Love, Don’t Fear
Adventures in the Middle East with Carl Medearis.
By Tim Barringer
In Iraq, May 2003, just weeks after coalition forces had entered Baghdad, Carl Medearis and some of his friends drove from Lebanon, through Jordan, to Basra. In his new book Adventures in Saying Yes (Bethany House), Carl recalls: “I jumped out of our rented white Suburban in downtown Basra and yelled, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ A crowd formed instantly. By our third minute in Basra, I found myself in the backseat of a stranger’s black Mercedes going to meet a man I’d never heard of – the leading Shi’ite cleric of southern Iraq.
“Sheikh Ali’s domain was the largest mosque in the city. He was presiding over a large gathering of other Islamic leaders when we arrived, but in the good fashion of Arab hospitality he immediately stood up when he saw the four of us at the door and left his meeting to greet us.
“‘What are you doing here?’ A fair question to an American in Iraq in May 2003.
“‘Well, I’m not very good at it, but I’m trying to follow Jesus and we’ve come here looking for him. Have you seen him?’ (That got his attention.) ‘We were in Lebanon a few weeks ago praying, and the thought came to us that Jesus might be in Iraq. Two thousand years ago he was always where the religious leaders of his day thought he wouldn’t be. Have you seen him?’ I repeated.
“The Sheikh squinted over the top of his reading glasses, leaned toward his friends with a slight smile, and said, ‘Interesting question. No, we’ve not seen Jesus, but maybe the question should be, if he were here, what would he be doing?’
“We batted the idea around for about thirty minutes until they announced with an air of finality, ‘He’d be helping the children and taking care of the poor. Therefore, if Jesus would be doing that, maybe we should give more attention to the poor and the children – specifically, poor children.’
“Sheikh Ali looked at me and smiled. ‘That was a good question you asked. This is my city, and I give it to you and your friends. Whatever you want to do here I’ll help. Come and stay with me. You can store your humanitarian supplies here. I’ll tell everyone that you’re okay and not to mess with you.’”
In the end, Carl and the team managed to distribute basic kids’ schools supplies to around 20,000 children, enabling schools in Basra to continue to operate.
Welcome to the world of Carl Medearis, a tall American from Colorado who, with fluent Arabic and a disarmingly self-deprecating humour, has lived and travelled in the Middle East for the last 30 years. He knows what it is like to have his life threatened and his family in danger. He has been kidnapped by thieves at gunpoint and seen the inside of a prison cell. He tragically lost a friend working as a nurse with Lebanon’s poor, shot dead on their doorstep. However, none of this has diminished his love for the Middle East and the Arab people.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is his desire to try to follow Jesus that has led him on many of these adventures and given him the reputation, just like Jesus, in fact, of hanging out with the wrong type of people.
“We often have this postmodern Western view of Jesus; meek and mild, perhaps a small man, slightly blond flowing locks, a pretty man! We don’t see a working class man’s man, a strong carpenter. I haven’t done this, but look at the Gospels and think how many miles Jesus walked! Look at the kind of adventurers he was on; confronting religious leaders, casting out demons and healing the sick. Following him is what leads us on this adventure.”
Carl has sat in tents with Bedouin refugees and regularly drunk coffee and made friends with members of the Hezbollah and Hamas. He has even ended up chairing meetings of the Arab League.
These days, in many countries, being a Christian no longer carries the meaning of someone who appears to ‘be like Jesus’ or a ‘mini-Christ’. Often it can mean quite the opposite. If you ask him, Carl would not say that he is a Christian. “If I say I am Christian in Muslim context they think I sleep around, don’t look after my parents and watch pornography. It’s not what I am saying, it’s what they hear that makes all the difference. If someone asks what religion I am, I’m Christian, but who cares because religion is stupid! You know, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, and he didn’t start Christianity. If you are asking what I am passionate about, what gives me life, it’s following Jesus.” Speaking to him you can tell that he means it. He wants to get back to being someone who simply tries to look like Jesus.
Carl moved out to Beirut in Lebanon with his wife and two daughters in 1992. At that time, Lebanon was an extremely unstable country, having just recovered from a war that had left 150,000 dead. It had also seen a spate of kidnappings, including that of Terry Waite in 1987.
In the beginning, Carl and his wife Chris faced a tough time adjusting to their new life in the Middle East. So much was alien to them, from small differences such as learning new ways of cooking, to larger challenges such as going without electricity for weeks on end. On top of this was the ever-present tension that came from living in a country that was often at war with its neighbours. Chris recalls seeing buildings blown up and worrying for Carl’s life.
At the same time, they were falling in love with the country and felt themselves learning from the Lebanese. “When we arrived in Beirut we thought we ‘knew’ hospitality. But then, well, we met Arabs. Wow! That’s a whole new level of being kind, considerate, paying the bill when eating out, inviting you in even when you’re a stranger, and being the nicest people on the planet.” There were times when they had nothing to eat; they would hear a knock on the door and a neighbour would give them a basket of food.
