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I Am The Resurrection: How The BBC's Manchester Passion Ignited My Indie Adolescence
Fergal Kinney , April 21st, 2022 11:07

An ill-conceived marriage of songs from the city's storied past and the story of Christ's crucifixion was event TV for a 12-year-old Catholic boy in Blackburn

“Welcome to Manchester! Founded by the Romans, bombed by the Nazis… and the IRA!" So began the introduction to BBC Three's 2006 broadcast the Manchester Passion, with a promise of “the sacred and the profane together as you've never seen them before". But this is not Pasolini. This isn't even Andrew Lloyd Webber. This is Keith Allen, gurning in a Gio Goi bomber jacket. Keith Allen?

We might never know exactly how BBC executives arrived at the decision to stage a live retelling of the death and resurrection of Christ through the medium of Manchester indie. Manchester Passion was both live television and what would now be termed immersive theatre, a public spectacle that drew in 7,000 participants. Keith Allen, James vocalist Tim Booth and the late singer Denise Johnson would be the celebrity faces of a show that aimed to recast the greatest story ever told in the image and likeness of songs such as 'Blue Monday', 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and 'Sit Down', all watched over by an eight-metre, illuminated white crucifix that journeyed through Manchester city centre. "Whether it is because they are interested in seeing more, want to be on TV or just love the music, it is still introducing them to this story and that is what it's about, making the story more accessible to a new generation," explained a BBC spokesperson at the time.

Why Manchester? By 2006, the city was in the early flushes of its own strange resurrection. The Provisional IRA truck bomb that had exploded there during the summer of 1996 tied Manchester's fortunes to those of the New Labour government, which would come to power one year later. New Labour's time in office ran parallel to a decade of urban renewal and unprecedented investment and as such, Manchester's cityscape today is arguably Britain's most enduring physical monument to the Blair era – both in its aspirations and its glossy shortcomings. This would be underlined in the beginning of 2006, when the BBC announced – as a concession to tabloid criticisms of its perceived London bias – that it would be moving some of its operations north, to the former Manchester docks, which had sat derelict since ceasing operations in 1982. Manchester Passion would be part faith broadcast, part music spectacle, and part consummation of the corporation's new union with the Greater Manchester conurbation.

Twenty-five miles north in the yawning suburbia on the edge of the east Lancashire town of Blackburn, I was a 12-year-old living with his family. Manchester Passion was, for me, event television – Biro the TV Times listing, set the video. My upbringing had been gently Catholic, but as I approached my teenage years I had acquired a fervour for the faith, and a specific fascination with Jesus Christ that was, in retrospect, perhaps the inevitable end point of a bright, solitary child educated for a decade in Catholic schools.

I was not interested in sport, nor particularly music, nor the other children in my class or on our street. A sensitive child, Catholicism satisfied my need to be taken seriously and for something to take seriously. I associated a robust belief in Christ with my desire to be a good boy – and didn't I want to be a good boy. I can still recall the frisson of pure joy that came with approval from teachers. On Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, I would smilingly busk the chords to hymns at my local church, finding conversation with the local pensioners a far easier prospect than children my own age. My childhood memories involve overwhelmingly more elderly people than they do children. The names that were tossed around my upbringing that I would only later recognise as atypical the names that were tossed around my upbringing – a litany of various Fathers, or Canon Doran, or Dean Deanie (lives on his back). Playing on the park that backed onto our house one warm spring, I remember my mother shouting at me and my sister from the house. “Get inside. White smoke above the Vatican!" We ran in to wait and wait in front of the television for the eventual emergence of the new Pope Benedict XVI. Things could only get better.

The ceremony and performance of Catholicism found its analogue in that broadcast one April weekend in 2006. After Keith Allen's bombastic introduction, the audience was introduced to Jesus, played by the actor Darren Morfitt, striding with purpose through the grassy area outside Urbis where goths used to congregate, as the relatively obscure Morrissey track 'You're Gonna Need Someone On Your Side' played. This introduces the central – or sole – concept behind Manchester Passion. There were Manchester indie hits, arranged acoustically, acted out through the city, and there was Keith Allen on a stage as a kind of coked-up MC-cum-Pontius Pilate. Morfitt's Christ was cast as a scruffy everyman, which created an automatic void at the heart of proceedings. You might well wonder how this charisma-free chancer had attracted the dozen gormless-geezer apostles you saw forming a phalanx around him. Tony Wilson appeared leaning against a burger van, and even this consummate self–publicist looked unsure why he had bothered to appear. As period detail, the burger van attendant cheekily read a copy of The Da Vinci Code, which had that month successfully been defended in a High Court plagiarism case. It was then that we had our first glimpse of the giant crucifix being carried through the city centre, narrowly but firmly avoiding Canal Street. This procession was not mere spectacle, but a focus for some extremely worthy mid-2000s debate about religion in society (namely, had the Beckhams degraded the symbol of the cross?). Broadcaster Ranvir Singh pulled a very serious face and gave us a good idea of what Partridge faith-broadcasting might look like: “You're a punk, but you're also a Christian, how does that work?" “I believe you're a Nigerian pastor!"

