The Manchester Passion

Posted on August 29, 2010

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I have just discovered that a video of the whole of this is online. It was broadcast live Good Friday 2006, a modern-day passion play set amongst the streets of Manchester, and using music from the city’s club scene to convey the story. Even for a live outside broadcast, the sound was sometimes not great, and the decision to do some vox pops interviews was regrettable, but the whole remains still the single best piece of religious broadcasting I have seen – imaginative and thought-provoking.

Odd bits of the setting are powerful (Jesus, arrested, is dressed in the orange jump-suit of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner) or funny (check out the kebab van owner at the last supper reading the Da Vinci Code!), but it is the surprising and powerful selection of music that makes it. Beginning in the Upper Room and at Gethsemene, Jesus sings to the disciples ‘Love will tear us apart’ (Joy Division) and James’s ‘Sit down’ (‘Those who fear the breath of sadness – sit down next to me; those who find they’re touched by madness – sit down next to me; those who find themselves ridiculous – sit down next to me – in love, in fear, in hate, in tears, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears – sit down…’)

Judas (played by Tim Booth of James) throws his thirty pieces of silver into a busker’s pot as he sings ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’ (The Smiths); the Virgin Mary (Primal Scream’s Denise Johnson) sings a series of linking songs – Oasis’s ‘Cast no shadow’ (‘Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say, Chained to all the places that he never wished to stay … As they took his soul, they stole his pride…’); M People’s ‘Search for the Hero’; Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’) expressing her feelings about her Son as He travels to His death. There are a couple of stunning duets – Jesus and Judas throw New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ back and forth: ‘And I still find it so hard, to say what I need to say, but I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me, just how I should feel today…Tell me how does it feel, when your heart grows cold…’ And Jesus and Pilate share, improbably but brilliantly, in Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’, singing at each other in unison lines like ‘I don’t think anybody feels the way I do about you now…Just maybe, you’re going to be the one who saves me…’

The effect is no doubt much more powerful if the Manchester lyrics are somewhere in the soundtrack of your childhood and adolescence, as they are for me, but even without, this was a powerful and thought-provoking translation of the gospel narrative into a contemporary setting. The end is astonishingly moving, even watching it again, knowing what’s coming (probably if you know the Stone Roses’ back catalogue better than I do you would have guessed in advance, but…)

It’s an hour. It’s worth it:

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