Whether they are in the US, or somewhere else in the world, Carl and his family are always thinking about how they can live like Jesus and how they can show love like he did. They think about ways they can be like the heretic Samaritan in Jesus’ story of the good neighbour.
In one instance, during their early days in Lebanon, Carl and his wife decided to show kindness to some despised Syrian soldiers based in Beirut by baking them some chocolate chip cookies. “Chris and I didn’t understand all the nuances of hatred and rivalries we’d stepped into. We just saw a bunch of tents and some lonely 18-year-old boys with guns.” Carl remembers their hosts told them they were ‘crazy’, that the soldiers would think we were ‘silly, foolish’. “And who knows – maybe they’d kidnap us, or worse. No, we should not do this. We did anyway.
“Was it smart? Effective? Did it change the course of history? Nope – none of that. It did make our hosts mad. The Syrian soldiers did not laugh at us. They did like the cookies, however. They were appreciative. We learned some Arabic and sat and ate with them. And – it helped us. It broke some of the fear gripping our hearts.”
While chocolate chip cookies may not have changed the world, we would be wrong to think that this is just meaningless benevolence or pointless do-gooding. In a paper that Carl presented to the Arab League he wrote: “When we do what Jesus commanded, it frees us in so many ways. It frees our time and thinking and emotions from being entangled with our enemy so that we can live good and productive lives. It wins the day. When you keep on loving your enemy, what happens? They can’t stay your enemy forever. You will win them over eventually. Some have tried this with great effect. Gandhi overthrew the most powerful empire on earth with these methods. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the culture of America with these principles.”
It would have been easy for the Medearis family never to have left the familiarity of the US and embark on this adventure. They could have stayed at home and let their fear of the unknown feed them excuses about why now wasn’t the right time, about the kids’ schooling, about the danger.
This is exactly the subject of Carl’s new book: Adventures in Saying Yes: A Journey From Fear to Faith. In the book, Carl and his family tell many of their remarkable stories along with, refreshingly, real vulnerability, and stories of mistakes and failures. It’s clear throughout that far from damaging Carl’s family, their time in the Middle East has helped to create a strong family of remarkable individuals. His daughter Anna, while telling of her doubts about doing something for Iraqi children during the war, tells us, “It’s crazy to see what happens when you choose to step out and do something that may seem intimidating or insignificant. But aren’t we just called to love? And to love, we’re supposed to care.” She is following in the footsteps of her dad and going to a Middle Eastern country to run a film school for refugees. As her dad says, following Jesus makes life more interesting.
Carl is also very clear that this is not an exercise in choosing to go to the most dangerous place on the map and hoping that God will bless you. The key is following Jesus to where you think he is leading, even if it the most dangerous place on the map.
Just as Carl loves the Middle East, he is obviously pained by the destruction and violence that engulfs it today. “We have to be asking about the next generation. Who are the kids playing soccer in the dirty streets of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan with who could become successful businesspeople or the next ISIS? We never heard of ISIS just one year ago. We didn’t know about Al Qaeda before 9/11. Who is the next ___________? And how do we move beyond our short-sighted four-year-at-a-time policies to a more enlightened policy of generations?” Carl’s work today as an expert voice on American-Arab and Christian-Muslim relations has led him to some unexpected places. Not only did he present a paper to the Arab League but he was even asked to chair the meetings.
He says, “I got a slightly mysterious message from someone in Egypt who was supposedly the ambassador to Palestine from the Arab League. I had never heard of him and couldn’t find out any information about him. Then I started getting messages from his assistant saying the Iraqi government wanted to pay for my attendance at the annual Arab League meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli issue – in Baghdad.
“I decided to write a paper that I’d want to present to several hundred key Arab leaders, something on Jesus (obviously). It developed into a three-page paper called ‘The Answer to Injustice According to Jesus of Nazareth.’ I wrote that the way forward depended on both divine and human forgiveness. Very controversial in such a setting, but somehow they okayed the paper.
“We headed out – an adventure in saying yes if ever there was one. On the way, I got a text message asking if I would ‘chair’ one of the meetings. I had no idea what that meant – I still didn’t even know what we were doing but said yes. We got there, and then the ambassador asked if I’d be the chairperson for two of the six main meetings.
“It was a meeting full of Arab politicians, Palestinians, Western activists, and an interesting mix of journalists, foreign ambassadors, and even heads of state. I was put in charge of leading and moderating two of the meetings. The first night I closed with a little talk (five minutes) on prayer. I simply suggested that we needed to pray for the people of the region. You would have thought I had called for the end of the world. The Muslim Arabs were all elated, but the majority of Westerners were furious.
“The next day something similar happened when I closed by sharing my thoughts on Jesus’ way – the way of forgiveness. I spoke softly and sensitively but very clearly about Jesus. They told me that has never happened before at the Arab League meeting. ‘Why not?’ I asked. They weren’t sure.
“Three mothers from Gaza came in tears. Two had lost their children by Israeli shelling. They grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. ‘Thank you, thank you thank you,’ they repeated over and over. ‘Finally, someone acknowledges there is a God!’”
