University of Birmingham theologian Dr Robert Beckford returns to our screens over the Easter weekend when he narrates a two-hour TV special exploring the 90-year history of Hollywood's fascination with the Bible.
The Passion: Film, Faith and Fury, being shown on Saturday April 15, looks at how biblical events have been portrayed on the silver screen and how they reflect the social and political thinking of the time.
The programme's content ranges from the first feature film ever made about the life of Christ - Manger to the Cross, in 1912 - which was filmed in Egypt and Palestine, through Jesus Christ Superstar in the Swinging Sixties to Mel Gibson's recent blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. Along the way, the programme covers an entire era of Hollywood film-making, including the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B De-Mille and the 1956 remake starring Charlton Heston.
Archive footage includes clips of King of Kings (1957), Sign of the Cross (1932) and Monty Python's Life of Brian while there are interviews with Hollywood names such as Martin Scorcese, director of the controversial Last Temptation of Christ and actor Robert Powell who starred in the epic Seventies drama Jesus of Nazareth.
"It's a kind of theological Film 2006 with a historical perspective," explains Dr Beckford. "The central focus is that these films tell us more about the times in which we live than they do about Jesus and the Bible stories. All of the films are influenced by the political world in which they were made.
"In the remake of The Ten Commandments, the film-maker explores the tense relationship between America and Russia, while the underlying theme of The Children of Israel is the tyranny of the Communist Iron Curtain in which the American values of freedom and democracy prevail."
In Sir Dennis Potter's 1969 film The Son of Man, Jesus's questioning of his role reflected society's challenging of authority at the time, he says, while The Passion of the Christ represented the power of the neo-Conservative values in American life.
"It was a fascinating programme to make because we filmed in Hollywood as well as in Morocco, where most of the biblical film epics were filmed. It is more pop culture than my usual polemical style."
He is currently making a sequel to the programme exploring how 20th-century music has engaged with Christian religious themes, from the Blues through Elvis to Bono, Sinead O'Connor and Michael Jackson. It is due to be shown in the autumn.
* The Passion: Film, Faith and Fury will be broadcast on Easter Saturday from 7pm-9pm on Channel 4.
Note to Editors:
Dr Robert Beckford is Lecturer in African Diasporan Religions & Cultures at the University of Birmingham. He read religion and sociology at Houghton College in New York and has taught at seminaries and universities in Britain. As well as teaching and researching he is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and radio presenter (BBC WM). In 2004 he was nominated for a Royal Television Society award. He has written five books, mainly in his chief research areas: Black Theology, Rastafari, African American film, reggae, dub and hip-hop audio cultures.
Dr Beckford’s recent Channel 4 documentaries include The Empire Pays Back in August 2005, The Gospel Truth in March 2005, Who Wrote the Bible in December 2004 and God is Black: The Rise of African Christian Fundamentalism, 2004. Radio documentaries include Blood and Fire: Story of Jamaican Independence, BBC2, 2002 and Sound Clash: The Political story of Jamaican sound Systems in Britain, BBC Radio 4, 2004.
Robert also has a regular weekly radio show on BBC Radio WM, on air every Saturday between 8 and 11pm with news, reviews and music focused on the African-Caribbean community.
Note to Picture Editors:
Photograph of Dr Robert Beckford with Hollywood backdrop available on request.
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