Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth

1956 - United Kingdom

In 1956, the BBC made Television history with a series of eight programmes on the life of Christ. Before this production censorship regulations prohibited the portrayal of Christ by an actor in public performances. It was only after the Central Religious Council approved the project, and the choice of actor in the central role, that the BBC were given the go-ahead.

Treated as an experiment, Jesus of Nazareth was placed in the children's programmes slot on Sundays. But it attracted an adult audience whose appreciation placed it, as a BBC survey showed, next to the Coronation of 1953 in national appeal.

Jesus of Nazareth TV listing 1956

The series was produced by Joy Harington and would be considered her most notable work for television, for which she received the 1956 award of the Guild of Television Producers and Directors, the first to be presented for a children's serial. Tom Fleming created a moving interpretation of Christ, and unusually for a live serial, with filmed locations in Galilee and Jerusalem, it was telerecorded so it could be reshown over the Easter holidays in future years. The scenes, especially of the Crucifixion, were regarded as some of the most powerful ever televised.

Tom Fleming as Jesus of Nazareth 1956

Writing in the Radio Times in February 1956, Freda Lingstrom, the Head of Children's Television, wrote: 'Our aim is to awaken the interest of children in the origins of the most significant influence in their lives, and help them to understand something of the background against which the Christian story was enacted.'

Lingstrom went on to explain the approach that the producer had taken; 'In spite of this widely practised attempt to put the story of Jesus into modern speech, reverence for 'Holy Writ' remains for many people as sacrosanct as the spiritual truth it sought to present in the reign of James the First. It may come as a shock to some people that, although phrases which become household words remain, the cycle of plays we are about to represent will be in modern colloquial speech.'

In order to embark on such an important and ground-breaking project, advice was sought from several members of the clergy, whose scholarship and wide theological knowledge were put at the disposal of Joy Harrington, who wrote the eight scripts which began with Jesus as a boy of twelve, living in an occupied country, and ended with the Resurrection.

For the all-important casting, Harrington wanted an actor who was strong, virile, full of life and energy and convinced of his mission. Tom Fleming, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 1927, was relatively unknown to television audiences in 1956, having only appeared in half-a-dozen productions, which were all single plays. The son of a Baptist preacher, he was initially anxious about playing the part. It was his interest in the spiritual value of the project that finally convinced him to undertake a part which, according the Freda Lingstrom, he approached with humility and a high sense of purpose.

Jesus of Nazareth
Location picture from 'Jesus of Nazareth'

In the spring of 1955, Fleming and Harrington and a contingent of the Children's Film Unit, travelled to the Middle East, where certain sequences were shot in order to enrich the live productions. As Freda Lingstrom wrote; 'Children will see him as Jesus in the scorching sun of the wilderness with hot desert wind blowing his robes and hair in disorder, far from the lifeless coloured-print image stamped on the minds of so many.'

This was a huge undertaking for the BBC. It was unheard of, prior to this, to take a film unit abroad to record original material for any of their productions. No doubt the Corporation was very much aware of the possible impact the series of plays could have. Especially if they got it wrong.

Jesus of Nazareth 1955
Location filming on the Sea of Galilee

Linstrom again; 'Throughout, the plays will present happenings in a straightforward manner with little emphasis on the miraculous. It is not our intention to rationalise events, nor shall we put forward any new interpretation of the gospels; our purpose is to offer children as true a picture as we can with the weight of authority behind it. Throughout, the humanity, courage and endurance of Jesus will be manifest; we shall not minimise the tragedy of the Crucifixion but care will be taken to see that it will be presented in such a way as to give older children food for thought while in no way alarming younger ones or leaving them with any suggestion of horror.'

Jesus of Nazareth 1956
Pilate brings Jesus to the people. Alan Wheatley was Pilot and the soldier was played by Philip Latham.

Summing up, Lingstrom offered a word of advice to parents. Advice that most likely ensured an increased adult audience for what was seemingly being presented as a children's series: 'It should be remembered that this project is designed for older children and parents are asked to see that younger ones should not see the play alone.' Nice bit of marketing.  

Jesus of Nazareth began on Sunday 12 February 1956 with 'The Prologue'. The play opened with a boy of twelve travelling with his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Jesus is seen talking with the elders in the Temple and subsequently found by Mary and Joseph and taken home. The eighth and final part of the series was broadcast on Easter Day.

Jesus of Nazareth BBC series 1956

In 1977, a British-Italian co-production was produced for television under the same title.

Sources: Television Annual 1956 – Radio Times 1955

Published on November 21st, 2020. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

Read Next...

Billy Cotton

Big band, big sound and big big personality - with a rousing call of "Wakey-Wakey" Billy Cotton introduced an inexhaustible 50 minutes of non-stop music, dancing and comedy in the essential weekend variety revue that was a stalwart of BBC programming for 12 years.

Also released in 1956

The Buccaneers

Future Hollywood actor Robert Shaw (The Sting, Jaws) made his small screen debut as ex- pirate Dan Tempest, the leader of a small band of freebooters who roamed the Caribbean Seas in the 1720's on their ship The Sultana.

Also released in 1956

The Adventures of Hiram Holiday

The Adventures of Hiram Holliday appeared on British television screens in 1960, three years after it had been cancelled by the US network NBC.

Also released in 1956

The Borgias

Double-dealing, assassination, bribery on a massive scale, incredibly high living, mistresses and illegitimate children. That is only to be expected of a successful politician in 15th century Italy...unless he is meant to be the Pope.

Also tagged Historic Drama


Cheyenne Bodie, a half-breed frontier scout travels the Wild West in the years following the Civil War.

Also released in 1956

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

Another in the series of ITC's 'Adventures Of...' historicals. Sir Lancelot was lavishly filmed, being the first British series to be shot in colour with a view to the American market.

Also released in 1956

The Tudors

Fictionalised historical drama set in 16th century England set around the reign of Henry VIII.

Also tagged Historic Drama

Napoleon and Love

Lavish historical drama produced by Thames Television, following the life and loves of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Also tagged Historic Drama


Chronicling the North American fur trade in late 1700s Canada, the series was co-produced by Discovery Canada, as the channel's first original scripted commission, and Netflix. There's a great tale to be told - but did this production tell it?

Also tagged Historic Drama