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Nicknamed “The Most Expensive Story Ever Told”, Jesus of Nazareth cost around £9 million to make and was screened on ITV on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in 1977.
Lord Lew Grade said at the time; “I think it’s the best thing I will ever do”. Most critics thought so too.
Lord Grade raised the money to make the drama by flying to Detroit to see the head of General Motors and asking for £3 million. Asked when, Lord Grade replied, “yesterday will be fine”. He got it.
But when the businessmen heard that producer Franco Zeffirelli would be portraying Jesus as a man not myth and would show him as ‘gentle, fragile and simple’ they feared a backlash from America’s Bible Belt and demanded that the name of General Motors be removed from the credits. Happily, Procter & Gamble stepped in as the principal backers.
There were problems, too, with casting. Robert Powell had been chosen for the title role, but the first schoolboy to play the young Christ was dropped – Mr Zeffirelli hadn’t been satisfied.
The older stars were easier to sign and included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peter Ustinov, Rod Steiger and James Mason. But there was some nervousness about the actress for the Virgin Mary. In the end Olivia Hussey – who’d earlier been Franco Zeffirelli’s Juliet – was picked, despite being nine years younger than her ‘son’.
Tunisia became Palestine and building a full-scale model of Herod’s temple ran up a bill of £250,000. It was worth it.
Over six hours long, it encompasses all of Jesus’ life, starting with a surprisingly protracted opening section establishing the story of Joseph and Mary. Powell makes his entrance only after the first two hours, meeting John the Baptist at the river.
The drama was co-produced with Italian state broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), and the result was visually highly assured and frequently extremely effective; the feeding of the 5,000, for instance, is handled subtly, almost as a magic trick, while the crucifixion, shot with hand-held cameras, is powerful and dynamic, aided by an agonised performance by Robert Powell.
Powell was roped by his arms to a wooden crosspiece and hauled five times to the top of a twenty-foot cross before the cameraman had the perfect take. As the crosspiece swung out of control the actor cried out in panic. He said later, “I didn’t have to fake the torment”.
In America, one-third of all television sets were tuned in to Jesus of Nazareth and in Britain at least half the population were reckoned to have watched it. Worldwide, 140 million people were thought to have seen it – a number that increased to 500 million after reshowings in the 1980s.
Herod the Great
John the Baptist
Joseph of Arimathea
John the Evangelist
James Earl Jones