Filming a few years back in Paris, we were visited on the set by a cardinal. Alec Guinness being absent, I took it upon myself to show him around and at the same time express my sorrow that he had missed so recent a convert to his faith. His Eminence allowed himself a rather wintry smile. ‘That,’ he observed, ‘is a conversion I understand we owe more to the cinema than the Church. He was very good as Father Brown.’
The other Alec (McCowen) has arrived at his state of grace after a year or two reading the Gospel of St Mark to hugely appreciative audiences in theatres rather than churches. In Personal Mark he writes about the life of Jesus, as seen through his own and St Mark’s eyes. He thinks that St Mark’s primary source was St Peter, whose memory of the good old days was by this time somewhat blurred. Mr McCowen believes that in the last days of Christ’s life Mark accompanied the group and suggests that the Last Supper was held in the home of a close relative. I have used the word ‘group’ because I was constantly reminded of the Rolling Stones. There is an emphasis on the problems the leader of the band has in evading his fans.
At the beginning of his book Mr McCowen casts doubt on the Virgin Birth – he is prepared to accept that his Lord may have been illegitimate. In claiming God was his father Jesus avoided the embarrassment of bastardy and when he is baptised he experiences for the first time the validity of his claim. He is a very scared man indeed and departs for a spell in the wilderness. When he returns he is ready to take up the challenge and starts to preach in the synagogues and discovers that he is a faith healer. This, according to Mr McCowen, is where the trouble begins. He attracts the crowds who flock to him for the laying-on of hands.
Your modern faith healer does not insist on belief, but to Christ belief was all-important. Only by their own faith were the sick to be cured and the faith had to be in his teaching. And then, towards the end of his ministry, there had be be an acknowledgment that he was the true and only Son of God. This to the Scribes was blasphemy and the punishment was death. It was as simple as that and Mr McCowen makes it very simple indeed. His Christ does not wear the traditional halo: he might even wear a hat. In the early days he couldn’t resist a miracle. He was a born show-off, hence the turning of water into wine and the feeding of the five thousand. One cannot help asking oneself why everyone was so hungry; most surely would have brought a picnic. But it must have been a welcome firework display.
Reading this book, I find myself adopting Mr McCowen’s method of examination and his purposely down-to-below-earth style. I enjoyed it very much, especially when he chides Christ on his unreasonable attitude to fig trees and on his occasional bad manners. It cannot have been very pleasant to be perpetually shouted at by the sick or their friends demanding an instant cure. Even a film star wearies of giving autographs. Did Christ give autographs, one wonders?
Personal Mark is the account of the author’s ever-increasing belief in Christianity. He argues that if the founder was not the natural Son of God he believed he had a father in heaven: McCowen views this as a ridiculous idea, a beautiful idea and a necessary one. For those like myself who cannot share his conclusions, who quarrel with the assumption that God must be a Christian, who cannot accept that Judgment Day is around the corner or that after the holocaust all will be sweetness and light for Christians and eternal punishment for others, this book is still a good buy. I can only echo Michael Billington’s comment (on his one-man show): ‘Agnostics, atheists and believers can all get pleasure out of this remarkable performance.’
Peter Nichols hardly shares Mr McCowen’s view of celestial parentage – ‘a maniac depressive Rugby footballer in the sky’ is how he describes Him in Feeling you’re behind. His earthly father, too, comes in for a good bit of stick. His purpose in life was to provide for his family, his reward to be consistently mocked but also loved. Mr Nichols’s purpose in writing the book is largely to please himself, or so he claims. ‘The theatre itself once so alluring now seems past its best, the wrinkles showing, the kisses dry and dutiful. It will be a bitter pleasure to describe my disenchantment and blame the people who have done me down. No vainglorious director will rewrite it, no manager to talk about bums on seats, no numbskull actors to tell me it wouldn’t stretch them or thank me for providing what they called “a vehicle”.’ Not perhaps a very generous tribute to those who have helped him become the distinguished and successful playwright that he is today. Of course one doesn’t believe a word: he is no doubt already penning a divertissement portraying his publisher as a song-and-dance man. There are, besides, touching and infinitely amusing accounts of his early years. In an effort to paint himself warts and all he tells us that when sharing the bath water with his father he preferred to go second, as he had developed a passion for masturbation under soap and water. It is all or nothing with Mr Nichols, and his total recall has paid handsome dividends. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health, Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Poppy are collages of his own experiences as the father of a spastic daughter, as a patient with a collapsed lung, and in Ensa.