Peter Timmis uncovers some fascinating music history behind a pioneering rock opera, A MAN DIES

A Man Dies LP
A Man Dies LP

It's a truism that pioneers seldom get the accolades or the rewards. In 1960, years before the term rock opera was even coined and before either Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell had been written, a church in Bristol was putting on a musical production, A Man Dies, described as "an attempt to present the Bible story in the modern idiom - in the music and dancing which teenagers love so much and do so well." The A Man Dies musical was a big hit and was eventually performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1964, shown to a TV audience of millions and was featured on a London cast album recorded at Abbey Road Studios. But it was also a production which attracted huge controversy. The sight of "Jesus in jeans" speaking in the slang of the day proved too much for some and calls were made in Parliament for the "blasphemous" production to be banned.

Today the furore and indeed the rock opera/album that fuelled it have all but been forgotten. But so that Cross Rhythms could learn about this important slice of Christian music history we tracked down the co-writer of A Man Dies and for years the minister at Bristol's St James' Presbyterian Church, Rev Ernest Marvin (now in his 80s) to discover more about a truly groundbreaking initiative. Reflected Ernest, "The idea for the play came about when [aspiring actor later to become director of the Scottish Theatre Company] Ewan Hooper and I were reflecting on how the faith could be communicated in the Swinging Sixties to the teenagers of that era, ones who lived in a typical post-war monochrome housing estate on the edge of Bristol. The church youth club at its peak had a membership of over 600 and met every evening of the week (including Sundays) in the capacious and modern church hall. It was a time when there were no real facilities for young people in the city. It was after a particularly wild, but interesting, club night that the two of us discussed how it could be possible to communicate the faith to such a group of youngsters. Most of them had no connection with the Church and had little knowledge of what the faith was about.

"The one thing that they were caught up in was, of course, the rise of rock 'n' roll. We wondered if this medium could be used to communicate something of what the faith was about. We then recalled the role played by the medieval mystery plays in which Bible stories were enacted in dramatic form in the language and the dress of the day for people who could not read and therefore for whom the Bible was a closed book. Would it, we asked, now be possible to do their equivalent for people who could read but saw no reason why they should read the Bible? It was a very short step from there to thinking that using the popular music and dance forms of the day would fit in very well with our aims."

He continued, "Ewan and myself both wrote the script and lyrics but the music was composed by local members of two rock bands who belonged to the club. We simply suggested what type of mood would suit each lyric - rock, blues, folk, calypso, etc. That they did a very competent job was demonstrated by EMI being willing to produce both the long-playing record and a smaller 45 for general distribution. The calypso 'Gentle Christ' actually went to the top of the Radio Luxembourg Hit Parade for two weeks!"

Ernest told how he was wary of the teenagers accusing him of attempting to "stuff religion down their throats". "We realised it would have to be sold to them on the basis of 'we think it would be fun to do' and treat it simply as if it were going to be a chance for them to enjoy themselves." Even then rehearsals proved problematic. "One of the theories had been that every rehearsal could be a Bible class, but that pious hope soon disappeared after a couple of nights of yelling such requests as 'Why didn't the Virgin Mary tell me she was going to night-school?' and 'How long has Judas been in the pub?"

A Man Dies: The '60s Christian rock opera that predated Jesus Christ Superstar

At the time the figure of Jesus was not allowed to be portrayed on stage but the reverend had an ingenious solution to this problem: "We got round this issue by forming ourselves into a private company. If people wished to see the play they had to join the company first and then buy their tickets. The logistics of this added enormously to our problems, but we coped - just!"

A Man Dies was performed every night for a week to a full church hall at St James' during Easter, 1960. "After the final performance, Ewan and I would have been only too pleased to have forgotten about it all together, but we were not allowed to do so. We were surprised and overwhelmed by the insistence on the part of the youngsters themselves, as well as by those who had seen it, that it should be repeated. Finally, we succumbed and booked Bristol's Colston Hall for three nights in the spring of 1961."

On the final of the three nights there were representatives from ABC Television in attendance. They liked what they saw and asked Ernest and Ewan for a 45 minute adaptation of the play that they could broadcast on Easter Sunday. "This allowed two weeks' grace, two of the most hectic weeks I have ever spent," remembered Ernest. "Not only did we have all the problems involved in transferring and adapting a stage production for the television medium, but we had to face up to a mounting crescendo of opposition on the part of many people who pre-judged the whole enterprise as blasphemous."

