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
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
"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
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.