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Writing The Preston Passion from the ground up

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Colin Heber-Percy Colin Heber-Percy | 12:02 UK time, Thursday, 5 April 2012

Here's the brief from Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics:

a) Tell the story of Christ's Passion, his suffering and crucifixion, in a way that's fresh and universal.

And

b) Set it in Preston.

That's it.

Writing drama for TV normally means having a detailed series outline to stick to, or piles of research to trawl through, or a novel to adapt.

But this?

A blank page is always daunting, but this was so blank. Where do you start?

By ripping up the rule book, and going to Preston.

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The self-sacrifice of Jesus is reflected through 12-year-old carer Bella (Aimee Leach)

My writing partner Lyall Watson and I spent six months in Preston talking to local people - faith groups, museum curators, leaders of the immigrant communities, prison visitors and people who came forward generously to share their stories: recovering alcoholics, war veterans, victims of crime and racial abuse and perhaps most affecting - a group of young carers.

All shared stories with us of quiet, personal heroism and sacrifice.

For me this research process was extraordinarily moving and a completely new way of developing television drama.

From the ground up. By listening.

Aaqil and Hilary Martin, the executive producer, wanted the drama to be 'universal'.

It must speak to people of other faiths and no faith as well as to Christians.

By telling very human, personal stories we hoped to avoid falling into the trap of re-enactment.

We wanted enactment, to make the Passion dramatically REAL and close. The story of the Cross as it matters everywhere and at all times, not just in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Bishop Crowther (Ronald Pickup) and Samuel Horrocks (Tom Ellis) in Pilate, part of BBC One's The Preston Passion.

Bishop Crowther (Ronald Pickup) and Samuel Horrocks (Tom Ellis) in Pilate

Returning to the gospel accounts of Christ's Passion we asked what elements must a story have for it to count as a 'passion' story.

And we settled on a formula: a passion story must have at its heart an act of gratuitous self-giving love that somehow turns the world upside down.

No longer blank the page is now a scrawl of notes for many stories.

It's at this point we decide to write not one Passion, but three: to tell the familiar story from three different points of view - Pilate's, Mary's and Jesus'.

So Pilate's story is mirrored for us in the story of Sam Horrocks, the mayor of Preston in 1842.

Confronted by a town in turmoil during a mill workers' strike he must decide between the starving workers on the one hand, and the powerful mill owners on the other.

Like Caiaphas in the gospel, the Church of England sides with the mill owners and the strike leader's fate is sealed.

Our connection with Mary, the mother of Jesus, is through one of the many women who ran a free cafe on Preston railway station for the troops during World War I.

She bravely continues to serve while awaiting news of her soldier son.

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Mary (Samantha Bond) waits for news of her soldier son

And the self-sacrifice of Jesus is reflected here and now by a 12-year-old girl.

The daughter of an alcoholic mother, Bella cares for her young brother and sister.

As she shops, cooks, baths and loves them she passes through the traditional Stations of the Cross (the stages in Christ's journey to his death).

It's a way of telling the Passion story that satisfies me as a committed Anglican, and Lyall, an agnostic.

Did we ever argue about religion? Of course. But then having written together for years we argue about everything.

And most importantly we both feel enriched by our encounter with the Passion and with the people we met in Preston.

The Preston Passion has been a turning point for both of us - a reminder of why we wanted to write in the first place - to share stories. To share.

Colin Heber-Percy is the co-writer of the three short dramas which form part of The Preston Passion.

The Preston Passion is on Friday, 6 April at 12.00pm on BBC One and BBC One HD.

If you are affected by any of the issues featured in the Preston Passion, and would like some advice, please visit the Help and Support information page (available until 16 May).

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I object to Ferne's introduction to what I consider a great production, as she started
    her narration by telling us of the 'story' of Christ's Passion. This is NOT a story, but
    the revelation of a genuine happening. Christianity is based on fact, and should not
    be portrayed as an imagining of certain events. Otherwise, a real treat!

  • Comment number 2.

    Colin - could you let us know where the music for the three shorts came from?

    Thanks.

  • Comment number 3.