Carl has a great marriage and a wonderful family, and he shows that there can be more to life than just the daily grind. He inspires us to live a different kind of life, perhaps not the easy one with everything under the illusion of control, but Adventures in Saying Yes challenges us to get out of our comfort zones. Jesus was always with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Whether we are talking about refugees on our doorstep, the homeless man in town, or just our neighbours in our street, the questions must be, what can we do to care and how can we be bold? How can we look like Jesus? Carl tells us, “In the end, the adventure of saying yes to Jesus is a journey of love conquering fear. That’s it. Every day we have to make that choice perhaps dozens of times. Love – don’t fear.”
One man’s life restored from PTSD
By James Williams
I first became aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, when it entered mainstream consciousness after the Iraq War. Previously described as ‘shell shock’, it was now more fully understood as PTSD. Soldiers who served in conflict zones who had been through traumatic encounters often relived and experienced the symptoms of the event months, even years, later. Close to 30% of the Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans treated at hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. For veterans who experienced combat, the numbers are even higher, moving up to 49%.
So it was something of a surprise to me when I was diagnosed with PTSD earlier this year. At first, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t served Queen and Country in a war zone, but the more I read about it, the more I realised that it wasn’t just soldiers who suffered. I could see myself in the symptoms.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. These can include a terrorist incident, natural disaster, serious accident, physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood, and last but not least, military combat. For most people who experience trauma the recovery occurs shortly after, but some have such a severe stress reaction over time that this can eventually lead to PTSD.
All the physical symptoms associated with increased adrenaline, such as chest pains, sweating, swimming eyes, headaches, increased heart rate and panic attacks, are forever close to the surface. Any reminder of the incident or events leads to the body going into this fight or flight response. Instead of recovering slowly, those with PTSD simply don’t get better.
For me, it was some bizarre malicious communications in the form of ‘hate mail’ that pushed me over the edge. I was already seriously ill and had recently returned from the A & E department of my local hospital, diagnosed with severe stress and exhaustion. The doctors thought I was having a heart attack, but as it turned out it was my body’s way of telling me to stop (thanks, body).
For months I had ignored the subtle signs (stress, lack of sleep, irritability, etc.), but the severe chest pains and flashing blue lights finally made me listen. The doctors ordered rest but, to be honest, I could do nothing more than that anyway. I had a total and utter burnout and spent most of the next year in bed, sleeping. I was repeatedly signed off work for months at a time.
But that wasn’t all.
That’s when these bizarre letters started arriving through the door. Anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters that were anything but pleasant. Disturbingly, it soon became clear that they were from someone who knew me and obviously meant to freak me out. On a good day, I’m sure I could have shirked it off, but given my weak physical and emotional state, I couldn’t. Every time another strange letter arrived, my health deteriorated even further, often for weeks. At the time, I had no idea who this crazy person was or what they were capable of. Worst of all, they knew where I lived.
I went into survival mode and stayed there. I stopped leaving the house on my own. I stopped all communication with the outside world. I even deleted Facebook and changed my phone number. I couldn’t open the mail. When I eventually left the house, I was in a constant state of alert – I knew all the exits and escape routes in a Jason Bourne style. I was on a massive dose of anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs, and the side effects weren’t pleasant. It was bleak.
Eventually, enough was enough, and after some advice from the police, the perpetrator was caught and dealt with appropriately. This gave me some comfort, and I did feel some relief knowing both who it was and that it wouldn’t happen again. Unbelievably, it turned out to be someone I worked closely with on a daily basis. God only knows what must have been going on in his life.
Apparently, a normal response following an experience like this would be to recover slowly and for things to get better over time. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I received some counselling and psychotherapy through work, but to be honest, any good that it did do was overshadowed by the stress it caused just by leaving the house. I suffered flashbacks and nightmares, and the physical pains didn’t go away. In the words of Bono, it felt like I was stuck in a moment, and there was no way out. If anything my symptoms got worse, and I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD almost 18 months later.
I was embarrassed that I had reacted this way. I blamed myself. I felt weak and stupid and that somehow I just needed to ‘get over it’. The truth is that I had no control over my response. If I could have snapped out of it, I would have. I later found out that it is fairly typical of sufferers to blame themselves.
During this difficult time, I met some other people who had experienced similar symptoms. It is amazing how many people suffer from mental illness but because of the stigma associated with it, they keep it very close to their chest. Some of them suggested I look into a revolutionary eye therapy called EMDR. I didn’t know what it was and like most men, I ignored their advice. It sounded a bit weird.
Eventually, after the fourth person mentioned it, I decided to search the internet. I discovered that Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) was a psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s to treat patients with PTSD. According to Shapiro, when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it can overwhelm the brain’s normal coping mechanisms. EMDR helps to process the memories associated with the trauma.
By this stage I would have tried anything, so a few weeks later I found myself sitting opposite a psychologist, having no idea what to expect. The psychologist explained the process and warned me that I would feel very tired for days afterwards, but the long-term effects could be very beneficial. We would ‘process away’ the memories so that they weren’t immediately accessible, so that I wasn’t always thinking about and experiencing the trauma.
