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US Bible hit arrives on UK screens

29 November 2013

by Olly Grant

WHEN the US mini-series The Bible first appeared on cable television earlier this year, few people expected its popularity to extend far beyond the living rooms in the Bible Belt. Eight months on, however, the drama has gone on to break records with an global audience numbering in the millions. Now British viewers will be able to judge for themselves if the hype is justified as the series makes its debut on Channel 5, starting on Saturday night and running for five weeks.

The ten-hour series - created by a husband-and-wife team, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, both television producers - follows the biblical narrative from cover to cover, beginning with Creation story and the Flood, and ending with Revelation. Filmed on a relatively slim budget of $20 million, it features a multi-national cast of relative unknowns, from the Portuguese actor and former model Diogo Morgado as Jesus Christ, to a Moroccan film veteran, Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, as Satan.

Shooting took place in Morocco last year, where the producers used state-of-the-art sets and special effects to visualise some of the Bible's best known stories, from an animal-filled ark to Daniel surviving King Darius's den of lions. The parting of the Red Sea was recreated with rain machines and computer graphics; battle scenes were filmed with a mixture of stuntmen and crowd-extending digital technology.

While critical reaction in America has been mixed, nobody questions the drama's ratings power. Each episode ofThe Biblewas seen by ten million viewers in the US (the official figure for the series is over 100 million); a DVD release sold more than half a million copies in the first week; and the series was recently nominated for three Emmy awards.

Ms Downey, who is best known in the US for her acting role in the dramaTouched by an Angel(she appears as the older Virgin Mary inThe Bible), admits that she was unprepared for the scale of the project's success.

"We dared to dream that it would do well, but I don't know that we ever dared to dream this big," she said last week, speaking on the phone from Florida. "In Australia we've had over ten million tune in. Spain and Portugal had huge numbers; Brazil and Poland, too. Just this week it came out as the most-watched drama in Hong Kong. It's continuing to ripple around the world."

Downey describes The Bible as a four-year "passion project", arrived at through "a decade" of prayer. "The idea to do this came in as a whisper in my heart," she said of the show's origins. "I just felt no one had really done it before. Individual stories have been told, some of them very well, but nobody had tackled the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. So I brought the idea to my husband and we talked it through. He said: 'Well, it sounds crazy, but let's do it.'"

Mr Burnett's extensive TV experience undoubtedly helped the project to gain traction. He is well known in America as the producer of reality hitsSurvivorandThe Voice. But despite the burgeoning appeal of biblical drama after Mel Gibson's $600 million takings forThe Passion of the Christ(2004), many industry colleagues thought it was a bad idea.

"We know that other people in Hollywood thought we were crazy to do it," Ms Downey said. "It was a big financial risk. It's a big risk to do any religious programme."

Downey attributes the show's success to a number of factors, including high production values, a significant grassroots campaign in churches across America, a big-budget advertising drive by the History Channel, where it appeared, and providence. "I think it's a God thing," she said.

Tonally, she says the makers tried to eschew the "scrubbed-clean", self-consciously holy look of older Bible treatments in favour of "gritty and realistic" scenes and characters. "Our characters don't look as though they have stepped out of a dry-clean store," she said. Some critics have demurred: "Is this the most impossibly good-looking cast of a Bible adaptation ever?" ran one Daily Mail headline.

The approach to each story was literal rather than interpretive, Ms Downey added, with script advice drawn from leading evangelical pastors, including Rick Warren and Luis Palau.

UK contributions to the series were significant. Most of the cast members are British, the visual effects were handled by a London firm, Lola, and all three co-executive producers have British roots (Mr Burnett and Ms Downey were raised in Dagenham and Derry, respectively, before moving to the States in the 1980s; Mr Burnett served in the British Army for several years before his TV career, and saw action in the Falklands War).

Channel 5 have supplemented their investment in the series by commissioning Robert Powell, star of Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 filmJesus of Nazareth, to narrate the British version. (The original is voiced by American actor Keith David.)

The British broadcasts are also being sponsored by two Christian organisations. Spring Harvest and What's in the Bible?, a children's DVD series, will share the ten-second video "idents" at the start and end of each episode and in the advertising breaks.

Spring Harvest's director of marketing, Steven May-Miller, says the move represents a "big step" for the organisation. "As far as I know, it's the first time an organisation of our kind has ventured into mainstream sponsorship."

The Revd Malcolm Duncan, of Spring Harvest's planning group, said: "Guests at our Easter-time events come to learn from the stories and teaching in the Bible. Our sponsorship of this series reminds viewers that there are plenty of people out there who still have confidence in the Bible."

Other Christian bodies are helping to promote the series as it airs. Damaris, a charity that produces free Christian resources to accompany mainstream movies, has created a souvenir guide, and is offering gift editions of the DVD release on 26 December that can be ordered online (www.thebibleuk.org). The Bible Society is promoting the same materials.

Ms Downey is currently working on a follow-up drama about the early Church, and a big screen extract from the series of the life of Christ, to be calledSon of God(released in the US on 28 February). She hopes thatThe Biblewill go on to have a similar impact in Britain, particularly as an evangelistic tool.

"I hope that the British Church will see it as the great resource that it is, to get people excited about their faith again. There's an opportunity here for people who don't know Jesus to check it out, because it's a great story, well told. It has been epic how it has brought people together over here."

The Bible will be screened on Channel 5 from Saturday 30 November, at 9 p.m.

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