Derry star Roma Downey's TV series has been a massive hit in America, writes John Meagher
Roma Downey was only 10 when her mother, Maureen, died of a heart attack. Forty-two years may have elapsed, but the pain is still there. "I think about her every day, without fail," the Derry-born actress and producer says.
"People ask me what it was like to grow up during the Troubles, but it didn't impinge on me as much as it might have because throughout my teens I felt the loss of my mother so acutely. Ev-en today, I really miss her. She was keen on am-ateur dramatics and had a strong faith and I think she would have loved The Bible."
Downey is talking about the big-budget television mini-series she co-produced with her husband, reality-show impresario Mark Burnett, rather than the actual Bible. Four two-hour programmes have screened so far in the US and the ratings have been phenomenal. The History Channel has known nothing like it – 13 million viewers per episode and the number one trending topic on Twitter each night it's aired. Episodes to date have focused on the fortunes of Adam and Eve and Samson and Delilah.
The final episode – centred on Christ's crucifixion and resurrection – will be shown tomorrow, Easter Sunday. Downey is expecting a bumper audience. "Everybody has been talking about it," she says, listing such disparate figures as Oprah Winfrey and R&B star Usher. "We've been so heartened by the reaction it's had, but we would have been just as proud no matter what the ratings.
"I see this as an opportunity to introduce the Bible to a whole new audience, and the fact that so many people are talking about Christ is incredibly gratifying."
The series was filmed over six months in Morocco last year, but was conceived four years before that. "Mark and I were having tea one morning and we got talking about how people don't know the Bible as well as they used to. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to take some of the pivotal stories of the Bible and film them in a faithful but gripping way?' As Christians we were very conscious of capturing the good news of the Bible, but we also knew we had to make the sort of drama that people would want to watch."
The churches, especially those of the evangelical Protestant tradition, have embraced the series, with high-profile preachers Joel Osteen and Rick Warren urging their flocks to watch it.
The critics haven't been nearly as complimentary. "The characters are one-dimensionally good or evil," wrote one, "and the dialogue is so wooden, Jesus could've carved a table out of it." Another said it had "the pace of a music video, the characterisations of a comic book and the political correctness quotient of a Berkeley vegetarian commune".
Others have commented on how unfailingly photogenic each of the principal cast members is – Downey herself stars as Mary – and there has been much discussion about the uncanny resemblance between Barack Obama and the actor who plays Satan. Downey has had to point out that such a similarity is purely coincidental and not, as some conspiracy theorists have it, a pot shot at the US president's liberal ideology.
The ratings have demonstrated that there is a lucrative and largely untapped market for Christian drama, which was proved in 2004 when the Mel Gibson-directed film The Passion of the Christ made more than €600m at the box office despite little critical acclaim.
"These are Bible stories to appeal to Christians everywhere," says Downey, "including parts of the world I've never heard of. Long after Mark and I are gone from this Earth, the series will endure. It's incredibly heartening that in our way we can help spread the message.
"It's early days, but it's been sold to 13 territories so far and will screen in Spain over the coming weeks. I've every faith that it will be shown on Irish and British television this year."
Not only has the mini-series become a huge TV hit, but a novelised version – The Bible: A Story of God and All of Us – is now a national bestseller in the US. "The scripts for each of the programmes were so strong that we were being asked to publish them," says Downey. "But they would have been very boring to a general audience if they appeared in that format, so they've been rewritten in a very readable fashion."
Although not nearly as recognisable as Beyonce and her husband Jay Z, Downey and Burnett are arguably America's premier showbiz power couple, worth an estimated $438m.
Only three years after emigrating to the US from Ireland, Downey starred in one of the most popular American television series of the 1990s, Touched By An Angel, which regularly attracted audiences of 25 million. She continues to act, but it's behind the scenes where her gifts are most apparent. As a producer, she has revealed a knack for wholesome family dramas with a strong spiritual dimension.
Burnett, a former British army paratrooper who saw action in the Falklands, was one of the first to anticipate the trend for reality television and went on to devise such enormously successful formats as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice. The Irish edition of the last is among the most watched RTÉ shows of 2013.
"The Bible was the first television project that Mark and I worked on together," says Downey. "There was no fighting. Instead, we found that our relationship deepened yet further."
She talks with passion about the three days that were spent filming the crucifixion. "It really brought it home to me what a horrendous, barbaric way it is to die, and we didn't want to gloss over the suffering Christ would have experienced," she says.
"And it was difficult for the actors, especially Diogo Morgado (the Portuguese model who plays Jesus), who had to be up on that cross for so long.
At every turn, the conversation returns to Downey's deep-rooted Christianity. "There are moments when I question my faith," she says, "but I've felt a strong devotion to God all my life. My father was a very devout Catholic, and in the years after my mother's death I remember kneeling with him on the linoleum floor every night and saying our prayers. He died when I was in college."
It's a long way from the divided city of Derry in the 1980s to Malibu, California, where she now lives. During her conversation with Weekend Review, she sits on the veranda of her palatial home and describes the vista of her three Irish wolfhounds playing in the expansive gardens.
"I'm very thankful for how my life has turned out and for the all opportunities I've had," she says. "But I haven't lost touch with my background.
"My family are still in Derry and I go back there as often as I can. This is a particularly special time because it is the UK City of Culture."
Her Foyleside accent has survived, though traces of Americanisms appear here and there.
"I still derive much of my motivation from the memory of my mother. I feel she is there in spirit, guiding me," she says.