I’m not going to lie; I found it incredibly uncomfortable to begin with. The main process involves recalling the events scene by scene while receiving bi-lateral stimulation. That sounds more pleasant than it is. Bilateral stimulation involves stimulating both sides of the brain. This could be following a finger from right to left or listening to sounds in headphones (again right and left), following a dot on a screen from left to right, or tapping each knee alternately. Psychologists use differing techniques, but they all involve bi-lateral stimulation while recalling the memories.
We processed the first scene several times to begin with for about an hour. Every time I recalled the events, I had to follow the psychologist’s finger left right, right left… you get the idea. Each time, I had to score the levels of the stress out of ten until it got lower and lower.
After my first session I got home, went to bed and didn’t get up for two days. I was completely exhausted. For the first time in a long time, I had to think about things that I had forced to the back of my mind and it was horrendous.
Apparently, the brain continues to process the memory for a long period afterwards, so my sessions were scheduled every few weeks. Each session, we took a different scene and worked through it. Each time I was exhausted.
Bizarre things also started to happen. During one of the sessions, my blocked sinuses cracked and cleared (I didn’t even realise they were blocked). At another, a pain I had experienced in my neck for months was released. Apparently, the body stores tension in all sorts of ways, and this was being released as the memories were processed. Amazing.
Eventually, things started to improve. The memories that we had ‘processed away’ no longer featured in my daily thought patterns. I started to be able to go to places that I wouldn’t visit previously. My sleep patterns recovered and I found my energy levels improved. I began to selectively open mail and emails. I even rejoined Facebook.
Six months later and I found myself at the last ‘wash up’ session. We had worked through everything that elicited the adrenaline response and a few more things that came up in the process. My anxiety scores (HAM-A… Google it) had gone from 33 down to 3. For the first time in two years, I found myself able to do whatever I wanted to do and go wherever I wanted to go without a panic attack. It’s as if the memories had gone from full-blown 4K HD to very blurry black and white.
I remember asking a good friend who had gone through a similar difficult psychological experience over a decade ago how long it took them to get over it. She laughed and said, “Do you think I’m over it?”
It’s true that things will never go back to being ‘normal’ after PTSD. Trauma changes you as a person, and I don’t think you can ever go back. I still think about my experience regularly, but it no longer consumes me. The challenge now is to move forward one day at a time.
“I stopped doing 24 because I loved the show”
Kiefer Sutherland on why he said goodbye to Jack Bauer, plus finally getting to make a movie with his dad.
By Jason Adams
Kiefer Sutherland may not be on screen as Jack Bauer anymore, but the Hollywood star is back with a new movie called Forsaken. Kiefer stars alongside his father, Donald Sutherland, in the western, which also stars Demi Moore. About working with his dad he says, “I’ve wanted to make a movie with my father for 30 years.
“Some fathers get to teach their son how to fish, and some fathers build model aeroplanes with their son, and you know, I got to make a movie with mine. So I couldn’t ask for more.”
Meanwhile, Kiefer bowed out of TV series 24 when season nine Live Another Day ended last year.
About leaving the hit show, Kiefer says, “I think if I could have done 24 for 20 years I would have. But the truth is at some point you have to stop thinking about what you want to do and remember the legacy of the show and protect it. That’s why I stopped.”
Here, Kiefer talks about what being part of 24 meant to him, plus his thoughts on the show going forward. He also talks about what it was like growing up with two parents who were actors and whether he gives any advice to his daughter Sarah, who is also an actress.
Firstly, when is 24 coming back? Everyone wants to know.
I’m not doing 24 anymore, but I think the writers have been working on another scenario with maybe another cast. I can’t answer exactly when it’s coming back but I will not be a part of it, and I’ve said that from the very beginning. I think the idea for that show is much bigger than any actor or any part, and so I wish them the best of luck. For me, there are only so many days you can honestly believe one guy can have that many bad days, and so for me, nine was enough and I’m finished.
You must be very proud of this achievement?
Because 24 kind of opened TV to where it is now, we’re in such a golden age?
It was part of it, but yeah.
Everybody was crazy about 24.
I’m incredibly proud, and I think if I could have done 24 for 20 years I would have. But the truth is at some point you have to stop thinking about what you want to do and remember the legacy of the show and protect it. That’s why I stopped. It wasn’t because I wanted to but again, how long can you believe in one character experiencing the kind of same circumstance over and over again? I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do nine years, you know. I didn’t stop because I was bored of it, or I didn’t love it. I stopped because I loved it, and I respected it. Again, I believe the story is much bigger than certainly me or my character, and it can continue. It had to, I think, realistically end because if we kept doing it, it just would not have been special.
Can you put into words what 24 gave to you?
It was the greatest acting lesson I’ve ever had. When I started working, there was a methodology or a thought that if you did less work you would become more important as an actor, and I followed that for 20 years. And the truth is, if I’m an Olympic athlete, and I’m training for the Olympics, I train every day and when the Olympics are coming up I train even harder.
