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A Madhouse to Redeem a Wasteland
By Christopher Bunn
If you’ve ever spent two months inside an old Scottish castle during the winter, you would probably understand why the Scots have emigrated in vast numbers to warmer climates.I spent two, rather uncomfortable months this past winter in such a place- a crumbling old ruin, chilly and damp and well suited for spreading pneumonia. It was also the perfect site for the latest television program that I have worked on the BBC’s Easter Tales from the Madhouse.
Madhouse is a seven-part mini-series that aired the seven nights of Easter week on BBC1 this year. Produced by 1A Productions, Ltd. for the BBC, the series consists of seven dramatic monologues by seven different inmates of a Victorian era insane asylum. In each program, the visiting camera (the audience) meets a different inmate. A retired old soldier who has turned to carpentry in his spare time; a faded aristocrat drifting between her mirror and her memories; a bureaucrat rustling about in the papers of his past; a thief recalling his greatest confidence trick. As their stories unfold, however, the audience realizes that these inmates are actually characters from first century Palestine--people who met Jesus, rejected Him, and then went crazy as a result of their choices, caught outside of time in a limbo of regret.
Madhouse was dreamt up and produced by Norman Stone, the director of the BBC’s Shadowlands--the biographical drama based on the romance between C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman (I might add that Hollywood’s later version of Shadowlands was based directly on Stone’s work, the critical difference was that the second version had its philosophical heart torn from it). Despite the originality and artistic appeal of the Madhouse project, Stone and I had quite a job getting the project going. It is much safer for broadcasters and investors alike to air and/or fund types of programs that are proven with the public tastes, whether they are formulaic cop shows, such tripe as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, or that extremely moronic game show where people race about in a supermarket and toss food items into their carts (oddly enough, this particular show is aired by a large Christian broadcaster in the States; however, when I contacted them to consider a co-production deal for Madhouse, they were decidedly uninterested). It took four months to convince a very reluctant BBC to do the show, and another four months to pull together the necessary finance from a disparate collection of private investors and other broadcast entities.
My job on this particular project was the associate producer. The title "associate producer" is a flexible designation that can vary greatly from project to project. For Madhouse, however, it meant that I was in charge of raising finance, dealing with the lawyers, investment contracts, overseeing script rewrites, scouting location, setting up media interviews, serving as first assistant director (an unusual necessity as we were short on budget), keeping the writers on schedule, and maintaining the producer’s shaky sanity. Needless to say, I did not sleep much during those two months.
Even though the project was desperately under-budgeted, we did not lack for acting talent. Besides the obvious attraction that the scripts for Madhouse were a great deal more intelligent and unusual than average television fare, the project had the added allure of being monologue. For actors, monologue is a tremendous gift because it is the perfect showcase for the acting ego; all that exists is their own talent and the camera. Thus, we were able to secure such people as Jonathan Pryce (Ronin, Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies), James Cosmo (Braveheart, Trainspotting), Eileen Atkins (Cold Comfort Farm), and Helen Baxendale (for you Americans, she played the British girlfriend of Ross on Friends).
Despite the poverty of our budget, we were also able to secure a very talented crew due to the uniqueness of the project. Not a single person in the crew of twenty happened to be a Christian, but this was never a problem. The simple fact of the matter was that the crew was delighted to be engaged in artistic excellence. And, even during the shoot, the effect of the project was readily apparent. For example, the director of photography, a BBC veteran and a devoted atheist, ruefully remarked that the scripts were forcing him to rethink his reality.
If you ever get a chance to see Madhouse (it will be distributed on video in the United States by Gateway Films and might go out on Bravo for Easter 2001) don’t expect to find the whole message of the gospel in it. Too often, when Christians get into the fine arts these days, they assume that one should cram everything one can into every book, every album, every TV show, and every film. This idea has resulted in a body of work that is consumed almost exclusively by Christian audiences, negating, in my view, the call that Christians be salt and light in their respective cultures. This method of communication, this self-enforced ghettoization, has never held any attraction for me.
Rather, as Christian communicators, we should be content being responsible for one brick in the wall, and trust that God will inspire others to provide the other bricks. Thinking like this frees one to create narratives that are just plain old fun and exciting, humorous, tragic, romantic, adventurous… while, perhaps, weaving in some shadows of God. C. S. Lewis remarked that any amount of theology could very well be slipped into good fiction. It is precisely this idea that results in screen gems such as Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, or The Spitfire Grill--films that have had profound influence far beyond the bounds of Christendom.
Madhouse went out to an average
market share of around 24% in Great Britain. That means that, along with
their Mr. Bean, a great deal of the British public watched a show that
gently dealt with issues such as the existence of God, the soul, guilt,
death, and forgiveness. And if that was enough to raise questions in individuals’
minds, to get them thinking on their way home from the pub, then my two
months of perpetually cold feet was definitely worth it.