Between Heaven and mirth

The Bible mini-series was a joy, writes Brendan O’Regan

Since my last column I’ve caught up on the last two episodes of The Bible series. Fair play to TV3 and Channel 5 for giving such a huge chunk of prime time TV to a religious series.

While not too enthusiastic about the Old Testament episodes, I got to like Diogo Morgado (pictured) in the role of Jesus, and the women characters were well done, especially the roles of Mary Mother of Jesus (played by co-producer Roma Downey), Mary Magdalen (Amber Rose Revah) and Pilate’s wife (Louise Delamere). There were some useful set pieces – for example the sequence at the start of that fateful Passover week was well handled, with considerable attention given to the political background. The violence was still strong, even at times I thought gratuitous, as in the opening episodes, though not on the level of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. You could, however, see the influence of that other film – e.g. the hooded Devil figure moving through the crowd. The Pilate character (Greg Hicks), though a bit one-note, was one of the most menacing Pilates I’ve seen on film. 

The resurrection always poses a challenge to film makers and this version takes an approach very like that seen in BBC’s The Passion from a few years ago, with Mary Magdalen heading out to the tomb on her own, finding it empty and meeting Jesus. The meeting on the road to Emmaus was conflated into the apostles breaking bread and meeting the risen Jesus in the upper room (in a setting reminiscent of the equivalent scene in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth). There wasn’t much on Jesus’ time on Earth after the resurrection, but the ascension was done reasonably well. At least Jesus didn’t take off like a rocket as in one version I saw.

Unlike many film versions there was some coverage of events from the Acts of the Apostles. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was handled creatively – lots of wind and speaking in tongues but no tongues of fire. The martyrdom of Stephen (Irish accent!) was pretty rough and I don’t remember ever seeing that on film before.

What I thought the series missed out on was the poetic side of the Bible – the Psalms and the parables in particular. Indeed while the series was technically adept I thought an innovative artistic hand was missing.

All in all it was an impressive series in its broad scope, technically it was a fine achievement and there were some worthy performances and a few striking set pieces, but I wondered, especially in the Gospel sequences whether anything that new or exceptional had been done compared to other TV or big screen versions. However, this series may bring the Bible stories to a new generation and make them curious enough to follow it up. Certainly the character of Jesus was portrayed in an appealing way, and now that the Gospel segments are being re-edited into a movie version called Son of God, due for release in February, the reach of this project should increase considerably.

One other thing it lacked was humour, though Jesus was portrayed as a cheerful person. Humour and religion can have an uneasy relationship in the media, an issue explored on last Friday’s God Slot (RTÉ Radio 1), when Rhona Tarrant spoke to various contributors with an interest in the topic. Some of the obvious examples included clips from Father Ted, with commentary from Frank Kelly (Fr Jack), pictured. Kelly, a practising Catholic, didn’t find it objectionable but thought a scene with Mass on a truck was uncomfortably close to the edge. There was the inevitable inclusion of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with the Bright Side of Life song, which Eileen Dunne described as “iconic and irreverent”. I’ll agree with the latter. I would like to have seen consideration of shows like The Simpsons, Citizen Khan and Rev.

Far more interesting were the interviews with Muslim, Sikh and Jewish comedians, when we got perspectives we don’t hear that often, from people who weren’t always well received in their own communities. And, coming from a Catholic perspective Fr Jim Martin (pictured) spoke of his media work bringing comedy and religion together and of the humour in the Bible, which was often missed. In fact he has written a book about it – Between Heaven and Mirth. Must – get hold of it.


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The Big Questions

BBC 1 Sun Jan 12, 10am

Nicky Campbell presides over a special debate asking just one question – should human rights always outweigh religious rights? Recorded in the Octagon at Queen Mary University of London.


DRAMA ON ONE: No Worst There Is None

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A sonic journey into the mind of priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he approaches death.



EWTN Wed Jan 15, 11am

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York provides his perspective on significant religious issues, with audience calls.