Saturday, 3 April 2010

Son of Man, by Dennis Potter

Son of Man was first broadcast on 16 April 1969, in the wake of Easter, in BBC 1's one-off drama strand The Wednesday Play. I first saw it nineteen years afterward, in a religious studies lesson; Good Friday twenty-two years later seemed to be an appropriate time to watch it again.

I can't pretend to an encyclopedic knowledge of Potter's work, but torment and ecstasy enjoyed an intimate relationship for his protagonists. Humdrum human existence has a tendency to the brutal; compassion in its purest form in short supply. Potter's Jesus is introduced in agony in the desert, physically contorted into a hollow in a rock, begging for a clear word from an inner voice. Throughout it will remain open to question whether Jesus is who he claims to be, a man sent 'from God', or instead a man possessed of a particularly infectious form of delusional paranoia. The audience is at first invited to dismiss him, and is then disarmed by his ability to persuade Peter and Andrew (Brian Blessed and Gawn Grainger) to give up their nets and follow him. Even as Jesus builds his reputation and challenges crowds to change their understanding of what the natural order of human affairs is - and telling a conquered people in revolt against Roman rule to love their enemies is presented by Potter as Jesus's most potent heresy - Colin Blakely can gently elide his portrayal from one of an inventive, creative persuader whose faith in the imminent kingdom of God animates his appeal both to the imagination and reason, to a shivering wreck crushed by the weight of his apprehensions of his own nature. There is only one miracle, the driving out of a demon from a woman, and as a play of the 1960s this is presented without question as a psychological disorder; Jesus's therapy of physical contact and conversation, assuring the woman that she is loved by God, is that of a man who has negotiated his own path away from schizophrenia.

Opposed to Jesus in the structure of the play is Pontius Pilate, played by Robert Hardy as a normally assured but hot-blooded member of the imperial officer class. Potter depicts the governor of Judaea and his wife Procla as a formally devoted couple struggling to maintain a comfortable middle age in what they regard as a primitive subject territory. Pilate is not a man of faith; for him Jewish monotheism is a sign of a lack of imagination. Procla, a languid Patricia Lawrence, displays sympathy for the locals but it is at best the condescension of a tourist , urging her husband to show some appreciation for local culture. Their behaviour deliberately echoes those of the prosperous upper middle class of the fictional Home Counties. While Jesus is brought to intellectual clarity and personal charisma by psychological pain, Pilate's energies are enhanced by seeing people hurt each other; he enjoys violence, which he remarks makes a man. His own deployment of pain is casual; when a woman servant asks Pilate to hit her again, having heard Jesus urge her to offer her other cheek, Pilate is so intrigued that (we learn from later dialogue) he flogs her to death. The flogging is unremarkable; the servant's stubbornness is not.

Potter's response to the problem of Judas is to make him an agent provocateur, a member of Caiaphas's temple police, who nevertheless nurses a great love for Jesus and his message. Edward Hardwicke suggests Judas's fragility; he is a reed caught between strong winds, and while Peter condemns him at Gethsemane - 'You bastard' - Jesus only smiles with weary expectation. In the end Judas is a prisoner of the institutional structure which Jesus has no time for: part of the peace against which Jesus raises a sword.

The immediate triumph which Potter allows Jesus is his effect on Pilate, who is disturbed by Jesus in a way which he finds incomprehensible. Facing Caiaphas, the leader of his own religion (interpreted by Bernard Hepton as a cold and embittered head of an administrative machine, nursing a hatred for his position as a collaborator with the system, but dependent on both rank and hate) Jesus had been inarticulate: Blakely's performance is ambiguous as to whether he is paralysed by fear, suffering a catatonic episode, expressing his despair at Caiaphas's questions or else a determination to be carried off to death. Pilate he first meets blindfolded; when the blindfold is removed Jesus's remark is 'Good afternoon'. Pilate throughout the trial is uncertain whether to treat Jesus as a political threat, a potential court jester, someone potentially useful in other ways, or just an irrelevance. (Christianity, as Potter knew, has been all these things to the civil power.) He strikes Jesus for insolence, and then apologises. His reaction to Jesus's 'Don't be afraid, Pontius,' is to move away, repulsed at the insight into himself, and to confirm the sentence of crucifixion. Jesus changes people by example. Pilate is last seen with an expression of contempt on his face as Jesus is flogged by his soldiery; it could be contempt for a Jesus whom Pilate says has condemned himself, but equally the discovery of self-hatred, and also the discovery that violence either no longer thrills or that the pleasure it brings him disgusts him.

For Potter, the crucifixion is the greatest example of all; loving your enemies means at its most extreme letting them do their worst to you without resistance. The final juxtaposition of the replayed desert scene from the beginning, as Jesus asked 'Is it me?', with the crucifixion and Jesus's final 'Oh God... why have you forsaken me?' is oddly underwhelming. This was one of the scenes rewritten for the subsequent stage version, with Jesus being allowed to add 'It is finished' before expiring on the cross.

Back in 1988, my religious studies teacher introduced the play to his class arguing that it posed the question 'Was Jesus mistaken?' The only concession to the supernatural, possibly, is that as Jesus dies, darkness falls. The effect of Potter's change for the stage was to confirm Jesus's career as worthwhile even if he was deluded about his special relationship with God - whatever he thought that relationship was. My memories of the 1995 stage revival - directed by Bill Bryden for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Joseph Fiennes as Jesus - suggest that the crucifixion was much more powerfully-executed. More widely, Bryden expressed first-century Judaea through comparison with the mid-twentieth century Forest of Dean into which Potter was born, combined with frequent singing from Moody and Sankey to represent Potter's family's evangelicalism. Despite Caiaphas's sneers (before he encounters Jesus) at 'the manners of a carpenter' and Blakely's displays both of Jesus's erudition and his appreciative delivery of the evaluation of the cross as a piece of timber which Potter gives Jesus, the Jesus and disciples of Gareth Davies's television production are never quite the working men which Bryden's staging presented or which Potter's dialogue seeks. Rumours of a film version of Bryden's interpretation failed to come to fruition.

While Son of Man has problems - there are several moments, particularly Jesus's meeting with Peter and Andrew, where weak performances would make the scene incredible. Pilate, Procla and their entourage draw on a cultural impression of the colonial governor more current for a 1969 audience than for one in the early twenty-first century, though it should not take long to think of workable equivalents. Son of Man may not seek to make converts, but it might change minds, even through the slow process of laying down thin new layers amidst the soft strata of opinion.


  1. Read your review a few minutes after watching "Son of Man" online, I first saw it as a teenager when it was first broadcast in 1969. I remember being a bit bemused by Jesus rolling around on the ground racked by self doubt in the opening scene, and think the amount of flesh Jesus displayed then and on the Cross struck people as a bit shocking. Of course the lack of the supernatural and no Resurrection was controversial at the time. It's hard to think now that when the BBC broadcast "Jesus of Nazareth" in 1956, it was still illegal for actors to portray Christ on the public stage. I obtained a BD as a mature student so I tend view such portrayals more critically now. I can't help thinking since Mel Gibson's "Passion...", "historical" portrayals have reached something of a high water mark. I personally think something like "Jesus of Montreal" is more likely to engage a modern audience. The last episode of the BBC's "Rev" last year, with a personal story of Passion/Resurrection (and Liam Neeson as alcoholic/Risen Christ), gets my 5 stars.

    1. I've not seen Gibson's film nor 'Jesus of Montreal', and have only occasionally dipped into 'Rev'... but I'm glad you were interested in the review.

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