24 was that for me. I got to work as an actor every day, very intensely, very strongly, for ten months of the year, five days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. It was one of the greatest acting lessons and exercises I’ve ever had and as that, professionally it was one of the great, well, it was the greatest opportunity I’ve ever had.
A professional turning point?
I think I saw a little bit of Jack Bauer in your character John Henry in Forsaken.
Well, they look a lot alike. (Laughs)
But in the action at the end of the movie I thought, “This is a little bit like 24.” Is it because of you, or is it because of the movie?
Well, I’m certainly the same actor, so I would have to believe yes.
What attracted you to Forsaken? Was it the father-son element? Was it the western?
It was all of those things. I’ve wanted to make a movie with my father for 30 years. So that was a huge driving factor. The western genre, I think, is American, or Americana, storytelling at its best, and so all of those elements. The other actors, Demi Moore and Michael Wincott, Brian Cox, I wanted to work with all of those people and I thought the script was fantastic. So for all of those reasons I wanted to make the movie.
You looked at ease on the horse. Are you a nature boy or is it just well played?
No, well, I wish I could tell you it was well played but no, I love horses and I love riding, and I love that period. So it was a very natural fit for me. It’s something I feel very comfortable with.
You also did rodeos, right?
So this passion of yours is merging a little bit into the job?
Yeah, a little bit, yeah.
What about the father/son relationship in this? It must have been intense between the two of you?
It was not as intense as you would think, because I thought it was going to be as well. He’s a very professional actor, my father, and I consider myself to be the same. So the times between action and cut were quite predictable. It was the other times that were more exciting for me. It was the longest time I’d ever been able to spend with my father. I grew up with my mother and so all of a sudden we got to spend nine weeks together, five days a week, 16 hours a day, making something together. Some fathers get to teach their son how to fish, and some fathers build model aeroplanes with their son, and you know, I got to make a movie with mine. So I couldn’t ask for more.
Is it true that you only learned that your father was an actor when you were 18?
No, I always knew my father was an actor, but unlike my mother. I would finish school and go to the theatre, and she was doing a play. I would see the play and by the time the play was over I knew all the dialogue, you know, and I was raised like that. Back in the 70s and 80s you couldn’t go to see an adult movie as a young person, and if you couldn’t see it in the movie theatre, you didn’t see it at all. So I didn’t see a lot of my father’s films until I was about 18 or 19. I remember feeling very guilty about that. I think in three days I watched Don’t Look Now, Fellini’s Casanova, Bertolucci’s 1900, Kelly’s Heroes, Start the Revolution Without Me, which are two great comedies and then Ordinary People and a couple of other movies. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t realise what a prolific, important actor he was when I was 18, and I remember feeling very guilty about that.
I was just talking to Jeremy Irons…
Oh, what a beautiful actor, yeah.
He was talking about his two sons being in the business and how much he wants to protect them, but not interfere too much. From a son’s perspective, how well did your father guide you to stay out of his shadow?
My father stayed away. We never talked about acting, ever, and my mother too. And to their credit, my life was mine, and it was sink or swim for me. I think they were both very right. The truth is my daughter, who is a beautiful actor, doesn’t ever talk to me about the work, either, at all, and I don’t talk to her about it. It’s a very personal, private thing, and I think it requires that respect and I was so lucky to have two parents that gave me that.
Finally, what do you think of the Zurich Film Festival?
It’s been fantastic. The people have been very kind. I think the interviews that I’ve been able to do have been smart and people have asked me questions that are interesting that I want to answer, and I can’t wait for tomorrow. I have a day off, and I’m going to see Zurich, which I saw from the plane, [it] is one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve ever seen. The little canal right outside the hotel here, the water is so clean you can see the bottom. That’s not something you get very often in the United States, if ever, and so I can’t wait to explore tomorrow.
What are you going to do on your day off?
I’m going to do exactly what I just told you, which is explore.
Everything about and around Zurich?
Yes, well, not everything, it’s a day – I’ll do my best.
You can watch all 9 seasons of 24 now with Sky Box Sets. To find out more, search “Sky Box Sets”
Man About the House
by Sammy Rea
Joel Williams was a contestant on the reality TV show Big Brother, in which housemates are filmed 24 hours a day. Joel, who describes himself as a Christian, Conservative, community counsellor, remained in the house the entire ten weeks, finishing in second place. A governor of two Cardiff schools, Joel, who’s just 20, is now back in Wales, finishing his A levels. I caught up with him in London, at the National Reality TV Awards.
Did you grow up in a Christian family?
Yes, I grew up in a Christian home, and I’m a Christian myself. I think growing up with a Christian background is helpful for anyone. It makes you aware of right and wrong and the moral code we should all abide by, as good citizens of the United Kingdom.
So regardless of religious beliefs, everyone can benefit from the moral code that underpins Christianity?
