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Hugh Bonneville's ARTE/RTE 'Countdown to Calvary' to Air on RTE Easter Sunday
23 Mar 2018 : Nathan Griffin
RTE, ARTE and American Public Television announce first ever documentary co-production

RTE's 'Countdown to Calvary', which broadcasts on Easter Sunday on RTÉ, is a landmark documentary, which uses the production values, narrative tools and pace of a political thriller to re-tell the story of the last six days of Jesus’ life.

Hugh Bonneville presents the film, which was shot in 4K, entirely on location in Jerusalem, and directed by Gerry Hoban. The doc was shot by in-house RTÉ cameramen, Kieran Slyne and Alan Moran. It was edited by Colm O’Brien and dubbed by Alvin Sweeney and Sean Higgins, with Graphics by Seán Malone, grade by Outer Limits and Broadcast Coordination by Michelle Fitzpatrick. Original research was by Mick Peelo, from an idea by Roger Childs.

Countdown to Calvary is RTÉ’s first co-production with ARTE, under the terms of their  partnership launched in late 2016. It’s also RTÉ’s first co-production with American Public Television (APT). It will air this Easter Sunday in Ireland (20.00, RTÉ One) and also in France & Germany (ARTE), the USA & Canada (APT/PBS), Australia & New Zealand (ABC & History), Norway (NRK), Switzerland (RSI) and Denmark (DR).

Speaking on location in Israel, Hugh Bonneville said: ‘This is a place where history and faith come together. Whether you are a person of faith or of none, you cannot escape the fact that the last six days of this man’s life, and his death, changed the world. I’m not going to chart the religion that grew out of these events. I’m interested in the events themselves: what happened in that final week of Jesus’ life, how he died, why he died and who killed him.’

Countdown to Calvary sets Hugh Bonneville’s energetic and insightful exploration of that tumultuous week against a pulsating countdown-style narrative. He discovers how a perfect storm of social, political and religious factors brought an itinerant Jewish healer and preacher into conflict with the most powerful forces in his world and led, in the space of just six days, to his death.

Roger Childs, Senior Production Executive and Genre Head of Religious Programmes at RTÉ, said: ‘The events of the original Easter week inspired a faith that is now followed by 2.2 billion people. But they also have a more bitter legacy of persecution and conflict, which demands that we re-examine them, to understand exactly what happened, why, and with what consequences. Hugh Bonneville’s unique combination of international profile and lightly-worn academic knowledge make him the ideal person to shed new light on the events and context of that week for mainstream global television audiences of all faiths and none. His visible passion for the subject and his determination to read between the lines of the ancient story make him a compelling and charismatic guide on this intriguing journey.’

In November 2016, RTÉ and ARTE signed a new agreement that will see Irish cultural content brought to international audiences. Both parties pledged to contribute a minimum of €250,000 per annum for an initial period of two years to the development of co-productions in 2017 and 2018, particularly in the fields of documentary, arts, culture, factual, history and natural history.

ARTE is to broadcast versions in French and German, with further translations to follow in Spanish and Polish on their non-linear digital platform, arte.tv 

American Public Television (APT), the leading syndicator of high-quality, top-rated programming to the US’s network of 360-plus public television stations, has co-produced the show with ARTE and RTÉ, and will also retain US public broadcasting rights, distributing the documentary under the title Jesus - Countdown to Calvary

International distributor TVCO will also create and market a version for Italian-speaking territories.

Cynthia Fenneman, President of American Public Television commented: ‘Countdown to Calvary brings life to the story of Jesus’ last days and strives to be accessible to all viewers, regardless of faith.  RTÉ and its team of globally respected scholars has carefully curated a compelling timeline of those historic days – a timeline composed of a thoughtful matrix of established facts, traditions and well-founded suppositions by distinguished academics.  APT is pleased to partner in our first co-production with RTÉ, along with ARTE, to present this riveting exploration of the events, characters and culture clash of the first Holy Week.  The world-renowned experts, dramatizations, CGI, historical evidence, scholarly literature and the passionate involvement of Hugh Bonneville and his insightful presentation in Jerusalem build the story of this extraordinary week in first century AD – one that is still central today.’

Madeleine Avramoussis, Coordinator of European Co-productions at ARTE said: ‘We are very happy to have been able to co-produce this first high-end documentary within the framework of our co-production agreement with RTÉ. Combining Hugh Bonneville’s charismatic personality and his erudition on such an essential topic as the last days of Jesus, wrapped into a thriller, will provide our European audience with the sort of quality programme that we very much look forward to showing.’

Eric Luskin, Vice President of American Public Television, said: ‘This is a topic that is ideally suited for public television, which has a long history of exploring history and religion. The absence of commercial interruption allows for an undisturbed flow of thought. Viewers will appreciate the rigorous scholarship that is underpinning the conversation, as Hugh guides us along a familiar but often misunderstood story.’

Hugh Bonneville participates in an RTÉ Media event today with RTÉ’s Genre Head of Religious Programmes Roger Childs, and director Gerry Hoban, during which they will share their insights into the script-to-screen process of creating the documentary.

Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) will also appear on The Late Late Show on Friday 23rd March.

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