Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”1 (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.
Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ (which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem2 ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s
Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes. Author mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd and 1969 audiences were offended. Christ incites them, shouting over their vocal protestation: “Listen to me! Listen to me! God casts the same sun on the honest and dishonest. There is no division with God. The man who tortures you is a man as much as you are a man. If he hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left.” Christ gives no comfort: “and it will hurt twice as much,” he assures them, before ending, “you cannot love money and love God. You cannot hate your enemy and love God.” That’s quite the contrary of what we saw in much of religion in 1969, and what we see today, and it’s no wonder that the telefilm remains predominantly buried (as is the play).once
From Potter’s rendition of the Beatitudes, the English school activist/nutcase Mary Whitehouse3 smelled something that reeked of Communism, and sued to stop the airing of the play on the grounds of blasphemy, claiming that it was a conspiracy intent on removing the myth of God from the minds of men. She lost.
The film might be seen as an extended vision of Christ facing temptation in the desert, and a precursor of his warring with what he envisions to be divine intent at the Mount of Olives. “Is it me?” he asks repeatedly, screaming, desperate. His feet are raw, his beard unkempt. Half-naked, he recruits Peter (Brian Blessed) and Andrew (Gawn Grainger) with such compelling charisma that we completely understand why they drop their nets.
In his ivory tower, Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy) is increasingly agitated by street talk of a messiah to come. After consulting the high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton, typically excellent and surprisingly sympathetic in what is often a two-dimensional villain role), Pilate scoffs at the idea of a peace-loving redeemer: “Violence is what makes a man.” Caiaphas is not far removed from his Roman oppressor when questioning Judas (Edward Hardwick) about what the carpenter has said. He reacts to the Beatitudes with “How can we, the chosen of God, survive if we kiss the sword that will slay us? How can we defend the faith of the true God if we don’t hate his enemies?” Ever the fundamentalist, Caiaphas quotes the prophet Jeremiah to justify his hate. And here we see the interpretation of the gospel that provoked Whitehouse, just as bishop Oscar Romero claimed the the only gospel worth telling was a provocative one.
Potter’s Christ is complex, refusing to succumb to contemporary sophomoric Western labels of conservative/liberal. He would seem a paradox to those who prefer simplistic either/or platitudes; forgiving the adulteress while forbidding divorce as a rejection of love.
Although the role of Peter is disappointingly small, Blessed makes for a swaggering apostle. When Judas seeks to join the fold and asks Christ, “who is my neighbor that I am supposed to love?” Christ answers, “whoever is standing next to you, in the hem of your eye.” Potter’s Christ is an advocate of a social justice that cannot be denied, even by those who would lamely try to label it political. Potter’s Christ espouses a social justice of “faith without works is dead.”
In a vignette under a tree, “Son of Man” ventures into the possessed fanaticism of William Blake. “It’s good timber, this tree. I should be making chairs and tables with it.” Yet, God’s burning him too relentlessly for bourgeois living, and that god-damned tree will be driven into him, and he knows it: “Holy Father, you have hunted me down and opened the top of my head and I have heard you.”
“Should I show man a chair?,” Christ asks sarcastically, “Or should I show him your justice with this tree?” Potter’s Christ is a reluctant one, and he almost loses it as he addresses the tree itself: “You should have stayed a tree and I should have stayed a carpenter.”
The throwing out of the money changers from the temple is surprisingly low-key; a symbolist interpretation more akin to the religious canvases of Odilion Redon than the fiery-colored El Greco. Yet, Christ has transgressed against the money system, and he knows this, too. It’s his moth to the flame moment. As Caiaphas looks on, Christ inches further toward his own inevitable burning, calling those gathered “godless hypocrites” for superficially seeking a sign, and outrageously telling them to pay their taxes and “shut up.”
Hardy makes an enticing Pilate, alternately nasty and unnerved, yet evoking empathy. Still, it’s Blakey’s earthy, heartrending messiah who makes an impression; his spiritual and physical torments are indistinguishable, and there is no comfort from false sanctity. Jerking and moaning violently, he cries “why have you forsaken me?,” looking for clarity. We hope he receives it, that his “Is it me?” may become his “I am.” But that’s on us, because, despite claims made to the contrary, belief is an abstraction. With that cry, Christ is deserted for dead, and “that is that,” says the camera, pulling back. No resurrection, no Easter, no swelling Handel chorus. Just a Good Friday; or rather, the worst, in the least remembered passion of all—yet paradoxically the most memorable and harrowing.
- Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in Wonderland DVD.
- Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.
- A self-appointed guardian of morality, Whitehouse’s other targets included “Dr. Who,” Dave Allen, , Chuck Berry, , Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Potter again with 1986’s “Singing Detective,” and even Evil Dead—she helped construct Britain’s infamous “Video Nasties” list.