Monday, November 20, 2023

20: An obscure 1977 religious drama by Stuart Jackman recently got an unexpected airing.

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An obscure 1977 religious drama by Stuart Jackman recently got an unexpected airing.

Radio 4 Extra was doing a tribute to the Carry On films, and the play, Post Mortem, starred Kenneth Williams. He was playing an angel named, to the vast amusement of geeks everywhere, Azariel.

I assume it must have originally gone out at Christmas. It’s set in heaven’s waiting room, and various characters associated with the birth of Jesus are being interviewed by the angel. Within a few minutes, it becomes clear that this isn’t a kind of new-age Nativity Play, but a full-on debate about forgiveness and the afterlife. The tone is established early on when King Herod, who doesn’t realise that he’s dead and thinks he’s simply been kidnapped, says that he’s a rich man and can afford to pay the ransom. The angel informs him that The Ransom has already been paid in full. There’s a fairly interesting debate about salvation and universalism running through the piece: Herod, and one of Herod’s baby-killing soldiers, get into heaven relatively easily. A certain inn-keeper looks like she’s going to have a worse time, but fortunately is able to admit that what she did was selfish and wrong. The person who is in real trouble is one of the shepherds who saw the angels and the baby Jesus but then carried on living his life exactly as before. The piece seems to straddle a social-gospel message (having seen the son of God the shepherd ought to have tried to change the world) to a soteriology in which heaven is the state of accepting the sovereignty of God—something which kings and soldiers have not much problem with, but selfish hoteliers find much harder.

If you went to a particular kind of church at a particular time you have almost certainly read The Davidson Affair, by the same writer. Modern takes on the Bible were evidently his line. It is fairly surprising that the BBC religious department were still putting out such full-on evangelical material in the 1970s. The play was produced by Frank Topping, who did a prayer slot on the Terry Wogan show and who’s dull religious poetry was much in vogue with some headmasters and RE teachers. It is hard to detach Kenneth Williams voice from Will O’ The Wisp and Rambling Sid Rumpoe, even when he isn’t comically extending his vowels, but it’s nice to just hear him playing a straight, if that isn’t an unfortunate way of putting it, part.

The big take away from the play is “Don’t try to be C.S Lewis if you are not in fact C.S Lewis.”

None of this has anything whatsoever to do with the present essay.

Post Mortem had a nice little post-script in which Azrael is informed that a little girl has just arrived in the afterlife. Azrael instructs that she be given milk and chocolate biscuits, because “she won’t be staying long”.

“Do we know the name of her father?”


I assume that, even in today's secular world, relatively few listeners confronted with a list of dramatis personae which included Herod, Herod’s Soldier, the Innkeeper’s Wife and the Shepherd would have much difficulty in working out what story the BBC were riffing on. And, as a matter of fact, if a Martian or Prof Richard Dawkins had tuned in by mistake, everything is pretty much explained as we go along. “Herod” mentions that he has recently, for good and adequate reasons, massacred all the baby boys in Bethlehem, and the Innkeeper admits that she recently accommodated a heavily pregnant lady in a stable. But the post-cred gag assumes that the audience is able to identify Jairus’s Daughter—perhaps a safe bet on Radio 4 in 1977, but less so in 2023. If you don’t know, you are left thinking “Wha...what was the point of that?” 

Jackman made a fairly deliberate choice to reference Jairus’s daughter and not, for example, Lazarus. It’s an in-joke which derives its meaning from being “in”.

We need a word for this kind of thing. What do we call it when the meaning of a text assumes knowledge of other texts: when you have to have read one story to understand the meaning of another? You could call it an Easter Egg—something silly and trivial, only there because some people enjoy the game of tracking it down. You could say that it’s a Shibboleth: a little linguistic quirk that some people will pick up on and other people won’t, and which therefore serves to identify group membership. (The producers of Return to the Forbidden Planet said that lots of people laughed at the misquotes from Hamlet, but there was always a single person in the back row laughing very loudly and pointedly at the misquote from Coriolanus.) You could say that it is Fanservice or even Fanwank: something disreputable and self indulgent; a gift that the writer bestows on the cognoscenti; and a means for self-appointed so-called experts to pleasure themselves, while decent folks turn away in disgust. You could even say Intertextuality if you really wanted to.

Or you could smile sarcastically and say that it’s just a particularly clear example of what all writing is always doing at all times.

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