Absolutely. One of the joys of the Bible is that even if you aren’t a Christian, you can still take something from it. You can read certain verses, and they’ll give you the inspiration, guidance and awareness to behave in an ethical and moral way. I like the book of Proverbs. I often see quotes on Facebook and Twitter, and when I put them into Google, they’re actually from the Bible. At first, they might not appear to be, but if you look into them, you’ll find they are.
A quote I put on Twitter was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have enough worries for itself.” It means, why am I worrying about what’s going to happen? Let me focus on the here and now. That’s a biblical verse.
All sorts of things happen on Big Brother. Was there anything you found challenging to reconcile with your faith, with Christianity?
I’m a firm believer that you should have no skeletons in your closet. Ultimately, we all do, but I would try to live a life that’s quite transparent. On Big Brother, your life is completely transparent, it’s ten weeks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week surveillance. They will pick out your bad bits, and if you’ve got any bad bits, trust me, they will come out on Big Brother.
In terms of finding it challenging in light of my faith, there were things in the Big Brother house that would challenge people who aren’t Christians. I’m sure many viewers, regardless of their religion, and atheists included, are distressed by foul language and housemates walking around naked.
I felt: “I’m not doing it, but I’m living in this environment with you so I’d much rather you didn’t do it in front of me.” But what right do I have to judge others? A biblical verse is, you should remove the log from your eye before you remove the splinter from someone else’s. I always tell myself that when I think about judging people.
Did you discuss religion or Christianity with other members of the Big Brother house?
Yes, and the one thing we agreed on, as a house, was that we are a Christian country, and we would rather be in a Christian country than a country of any other religion. You don’t need to be a Christian to benefit from living in a Christian country.
We also discussed church schools, and even housemates who weren’t religious said, “I’d send my child to a church school because I can see the benefits that child would have.”
Did you go to a church school?
I went to a Church of Wales primary school, a Church of Wales secondary school, and I now go to a Catholic sixth form college. Church schools can benefit society because they teach Christian morals.
How do you feel about other faith schools?
I think all faith schools have the potential to offer an appropriate education and teach morality and a moral code. We need to ensure the teaching in all faith schools is rational and proportional and that the teachers are tolerant of other faiths.
I think it’s great when schools celebrate the holidays of different faiths and teach different religious views because it encourages understanding. I have very close Muslim and Jewish friends, and it’s about tolerance. I can see their view, and they can see mine.
Unfortunately, there have been Muslim schools in Birmingham where children were being taught a backward view of society, with girls sitting at the back of the classroom. That’s not something we want to advocate in our society, which is why it’s important those schools are under government control.
Do you go to church?
I go to church every Sunday. It’s beneficial to me, to develop my understanding of my faith; it’s very interesting. I was in the Big Brother house for ten weeks, so I missed church for ten Sundays. It was difficult at times because I wasn’t getting the spiritual nourishment I get when I’m around believers. I prayed about it. I’m a firm believer in prayer and the worth it can have.
What motivated you to go on Big Brother?
I like Big Brother, it’s a guilty pleasure. And it was a challenge; I love challenges. But I thought it was all a big joke, I never thought I’d get in. I packed my suitcase as a joke, I went to see the psychiatrist as a joke, I met the executives as a joke. Then the contract dropped on my doormat, this big, thick contract, the size of the Yellow Pages and I thought, “My gosh, this isn’t a joke anymore.” And by that time, I was in the house.
How did your parents feel about you going into the house? Did they have any concerns about what you might be exposed to?
My parents had initial concerns. I think any parents would. But they knew it was something I wanted to do and trusted me to judge what’s best for me. I go to college, and I’m in the world where I see a lot. I think Big Brother is like that, but in a more concentrated and saturated way.
Do you feel you gained from the experience?
Yes, I found it an interesting experience, and I very much enjoyed it. I’ve had the opportunity to sit here today, [and] talk about my faith and other matters, which I don’t think would be happening if I didn’t do Big Brother. You need to look at the positives and act in a positive manner. There’s a saying, “If you hang around with negative people, you become negative yourself.” For me, that can be difficult at times because I can be pessimistic, but I tend to say I’m a realist.
What did the people from your church say about you going on Big Brother?
They had concerns; they were worried more than anything. They want the best for me, just as I want the best for them.
Did anything happen on the show that you were worried your church friends would see?
No. I went into Big Brother aware that it was filmed all the time and what’s done is done. I can’t go back and correct the past, but I’m sure if anyone had any concerns or issues, they would have talked to me about them.
The media appears to be pushing boundaries and becoming more sensationalist to grab viewing figures. Do you feel sensationalist behaviour was encouraged in Big Brother, for example, when housemates were given alcohol?
I think we’ll all agree that if a person is heavily intoxicated, they’re likely to behave in a more outgoing way than they would if they weren’t under the influence. It’s all about choice. If a person chooses to drink alcohol and get wasted, they know they are going to let themselves down and behave in a way they might regret.
Do you drink alcohol?
I don’t drink. I mean, I’m not teetotal, but I don’t see the benefit from drinking. I don’t have an issue with anybody who wants to drink; I just don’t choose to do it myself.