That week the play was discussed in the House Of Commons and five MPs called for it to be banned. The Independent Television Authority became involved and sat in on rehearsals. It was only one hour before the programme was due to air that the final go-ahead was given. "The negative publicity only strengthened the young people's resolve to make it a success," recalled Ernest.

After it was broadcast the television performance was written about surprisingly favourably in the press: The Guardian newspaper reported, "There was nothing in the rock 'n' roll Passion play A Man Dies to offend anyone except those who object to seeing the story of the Passion and Crucifixion in a contemporary setting," while The Evening News commented, "Shocking? I don't think so, unless you rate rock 'n' roll - and a long hard look at mob violence - a sin. What mattered was that the message came across with humility and reverence," and the Church Of England Newspaper enthused, "I don't think I shall ever think again of Judas Iscariot without seeing him jiving with a jeanager and explaining, 'I need the money; I need it honey.' I really felt I was seeing Judas for the first time."

A Man Dies: The '60s Christian rock opera that predated Jesus Christ Superstar

In 1962 A Man Dies was performed in the unlikely setting of the sleepy Scottish seaside town of Carnoustie by a new cast made up of two local youth groups. Band member Tom Macpherson remembered the audience reaction: "Understandably, the audience's expectations were probably mixed when they entered the hall - some curious, some sceptical, some hostile, some ready to condemn what we were doing before they'd seen it, and some who'd come to see what their sons and daughters had been up to. One of the most gratifying experiences was the evening when one of our former teachers, a very conventional lady who was also a strict disciplinarian, was so moved by the performance that she shed some tears and proclaimed how wonderful and moving the show had been. For us I think that was a real triumph and vindication of what we'd produced."

Meanwhile in Bristol, an ambitious plan to take an extended version of A Man Dies to the Royal Albert Hall was being hatched. Ernest Marvin: "The more we thought about this, the more there developed a love-hate relationship with it. Finally it did get the better of us and contracts were signed for one of the few available nights left in the spring of 1964." Preparations and rehearsals for the performance were fraught, "The theory has always been that a project such as this helps to build up a fellowship. But at times its only merit seemed to be that of simply testing how much the fellowship could take without disintegrating altogether," remembered Ernest. "Although no one who knew the project from the inside was able to relax one bit during the performance, the overall result could not have been better."

It was in the weeks leading up to the Royal Albert Hall performance that the 26 track album was recorded. The record features songs that not only tell the Bible story but also touch on satire, humour and social comment over musical styles including Beatles-esque swinging pop, slower blues and even surf rock instrumentals. The album features the vocals of Valerie Mountain, who had been in every production except for the first. Bristol-born Valerie had been a member of The Cliff Adams Singers and her powerful and expressive voice is one of the highlights of the 'A Man Dies' LP. She also sang the lead part in the 1962 film Some People starring Kenneth More but decided not to follow a pop career in favour of raising a family and is now an expert in ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) living in the States.

In a letter sent to the Carnoustie team, who in 2007 held a reunion, Ewan Hooper commented, "I listen to the record and it still seems fresh to me. I remember all the crises and the laughs surrounding it and I'm amazed we came through it all. It certainly convinced me that God has a sense of humour!"

What did Reverend Marvin think when, over a decade after the conception of A Man Dies, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell became such big hits? "I was not surprised by this. In fact, I have reason to believe that Lloyd Webber got his idea from reading about our more modest effort - think of the royalties we might have been entitled to!" Tom Macpherson added, "Conventional Christianity was under a great deal of pressure in the 1970s, much of it hostile, and I guess both shows were a way of expressing this, hence their popularity."

The last public performance of A Man Dies by the St James' team took place at Easter 1966. Speaking in his book Odds Against, Reverend Marvin outlined what he considers to be the long-term achievements of A Man Dies: "One thing A Man Dies certainly did was to give the opportunity to a great number of youngsters to engage in a common project which required them to exercise qualities of discipline, loyalty and hard work, and in the process many of them discovered that they could enjoy exercising these qualities. We hope that it has helped to give a lead and show that in each generation appropriate vehicles for communicating the faith can be made available." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.