by Allan Fish
(UK 1969 90m) not on DVD
Love your enemies
p Graeme MacDonald d Gareth Davies w Dennis Potter ph Robert Wright art Spencer Chapman cos Dinah Collin
Colin Blakely (Jesus), Brian Blessed (Peter), Robert Hardy (Pilate), Edward Hardwicke (Judas), Bernard Hepton (Caiaphas), Godfrey Quigley (Roman commander), Patricia Lawrence (Procia),
Between the years of 1965 and 1969, Dennis Potter penned eight plays for the Wednesday Play strain for the BBC. There were the two Nigel Barton pieces which helped to make his name and the well-praised Alice, detailing part of the life and influences of Lewis Carroll. The last of his octet was undoubtedly the best, as well as being the most powerful and easily the most controversial.
Son of Man was a hot potato from the moment it first broadcast on 16th April 1969. Coming hard fast on the heels of Easter probably didn’t help, but it’s safe to say that, with the exception of Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils, no more incendiary play was ever made for the BBC. Like Russell’s piece it now stands tall as a masterpiece of small screen drama and one of the most revolutionary TV plays ever written. I don’t use the word lightly, for one must bear in mind the date; man’s first steps on the moon were imminent, the students riots in Paris were still fresh in the memory and the free love hippies so frowned on by Daily Mail readers were starting to proliferate society. Into this boiling cauldron of public opinion – that old gorgon Mary Whitehouse was taking legal steps against the BBC for showing the play – Dennis Potter put the feline well and truly amongst the pigeons.
As imagined by Potter, Christ is no serene Messianic figure of veneration, he’s a simple carpenter tortured by visions – indeed the whole play can be seen as a prophetic vision in his head while suffering on the final day of his forty days in the wilderness. He’s a motivational teacher, drawing not so much on spiritual power but on the grandstanding politicos of a very modern state, not talking down to the listeners on the mount but mingling with them like a party leader canvassing votes. His followers are simple working men, portrayed in such a way one would be forgiven for thinking that if this Christ was to return to Earth, he’d recruit from the pubs, taxi ranks and railway stations, not the churches. In their turn, the religious priests of the Sanhedrin are like lawyers clinging to a loophole, determined to outlast the Roman occupancy through stealth and cunning if good works won’t do the trick. The Roman execution party are seen as little more than vicious squaddies giving a good kicking in to instil discipline, the definition of Pilate’s statement “violence is what makes a man.”
Potter’s wasn’t the only controversial Christ, Ray’s King of Kings had been seen as laughably hip and anachronistic, and later we would have the even greater incendiary qualities of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. There’s something altogether more powerful about Potter’s vision than either of those, controversial in that it removes the holiness from the man – no talk of resurrection here, he’s left to die on the cross and that’s it. He’s also a reluctant Messiah, complaining of how God burns inside him, crying out “holy Father, you have hunted me down”, and, most tellingly, and with typical Potter wit, leaning disconsolately against the cross of a recently taken down corpse and muttering “you should have stayed a tree, and I should have stayed a carpenter.” The link between the carpenter and the cross not lost on Potter – Christ inspects the cross to say “it’s good timber this”, and Pilate declaring “he can start making his own cross.” As for the ‘love your enemies’ quote repeated throughout, the irony cannot help but be lost on those who protested against the play’s broadcast. Yet enough of them, what of the cast; Blessed doesn’t do much but was born to be Peter, Hardy is a delicious Pilate and Hepton a fine Caiaphas. But it’s Colin Blakely’s show, and on screen at least, it’s his finest hour and a half, one of the greatest performances ever in a Potter work.