Do you think viewers are influenced by the behaviour they see on reality TV, such as scenes of a sexual nature and the language used?
Absolutely, which is why we have a watershed, so young children don’t view scenes that should be for adults. It is all about choice. If an adult chooses to watch that, fine, that’s their choice, but they can choose not to watch it. For a child, it’s very different, because a child might just put something on and sit and watch it.
There are many shows that are controversial; that may have bad language and certain viewpoints that aren’t supported by all. That’s why they are broadcast later when it’s less likely children will be watching.
Do you think reality TV normalises extreme behaviours?
I can’t talk about that because I went on a reality TV show that is highly controversial. It would be the pot calling the kettle black. I think everyone has to remember that actions have consequences. If you’re an actor, or if you’re on television, you have great power because you’re potentially influencing millions of people, so you need to be mindful of behaving in a sensible way.
There are some people in the public eye who reject the idea that they’re role models and say that’s not their job. What would you say to that?
If you’re in the public eye, you’re a role model. You will have, and you deserve, greater scrutiny because you’ve put yourself out there. You haven’t been forced into that. If I’m photographed coming out of a betting shop, that’s a consequence of the choice I made to put myself in the public eye.
I was aware when I went on Big Brother of what could happen when I left the house. You have to be mindful and behave in an appropriate way. I’ve been asked to take on ambassador roles with charities, but if I went out and behaved like an imbecile, I’d be dropped from those charities, because I’d bring them into disrepute. Anyone who is in the public eye has a duty to behave responsibly.
Do you ever debate Christianity? If someone said to you, “God doesn’t exist”, would you debate this?
No. Why should I? I believe I’m right, they believe they’re right, let’s just agree to disagree. There’s no debate to be had there.
Pioneer - The Gerald Coates Story
Gerald Coates has been one of the most influential leaders within the new church movement and far beyond, for many decades, and in many nations. His contribution to faith and the landscape of non-religious Christianity in the UK has been extremely significant. Gerald is sometimes accused of referencing his friends in high places. But the fact is there are friends in high places. In this extract from his new biography, Pioneer, we get a fascinating insight into the life of an advisor to the great and good.
Gerald and Cliff Richard first meet at a concert sometime around 1978, where both are guests of someone else. A conversation follows when the two realise they are close neighbours. Cliff doesn’t need friends in the sense of new people to meet and spend time with, but he does need friends he can confide in and pray with. And in this small-statured pastor with a large personality, Cliff feels he has found someone who can help him. As Cliff himself puts it, Gerald has a ‘no frills’ honesty that Cliff finds refreshing. Perhaps unusual too, in the celebrity world Cliff inhabits. Gerald can keep a confidence and at the same time is not overawed by celebrity culture. A friend and a pastor rolled into one.
Over the months that follow, the friendship builds. As much as possible, Cliff makes Cobham Christian Fellowship his home. Usually, he turns up just as the meeting begins in order not to bring attention to himself. So much so that one time, a visitor complains that they have to sit next to a ‘Cliff Richard look-alike’.
As well as Cliff performing at Kingdom Life Bible week and similar endeavours, when he can, Cliff, along with his manager Bill Latham, attends Gerald and his wife Anona’s New Year bashes. Through Gerald, Cliff gets to know Sheila Walsh well and, as a result, singing collaborations and tours follow.
Cliff Richard gets a phenomenal postbag each week, the majority of it fan mail. But interspersed with the fan letters are pleas for help, people asking about Cliff’s Christian faith and seeking guidance. Cliff has felt unable to deal with these, and it is through his friendship with Gerald that he can decide what to do. Gerald sets up administration within the church to answer them, offering spiritual guidance to those writing.
Gerald is a call-to point for prayer as well, on one occasion taking a well-known Christian healer with him to pray for Cliff’s back. The results are immediate.
Cliff clearly enjoys Gerald’s company, as witnessed by watching movies together – Cliff is in tears as they watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – and they share many meals together. But when asked to recall moments in their relationship, it’s not tears that come to mind. Cliff thinks first of the times of laughter.
On one occasion, Gerald and Anona are Cliff’s guests at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. As midnight approaches, Cliff asks Gerald what they should do. Gerald stands and raises his glass. “Ladies and gentlemen, to the King and his Kingdom.” Cliff’s guests stand and repeat the refrain. Then, to the amazement of Cliff’s party, the whole restaurant – full of the rich and powerful – stand together and repeat the toast. Do they know what they are saying? Probably not. But at one moment in time, God breaks in, in an amazing and somewhat humorous way.
Rick Parfitt of Status Quo is also a friend of Gerald. Gerald, who got to know Rick through a mutual friend in the Moody Blues, is there for the most tragic moment in Rick’s life.
One morning, Gerald gets a call from Marietta, Rick’s wife. Can he and Anona come over to the house straight away? There’s been a tragedy. Their daughter Heidi, who plays with Gerald and Anona’s youngest boy, has fallen into the swimming pool and drowned. Rick thought she had been with Marietta; Marietta thought she was with Rick.
