Gospel words

7th April 1995 at 01:00
David Scott on new poetry for Easter.

Words from Jerusalem, BBC 1's Holy Week series, interweaves gospel narrative with music, paintings, and contemporary poems. The prologue to each programme - St John's "In the beginning was the Word" - is brought to us with the image of a sunset and a lone fisherman expertly casting his net across the water. Just in case we're confused about which John is being referred to, we are given a picture of the Baptism to delineate St John the Baptist, from the Evangelist, and again from Sir John Gielgud the actor, whose voice smoothes our way into the historical events.

Sir John speaks the gospel voice through the heavy gauze of the Authorised Version. I couldn't imagine him accepting any other translation, or any director daring it, but the risk might have been worth it in a programme which takes some other interesting risks with language. Gielgud speaks brilliantly: the voice riveting, the involvement absolute, but the creative genius of the gospel writers doesn't shine through the Shakespearianising. It becomes soporific and there's a sense that we've heard it all before.

Not so the poems which are really worth waiting for. In some, the poet takes a character from the biblical story: Roger McGough as Judas's father, John Agard as Lucifer, Simon Armitage as St Peter, Carol Ann Duffy as Pilate's wife, and Pauline Stainer as Mary Magdalene. The camera gets as close as it can to the face of the poet, and in some cases to the short hairs. In this situation it feels like two thirds poet to one third poem, and the concentration is sometimes more on the teeth, or the absence of them, than on the words of the poem.

McGough comes in on the political ticket. He's a Dad's Army supporter of the zealot uprising in which his son, Judas Iscariot, has taken things a bit further than the Home Guard is used to. John Agard's "Lucifer's Canticle for Gethsemane" tries to get the satanic knife into Jesus between the ribs of liberal uncertainty, "Let a moment's wavering weaken his resolve". Stainer's "Wound for a Crucifixion" is very impressive on the balms and spices associated with the Magdalene. Armitage is obviously uncomfortable with the mantle of St Peter, and in "The Morning After the Night Before" nails the great gospel problem of how the faults of people like Judas, and Peter in his betrayal, become, in retrospect, happy faults. "I did fine, made good the work of Christ he said I'd snub him, so I snubbed. Thrice." Duffy's "Pilate's Wife" is suitably steamy, subversive, and provincial, "his eyes were eyes to die for".

Other poets take a more independent view: Harry Guest's benign descriptions of the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple; John Heath Stubbs's moving, blind rendition of "at that hour the sun was darkened"; and James Fenton's "Jerusalem", a broken jigsaw of impressions about the city from the point of view of a foreign journalist overhearing the tour operators, or the tour journalist listening in on the foreign operators.

The resurrection is something of a short straw for a poet, and Peter Levi brings us back to Gielgud, with a rather mulchy, cosmic treatment, "it is another age that has begun, and this is a new earth, where new suns shine. "

The series is worth it for the poets. How wise of someone to get them on board. They are timely reminders that no one owns the crucifixion, certainly not the Church, and their freshness and riskiness does more than poetic justice to the original gospels, which are always more quirky than we give them credit for.

Words from Jerusalem, devised by Joan Bakewell, will be broadcast on BBC 1 from April 9 - 15.

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