The previous year, just before the summer holidays, my friend David had passed on to me an unsolicited turquoise CD-R containing as much of the first albums by Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters as would fit on the disc. Sometimes, I sincerely feel that everything I do now – any enthusiasm for art or culture I might have – is little more than the embers from the intensity of that experience. I spent the summer consumed by its contents. With no artwork or real frame of reference, I clung tightly to the disembodied vocals of Alex Kapranos, his warm, deep voice in my headphones. Was Franz Ferdinand the name of the singer? Were the Scissor Sisters siblings, like B*Witched? The track I particularly loved was called 'Auf Achse', which fused boilerplate adolescent longing (“You see her,ou can't touch her") with a striking description of Christ on the cross.

And now I'm nailed above you
Gushing from my side
It's with your sins that you have killed me
Thinking of your sins, I die

Around the time of Live 8, I noticed that I had begun puberty, though it's hard to stress just how little I knew what to do with this at the time.

Mornings before school and the long, eternal weekday evenings of adolescence were spent slumped in front of the Sky Digital music channels with my brother. Following the shock rupture of the turquoise CD-R (as well as having seen a solitary image of Pete Doherty in a trench coat in my mother's Hello! magazine) we had begun to gravitate from R&B pop channels like The Hits and Kiss to the more alternative VH2 and MTV2. I remember having to deny the obvious and extreme thrills of Girls Aloud's 'Biology' (released in November 2005) because I had now become faintly aware of things like The Stone Roses and Joy Division through those channels, even if I only dimly understood them. I already loved Oasis, though. Quietus readers might scoff at the band, but to be born in the north-west in 1993 is to cultivate a complex relationship with the Gallaghers' group. This was the bold, optimistic pop music of my infant years. How would I have possibly known that they might be derivative? It was a surprise to learn. And if the Gallagher brothers appeared like lad culture, well every single element of my life at that point felt like lad culture. Everything, that is, except the church.

The Catholic church in England had lost its nerve by the time I entered it. Ours was a Catholicism of motivational quotes, hymns arranged to sound like Westlife songs and children being pictured grinning next to piles of 50p coins spelling out the word Cafod on playgrounds. (Cafod, I assumed, was simply the main charity. The big one. Growing up Catholic, you assume everybody else is Catholic.) Why had this happened? Vatican II was one thing, the emergence of the PR industry and a northern European political shift towards a hegemonic free-market liberal centrism was another. In reality, though, the church had more reasons than most to learn how to fix a grin and lean tightly on that overflowing closet. It was living on borrowed time and knew it.

Much like New Labour, the Catholic church in England had adopted an amnesia about dogma in favour of what it perceived to be brand endurance. In both cases, that would be an illusion. In those twilight years between the millennium and the financial crash, my church and the state spoke in a shared lingua franca of bland inclusivity, togetherness, whatever. No wonder when it came to discussion of his own faith, Blair would become one of us, complete with his seemingly mandatory, reflex obfuscation. We sat as children on chilly benches in school assembly halls and heard John Lennon's trite 1970 single 'Love' being played through a PA system during Holy Communion. Lennon was right, the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Who needed who now? The Father had favours to pull in from the Fab Four.

Any institution busily rebranding itself will eventually be faced with its contradictions, like trying to flatten down an ill-fitting carpet. They bubble up. An elderly, Ann Widdecombe-ish recurring supply teacher would regularly turn our lessons into tirades on behalf of the Society For The Protection Of Unborn Children (SPUC), a conservative pro-life organisation whose presence loomed larger over my secondary school education than one might expect in the early 2000s. In one fevered moment, she referred to those who work at abortion clinics as “the Devil's workers on Earth". With the taciturn perception and laser-guided cruelty that is the genius of teenagers, some of the worldlier girls in my year eight class goaded this teacher – who had not married – into confessing to our class that she was a virgin. An extreme case, to be sure, but it was this climate that led to only one boy in my school year coming out as gay. In nightclub smoking areas, years down the line, I would hear of the traumas of boys who had turned to teachers in confidence and been instructed that their desires were only a phase.

Across 12 years of Catholic education, I don't remember ever being told anything of the child sexual abuse scandals – which first emerged then ), and are still breaking now – at any point. It was never referred to. When I saw it mentioned on the television news, it barely registered that it was my church at fault here. Through misunderstanding Catholicism as a universal experience (I really did think that everyone was Catholic) I had missed that this horror was specific to the religion of my upbringing.

Jesus held a single burger bun aloft, and performed the Eucharistic sacrament before segueing at whiplash speed into an acoustic 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. It's here that I began to really notice Booth, a self-described guru who never really shook off the look of a man who was part of the obscure 1980s Lifewave cult – is Judas, a role he performs with hammy, am-dram flourish. His centrepiece was sitting on the steps outside Selfridges, performing an acoustic version of 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now'. It would be this that had the biggest impact on me. What was this? Watching the broadcast with my parents, my father informed me that this was a song by The Smiths. I had seen that band on VH2 and had found the concept of Morrissey a little too overwhelming for a 12-year old getting ready for school. Here, however, the sparsity of the arrangement would foreground lyrics that almost instantly worked through me, Holy Spirit-like. The following Saturday, during the hour or so that I would get to walk around Blackburn town centre on my own while my parents did the big shop, I bought a cheap CD of the 2001 compilation The Very Best Of The Smiths.