    What an inspiring telling/story/recreation (pick your own word!)
    Never have I really felt Mary's suffering until today. I cried from my heart, understanding through the story of the WW1 in a way that was stripped of the familiarity with the constant retelling of the gospel. NOW I saw. NOW I felt her pain and anguish. NOW I understood.
    The stages of the cross? Genius.

  • Comment number 4.

    Congratulations on a truly wonderful production.

  • Comment number 5.

    I thought it was disappointing. Especially when compared to the Manchester Passion..

  • Comment number 6.

    The most real, alive telling of the Passion I have ever seen. I was moved to tears of joy at how relevant Jesus' sacrifice is to us all. Well done! It really made my faith seem so alive and relevant.

  • Comment number 7.

    WOW! I am a very proud Prestonian (I was born in St Joseh's hospital which was as near to the town centre as you can get) and everyone involved in this production should be EXTREMELY proud of what they have achieved. I found it very, very moving and had tears streaming down my face most of the time. I don't know where or how one can nominate something like this for an award but it certainly deserves one. It really brought the Christian message up to date and must have touched many people's hearts. Thank you so much BBC for letting us all see this wonderful production and congratulations to everyone who took part.

  • Comment number 8.

    pattimac's last sentence is spot on, but she (he?) should check the definition of "story" -- a historical narrative or anecdote.

  • Comment number 9.

    I thought that this was a brilliant production. It was very moving and reduced me to tears at times.The linking of stories of real people and/or real-life situations to the crucifixion of Jesus showed how relevant the story of Jesus' Passion in today's world still is. It was a very thoughtful and moving production and, to my mind, showed the relevance of the Christian Faith in the world today. Well done to the BBC and to everyone who took part.

  • Comment number 10.

    I was unusually moved by the Preston Passion. I know the story well but the production gave me new insight and perspective. Most of all I was struck by the humanity of the piece - the ache of loss, the pain that so often accompanies care. Thank you Preston, thank you to all who contributed.

  • Comment number 11.

    This was a compelling account of the heartbreaking Good Friday emotions. Like others I was unexpectedly moved to fierce tears by a mid-day televised portrayal, from cold grey Preston, of past and present sorrow and bereavement, which are an inescapable part of the human condition. The script and acting were worthy of the subject.

  • Comment number 12.

    I was greatly moved by the whole experience. This meant more to me than any number of religious programmes. Something to which anyone, believer or not, could relate. An amazingly sensitive production.
    Pattimac, the introduction was written to include everyone, whether or not they believe in Christianity.

  • Comment number 13.

    Superb production - like others moved me to tears - proud to be from the City of Preston - is this going to be made available to purchase on a DVD especially in view of forthcoming Guild

  • Comment number 14.

    A wonderful and moving production, like many others we were moved to tears. Would like to think we shall see other bible stories written in the same sensitive and moving way to which everybody can relate.

  • Comment number 15.

    I agree with all the comments - apart from number 5 -it was a wonderful production and a truly inspired work of art. A worthy contribution for Preston Guild year. Thank You (don't mind paying the license fee for this calibre of programme).

  • Comment number 16.

    I was at my own church service this morning so only watched the Preston Passion a little while ago. It has taken my heart completely by surprise and had me in tears. I loved the three plays. I wept with Mary [Samantha Bond] as she grieved her son, and found the story of the girl's self-sacrifice absoutely beautiful. Well done to all involved.

  • Comment number 17.

    i have just watched this absorbing, relevant, moving and beautiful Good Friday gift. like many before it touched my emotions in a very deep way and i thank all the talented prestonians, actors, and the very gifted writers who brought such a meaningful 'passion' to our screens with such a sensitivity and honesty. well done to aaqil for commissioning it. this is my first easter without my lovely husband so this wonderful jewel has been such a blessing. thank you and God bless you all.

  • Comment number 18.

    Quite interesting, involving a very small percentage of the local population, aided by jobbing actors. If you want to see how a Passion is done properly, log onto bbc iplayer and watch Passion in Port Talbot. If you liked the small-scale Preston effort, you will be amazed by the Michael Sheen inspired 3 days of excellence over Easter 2011. Watch it on iplayer as the EBC don't willingly show non-English productions on mainstream channels in your neck of the woods.

