As a model of what human behaviour can be like, it still stands supreme"

It's interesting to note that Potter's play emphatically ends with Christ's crucifixion. There is no welcoming comfort or optimism of resurrection here which implies that he is very specifically 'son of man' rather than 'son of God' - a hangover perhaps to Potter's original intention with the play, which was to show a preacher in the Forest of Dean suffering delusions that he was Christ. Equally it also implies that Christ's teachings of love for all and turning the other cheek will always led to failure, violence and death by the establishment. In many respects this lends the piece an air of the modern parable especially reflective of the contemporary society at the time of production, with Potter's Jesus akin to a late 60s revolutionary who is aware that the traditional left (in this case Judaism) are now hand in hand with the capitalist occupying forces (the Romans)  and incites his followers to public demonstration to affect a real change but knows perhaps through his visions that he is always doomed to fail just as Potter knows that westernised capitalism will still have a stranglehold upon us now. Son of Man continues the themes of much of Potter's work; the sense that everything is fated from the off and impossible to change and the stripping back of sentimentality and complete demolition of nostalgia to reveal how everything has always been as it is now.

Sadly the weighty themes inherent in the piece does not make it as grand as it perhaps ought to be and the production is hampered from the off by being shot completely in the studio, much to Potter's dismay, as befitted the TV style and budgetary restraints of the time. A strong cast do their best, notably Blakely, Robert Hardy as Pilate, Brian Blessed as Peter and Edward Hardwicke as Judas, and it is clear they believe in the merit of Potter's play which keeps the thing never less than watchable. A few gory set pieces surprise too and one presumes this stood out from the usual offerings in the schedules back in 1969.

This is just one gem from The Wednesday Play, a precursor to the BBC's Play For Today and Screen One/Screen Two. Many of these are rarely shown on TV and remain unreleased on DVD. The only way to view these greats are on YouTube (where this is available) or via collectors online willing to sell via homemade DVD. To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here

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