After an opening 20 minutes where the concept of the show sort of works, the Manchester Passion reached its undoubted nadir. Songs arrived without any thematic link to the Easter story. Christ stood alone and began singing 'Sit Down'. The footage cut to the main stage, where Allen was having serious, prolonged difficulty getting the audience to sit down. There was a ripple of people beginning to duck on the first few rows before consensus dictated that the Manchester crowd would not be sitting down, actually. And just like that, Johnson started singing 'Search For The Hero' by M People, whose gentle house sounds were so ubiquitous in my childhood that I remember thinking that if this is what music was, then I wanted no part of it. Johnson may have sung more songs than any other cast member in Manchester Passion, but she still felt underused. This reflects another of Manchester Passion's obvious flaws. We had Tony Wilson for no obvious reason, but in this blokiest of benedictions, there were no female speaking parts. Any scriptwriter could have had enormous fun and said something powerful with a Manchester Mary Magdalene and Mary, Mother of Christ, the foundation stones of Catholicism's terrifying Madonna-whore complex. We didn't get any of this, but we did have a Liam Gallagher impersonator performing as one of the criminals who were executed either side of Jesus. “Call yourself a say-vyoh?" sneered the faux-Gallagher, before the opening notes of Robbie Williams' 'Angels' began to play.

By the time the crucifix arrived at the Town Hall, Allen was enjoying himself in the role of Pilate. He overlooked a kingdom that reflected the chief preoccupations of Blair's Britain in the first decade of the 21st century – the War on Terror and reality television. Jesus emerged in an orange Guantánamo jumpsuit, and the Barabbas scene was played with knowing references to Big Brother, then at the zenith of its popularity (the most recent winner had been Nádia Almada, a transgender woman from Portugal). Any good work in this relatively intelligent juxtaposition was undone by a genuinely appalling duet of 'Wonderwall', sung by Allen and Christ, Allen delivering the verses like a terrier learning to rap. Jesus tried out a few facial expressions to make the song work, before settling on none. Pilate washed his hands. “How did it feel, to treat him like we did?" he offered. If the next part felt rushed, then that's because it was. The miracle of Christ's resurrection – the point of the Easter story, this broadcast, the reason for the Bank Holiday weekend – just sort of… happened. Nothing about its significance or value was really explored. Jesus simply appeared at the balcony of Manchester Town Hall, arms outstretched and, with crushing inevitability, sang the chorus to The Stone Roses' I Am The Resurrection. After another rendition of 'Angels', the BBC Three feed cut to a dad in the audience, an extremely faraway expression on his face.

As a kid, I enjoyed Manchester Passion enormously, even wishing that, like Easter, the BBC would do it every year. It did not, however, bring me closer to Christ. In the weeks after its broadcast, I played that WH Smiths copy of The Very Best Of The Smiths on my CD Walkman several times a day. I was changing. I turned 13. All teenage musical epiphanies are boringly alike – the intense identification, the narcissism, the furtive excitement. But there were important lessons that I would take from The Smiths across 2006, such as no longer wanting to be a teach-pleasing good boy. The Smiths opened up a way of being interested in culture, of glamorising my surroundings and of adopting a pose that would turn me from having very few to some friends. Other aspects of my fading Catholicism continued in my increasing obsession with the band – Morrissey's disavowal of a good time, their cult of punishment and chastity. Across 2006 and 2007, elderly parishioners at my church heard a hormonal teenager begin to arpeggiate the chords of hymns to sound like Johnny Marr. I ended up moving to Manchester in 2011, ostensibly to study at university; in reality it was simply as a means of moving to Manchester. I never seriously considered the idea of moving anywhere else at the time. I privately mocked a southern student who declared her love of the Smiths to be a contributory factor in moving to the city, but with hindsight I was absolutely no different. Watching Manchester Passion would guide my life in unexpected ways – it is not a stretch to argue that it would alter its course fully. Manchester would change too. Though the city's nostalgia industrial complex obviously still exists, its official position would quickly move to one where someone shouting the chorus to a Stone Roses song from a municipal building was no longer the done thing. The following summer would be the inaugural Manchester International Festival, a cultural event that would pointedly have nothing to do with the city's recent musical heritage. Tony Wilson died of a heart attack that summer, and Tony Blair left office. His enduring link with the city is the buy-to-let properties his family owns in the area of the city that I now live in.

In 2011, the BBC, National Theatre Wales and the actor Michael Sheen collaborated on The Passion in Port Talbot. Across 72 hours and an accompanying 90-minute film, the retelling utilised social media, real street rumour and a more stark, social-realist interpretation of the story of Christ. Reflecting changing tastes and demands – the cultural gulf between 2006 and 2011 feels astonishingly vast, and the financial crash changed the art we consume in more ways than we might realise at this point – it was everything that Manchester Passion was not. Nobody would even sing 'Wonderwall', not once.