  • Comment number 19.

    The British Broadcasting Corporation Four is showing http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011wjxs on Sunday 8th April 2012.

    More clips on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00qcg9f

  • Comment number 20.

    Superb production. It's really good to see televisual craft at the service of the content, and not vice versa. This was a truly moving and enormously relevant experience, thank you very much.

  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks Sue_Aitch for pointing that out. It's at 22-30. Hope all who enjoyed Preston Passion get to see it. Also, congrats to all involved in Preston. But, main article a bit smug and would have been more honest if acknowledging worldwide impact of Port Talbot Passion. Suggest real BBC /EBC execs meeting as follows;
    Exec 1. Seen the reporting of Port Talbot Passion here and abroad? We should have done that.
    Exec 2. Port Talbot? Where's that?
    Exec 1. I'll look it up in the index to my atlas. Somewhere in Wales apparently. Know now why we weren't interested. Don't want to be stuck there for three days over Easter.
    Exec 2. We'll put on a scaled-down version in 2012, in England. Any ideas?
    Exec 1. Preston will do. It's in the north somewhere. It's just below Port Talbot in the index.
    Exec 2. Show it Good Friday morning with loads of pre-recorded parts, so we can all get away for the holiday break straight after. Don't acknowledge influence of Port Talbot Passion. Make it look like our idea.
    Exec 1. No problem. By the time we finish with it, it won't be in the same league.
    Exec 2. By the way, better show the Welsh one sometime. Find a minor BBC channel, late at night, a couple of days later. Make it look as if we came first. Anyone heard of this Michael Sheen guy?
    Seriously, if anyone does watch the Port Talbot Passion, please post your views.

  • Comment number 22.

    Colin loved the Preston passion, was truly moved by it, and my interest was caught by the ww11 part, my Grandmother was a Melling, could you tell me if the story was true, and if I can find more information on Thomas as I believe they were relatives, also is the bible/hyme book on show in any of the museums in Preston. Thank you

  • Comment number 23.

    As a member of the choir I was only able to fully appreciate all that took place when I watched it later. It was a great priveledge to be involved in this amazing performance. What a wonderful prelude to our Guild celebrations. I have heard nothing but praise from everyone who has seen it. The 'Guild Voices' choir in the Guild Hall was a combining of the main musical groups in Preston but only raised approx 250 voices. The Preston Passion produced a very capable choir of over 500. I hope the BBC will find it possible to use this fund of willing talent again before too long.
    On a personal note, the choir and performers were looked after very thoughtfully at all stages of the preparations, with tea, coffee, biscuits and lots of information and guidance about what was happening. It made a long day into a great experience.

  • Comment number 24.

    As one of those involved in coordinating the churches activities through the whole of Guild year, it was great to see so many from different backgrounds and traditions coming together with a common purpose. Mike Smith from the BBC talked about realising the 'creative potential', and I think that this showed what can be achieved. I do hope that we will take this forward to other events of this Guild year, and indeed beyond Guild year. As a Christian, living in Preston, and taking part in the event, I was thrilled by the way in which this passion story and the person of Jesus could be make accessible in a way that the 'church' often struggles to achieve. At a personal level, it brought home the absolute love of God, especially through the words of young Bella " no matter what you do Mum , I'll always love you."

  • Comment number 25.

    Congratulations to all involved in this production. Really enjoyed it. I was particularly moved by the WW1 story and the 2012 story. Beautifully filmed.

  • Comment number 26.

    Many congratulations on an innovative way of telling the Good Friday story. The three short drama pieces were particularly moving. I'm still thinking about them a few days later. It's heartening that the BBC is stepping up its acknowledgement of the Easter message this year.

  • Comment number 27.

    Everyone involved in this marvellous Easter gift should be patting themselves on the back - you have brought a lot of amazed (wow! It wasn't even Sunday!) delight (a treat for the senses) to a lot of people. Thank you all.

  • Comment number 28.

