On Good Friday in 2012, the story of the Passion of Christ was played out live on BBC One from the distinctly unlikely surroundings of Preston Bus Station. Preston’s Bus Station is an iconic piece of 1960s architecture and arouses strong feelings in the face of the City Council’s proposals to demolish it. But whatever the merits of this icon of brutalism, it is a world away from first century C.E. Jerusalem and the Hill of Calvary.
So why did the BBC commit an hour of live programming and months of preparation to stage the Preston Passion? One of the reasons was the success of last year’s Port Talbot Passion – a demonstration that the story of Jesus’s journey to the cross could have modern relevance and generate significant interest.
But why did the BBC choose Preston? The reason is simple – 2012 is a Preston Guild year and the production was strongly supported by both the City Council and the UK Arts Council. The result was, in my opinion, extraordinarily moving and impressive.
Maybe non-Prestonians would not have felt quite the same way at the sight of the concrete behemoth bedecked in red fabric and topped by three large crosses. Maybe I was more impressed by the sounds of the Leyland Band and their distinctive swooped Leyland logo because they are the successors of the brass band of Leyland Motors, where my dad worked for decades until the early 1990s.
Despite this, I defy anyone not to be moved and inspired by the combination of thousands of ordinary people gathering to celebrate some very profound ideas: unconditional love, self-sacrifice, loss, the consequences of difficult decisions and untimely death.
Or not to have the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when the band and choir crash into a rendition of ‘Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs’ con brio and at a faster tempo than the piece is usually performed. By stark contrast to this heavy baroque masterpiece the Passion was brought to a joyful climax by a live performance of one of my all time favourite songs, You’ve Got The Love.
Three distinct elements of the Passion were displayed by three pre-recorded dramatic pieces:
- Preston 1842 – the first piece was perhaps the most interesting of the three from a local historical point of view. Samuel Horrocks, a mill owner and Mayor of Preston, is portrayed facing a dilemma of how to handle agitators during the Preston Strike of 1842. His anguish is intended to mirror that of Pontius Pilate and, like Pilate, Horrocks both literally and symbolically washes his hands of responsibility for the death of a protester.
- Preston 1916 – Preston’s railway station was a central meeting point for troop movements throughout the First World War. The women of Preston set up a free buffet on platforms 3 and 4 to provide the fighting men with hot drinks and food. It was open 14 hours a day from August 1915 to May 1919 and provided comfort to an estimated 3.25 million soldiers and sailors. Set against this backdrop, the second piece echoes Mary’s loss of Jesus by portraying a mother’s loss of her son on the Western Front.
- Preston 2012 – with its simplicity and message of unconditional love combined with the heart stirring performance of Aimee Leach as Bella, Preston 2012 was a strangely upbeat finish. Bella is the young daughter of an alcoholic mother, caring for her even younger siblings. She is portrayed shopping, cooking, bathing and loving her family. In doing so, her daily burdens and trials reflect some of the traditional numbered stages on the Stations of the Cross.
The portrayal of Samuel Horrocks amidst the sumptuous surrounds of Preston’s civic regalia was fascinating. Preston had a long and prestigious history as an incorporated borough and during the Victorian boom years this manifested itself in rich robes and tokens of office for the town’s mayor and burgesses.
Samuel Horrocks was a scion of one of Preston’s leading families and the owner of some of the country’s largest cotton mills. His firm would later become Horrocks, Whitehead & Miller and then Horrockses, Crewdson & Co. before being subsumed into Courtaulds.
The Preston Strike of 1842 was of national significance as it drew heavily on Chartist values and sympathisers. Over 3,000 cotton workers had gathered on 12 August 1842 in Preston and pledged to strike until they had a “fair days wages for that work”.
The next day, Saturday 13 August 1842, saw the strikers and town officials meet at the bottom of Lune Street outside the Preston Corn Exchange. The Mayor was accompanied by the Town Clark, two local magistrates, officers of the Lancashire County Police and the Preston Borough Police and 30 soldiers from the 72nd Highlanders.
Mayor Horrocks read the Riot Act and, when this did not result in a dispersal of the crowd, soldiers of the 72nd Highlanders fired into the crowd. Four strikers were killed and a further three seriously injured.
This act was commemorated 150 years later with the unveiling of the Preston Martyrs statue at roughly the same spot on Lune Street outside the Corn Exchange that the young martyrs met their fate.