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Imagine: Ben-Hur comes to Bath

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Matt Hocken Matt Hocken | 09:56 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Almost exactly a year ago, an idea was formed in a tiny room in the Theatre Royal to bring a Hollywood epic of biblical proportions to the main stage. Ben-Hur was coming to Bath.

The cast and crew? A motley gang of amateurs brought together by a desire to live out their dreams in front of a packed house.

The whole thing didn't come to my attention for quite a while. I was nicely tucked up in my university bubble in Brighton when I got a call from my mum trying to convince me to get back on stage.

Matt Hocken as Ben-Hur. Photo kind courtesy of Nick Spratling, The Official Photographer

Having long forgotten my dream of becoming a professional actor in favour of a degree in sports journalism, I didn't think I would have the necessary skills to get a good enough part.

I came back to Bath after graduating and decided to audition hoping to escape the impending doom of having to find a job.

Never did I think that a month later I would have been cast as Judah Ben-Hur, a role made famous by Charlton Heston.

It's safe to say I felt just a little bit nervous at every rehearsal from then on.

From beginning to end this project was special.

It was the wish of Margot Boyd, the much loved actress who, for over two decades, played Marjorie Antrobus in The Archers, to show ordinary people the joy and excitement theatre could give to their lives. Margot left money in her will to finance an amateur production by the people of Bath.

You will be able to see for yourselves how much fun we all had.

Personally, I can't imagine a better way to spend a weekend than saving lives, racing chariots, being shipwrecked and witnessing the odd miracle or two.

I don't think my friends and family knew what to expect when they heard the news - no one, including the cast, could have imagined the outcome.

We hadn't even finished the chariot race on the day of the first performance.

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The chariot race is what every Ben-Hur production after the film will be judged on and it certainly caused many people sleepless nights. Do you think we pulled it off?

You may see in the programme that every move of the big ensemble scenes were done to counts of eight.

I can assure you, after six months of military drills, that somewhere in a house in Bath there is still some member of the cast doing the vacuuming to beats of eight.

Ben-Hur was never meant to produce 120 people who all wanted to be the next Charlton Heston or Audrey Hepburn.

It was designed to inspire people to get involved and try something different. The result for some people was remarkable - it changed their lives showing them a confidence which they never knew existed.

Matt Hocken appears as Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, on BBC One and BBC One HD at 10.45pm on Tuesday, 14 December.

Ben-Hur is part of the Imagine series. For future programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Tonights Imagine has bought the curtain down on one of the most amazing chapters of my life. I was honoured to have been cast as the evil Messala, Judah's life long nemesis who I was able to go on my journey with and get to know inside out, but I never imagined that it would finish by being part of the BBC's flagship arts programme.
    Margot Boyd's extraodinary legacy has changed the lives of many people involved in this project, me being one and because of that I believe she has achieved what she set out to do and more. I am sure if she was looking down she would have enjoyed it as much as all of us involved. it was worth all the tears and tantrums (sorry for that anyone who was on the end of one of mine) I for one am going to miss it all and everyone who was involved, what can we ever do to match it! So thank you Ben Hur, The Theatre Royal Bath, the BBC and Margot for this wonderful opportunity you gave me. As one acting chapter closes in my life I hope many more will start as this experience has only cemented my wish to lay down my scissors and follow my dream of becoming an actor!
    Martyn Jessop - Messala

  • Comment number 2.

    It is absolutely true to say that Ben-hur was a truly remarkable experience. It wasn't just that we were part of a very fine production; although we were. Part of the experience for everyone involved was to be part of a show that the audiences were amazed and thrilled by; that in itself is a brilliant feeling that gives you a real lift and gave everyone involved that wonderful sensation of being part of a successful show.
    The most important part, I felt, was the whole process. We were involved for nearly a year, starting with various workshops and tasters before the rehearsals proper started. Many people become involved for a variety of reasons. Remarkably many achieved unthought of goals. It showed how arts projects really can provide people with extra dimensions in their lives largely through the creative process and most importantly through the shared experience. A marvellous experience.
    Andy Cork - Gaspar, Galley Slave, Market Trader


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