    Watched this with some trepidation thinking it would be too "modernised". However, I found it to be very good and admire all who had any part in it. Like other comments, found I was in tears as it brought home so many aspects of both the Passion itself and more recent similarities. Well done.

  • Comment number 29.

    I have been saddened recently that so many events are not so much enjoyed as viewed through a lens. Not so The Preston Passion! In Good Friday's event, the faces of the crowd mirrored genuine emotions engendered by the three powerful and thought-provoking stories. The music captured community endeavour at its best. The performance showed how teamwork leads to focus and involvement. Congratulations to all professionals for the vision, writing, filming, music, choreography and creativity. I feel those absorbed faces tell the BBC all they need to know about the power of community involvement and participatory arts. Thank you for the sensitive and innovative production of The Preston Passion.

  • Comment number 30.

    Everyone, I can't tell you how touched I have been by these comments. As I hope the blog made clear, The Preston Passion meant such an enormous amount to me as a writer, and as a Christian. So to find that the work has resonated in the way it clearly has is hugely rewarding. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Many of your comments have touched on the 'human-ness' of the story, on the suffering, and the emotions. And I'm really pleased! The Ecce Homo moment in the Passion is particularly important to me - it's the moment where Christ's humanity is explicitly stated (by Pilate.) "Behold, the man." This is what God chooses to share with us; He shares our humanity; we share that story - the suffering and the pain. The theologian Herbert McCabe had a fantastically commonsensical approach to the Crucifixion: "of course Christ was crucified; aren't we all?" To share our humanity, as He did, is to share in our suffering, and our death. So, Patti Davis (comment 17) I was particularly moved by your mentioning this was your first Easter without your husband.

    In this way, the Easter story is such an extraordinary blend of humanity and transcendence, life and death, grief and hope.

    (And I still think 'story' is the right word to use here! Sorry, Pattimac! I don't believe 'story' is identical to 'fiction' or 'untruth.' We make sense of the world by thinking in terms of story. Story is meaning. And in that respect Christ's Passion is THE story.)

    But stories get repeated. And with each repeating they sometimes lose their initial potency, particularly when we've heard them many times, and often in Church. I hoped so much that the 3 dramas of The Preston Passion would be able to borrow and express the dramatic power of the gospel story. So when valmc (comment 6) calls The Preston Passion "the most real, alive telling of the Passion I have ever seen" it absolutely makes my year! Thank you so much!

    To answer a few comments specifically - Dan (comment 2) I'm afraid I'm not sure who composed the original music but they should be credited at the end of the programme. The medieval choral music in the third film is Allegri's Miserere. Perfectly appropriate for Good Friday, and utterly sublime. I hope that answers your question.

    I'd like to thank Patti Davis (comment 17) for mentioning Aaqil Ahmed for commissioning The Preston Passion; it was a bold and brave commission, and he deserves to be commended for making it. He committed an enormous slice of his budget on a very risky enterprise! I hope he feels it paid off.

    Niasbumpy (comment 21) - I believe The Preston Passion was actually in development BEFORE the Port Talbot Passion! But your somewhat cynical script made me laugh, so thank you for that!

    Lyndawaddy (comment 22) - The three women in the Mary story were all fictional. But the women of Preston really did run a free tea room for the troops during the war. And the story is based on letters that I read in the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Fulwood Barracks in Preston. The prayer book with the bullet hole in it is also kept at that museum. The website is: www.lancashireinfantrymuseum.org.uk

    I'd like to thank everyone again for your unbelievably moving comments.

    As Jamelia so memorably sang - You've got the love!

    Colin Heber-Percy

  • Comment number 31.

    Hi everyone,

    I’m the researcher on the BBC TV blog. Thanks for taking the time to comment on Colin's post - it was clearly enjoyed by a lot of people.

    Dan #2, in reply to your question about the music on the three short dramas; it was specially composed by Ty Unwin for The Preston Passion.

    If you would like more info about the music which featured in the live event parts of the programme take a look at The Preston Passion programme page which has a list of the music used as well as lots of other info: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00q06xx/features/passion-music

    Many thanks!

 

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