As Gerald and Anona make the short trip to Guildford, they pray. Gerald recalls it as feeling like one of the longest drives of his life. When they arrive, they find Rick curled up in the corner of the hallway, tears streaming down his face. By now the family have arrived, but Rick and Marietta need the spiritual help Gerald and Anona can offer.
Gerald and Rick read scripture together. Sitting together in the corner of the hallway, they seek out the comfort that comes from God’s words of life – words of life in a moment of tragedy.
Boy George has been interviewed by The Guardian. In the interview, he explains that he has become a godfather and went on to describe the baby’s christening. He explains in the article how dull the service was, expressing that he feels it should have been a moment of celebration. There should have been a party.
Gerald is impressed by what he says and writes to Boy George to thank him for the article. One of the members of his band is a Christian and observes the effect on Boy George as he reads the letter. It turns out that sadly, some so-called Christians have also written to Boy George, expressing in strong language their views that because of his lifestyle he has no right to be a godfather to any child. In contrast, Gerald’s letter is a delight and surprise to Boy George.
Move on a couple of years, and the same band member has invited Gerald and Anona to a concert. To the surprise of all, part way through the concert, Boy George announces, “We have someone really big in Christianity with us tonight.” He goes on to dedicate the next two songs to Gerald and Anona, singing versions of This Little Light of Mine and Down by the Riverside. After the concert, Gerald and Anona are invited onto the gleaming and giant tour bus. There, they spend an hour or two talking with Boy George. At one point, one of the organisers comes into the tour bus to remind Boy George that some fans are still waiting for him. “But I’m with my friends Gerald and Anona. They’ll just have to wait.”
Words of life in surprising settings. All because of a letter.
It is through Cliff that Alvin Stardust comes into Gerald and Anona’s lives. Cliff brings him along to a church event. Alvin has been to church before, but nothing quite like this. A few of the others in the congregation notice he is there – hard to miss with his trademark sideburns and swept-back hair. What they may also have noticed is his increasing nervousness as the preach goes on.
Is this for him? Has the preacher prepared a special talk just for him? It feels that way. As Gerald speaks, every word lands in an open heart. At the end of the sermon, there is an invitation to respond, to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour. One of the first hands raised that night is that of the pop star. A special moment and one that profoundly changes Alvin Stardust for the rest of his life. He goes through many problems in years to come but never loses his faith. At his premature death from cancer in 2014, he is recorded in the many obituaries as a godly man and one of the kindest people in the pop industry.
As the service ends, and the TV news item shows a final picture of the coffin, Gerald reflects on how God has been able to use his words, and make of them words of life.
One of the most remarkable connections remains Gerald’s link with the royal family of Romania. Gerald’s long-term friend David Taylor was a conveyancer. In the early 1970s, sitting next to Gerald in a meeting, a well-known preacher with a prophetic ministry lays his hands on David and says, “You will have a ministry to the Royal Family.”
Gerald is concerned. David is a middle manager in a solicitors’ practice. Surely such a word, if it is correct, should be for Gerald himself? After all, Gerald is the full-time pastor. David has just come along to the meeting as a friend. Perplexed, the young and somewhat arrogant Gerald dismisses the prophecy as a bit of a wild word, and no more is said.
Move forward 20 years. Gerald gets a phone call. It’s David. “Gerald, I’ve just seen an advert. Princess Margareta, Prince Charles’ cousin and the Crown Princess of Romania, is looking for a UK representative for her charity. Do you think I should apply?”
“This is the prophecy, David. This is it. Of course you should go for it.”
David gets the job.
Over the next few years, Gerald gets to know Princess Margareta by way of various charity functions. Then there’s a Youth with a Mission conference in Geneva and Gerald is the guest speaker. David decides to come along as well.
“David, why are you coming to this? You hate conferences.”
“I want you to meet Princess Margareta’s parents, King Michael and Queen Anne. King Michael is a cousin of our Queen. They live in Geneva. I want you to pray for them.”
“I know they live there. But David, you know full well that’s not how it works. You don’t even touch a Royal unless it’s a handshake. You certainly never lobby a member of the Royal Family – and asking to pray for them would be lobbying.”
David smiles. ‘Let’s see.’
The flight is on time. As Gerald stares out of the window on that short trip to Geneva, he has time to reflect. How did he ever get to be speaking to royalty in the way he now is? And politicians? And even the Archbishop of Canterbury? He smiles. God is fulfilling his word, making of Gerald something that in his wildest dreams Gerald could never have imagined.
He’s travelled to many places, spoken in many countries. He’s travelled to several parts of Africa, to South America, and through most of Europe. He’s spoken at or led major conferences in France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Malta, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
Not that these travels have been without sacrifice. Many a time, he has had to leave Anona behind as their young sons were growing up. Gerald remembers one set of meetings where he clearly was feeling some conflict with having left his family on their own over a weekend, and this comes out in his preaching that night. At the end of the meeting, an old man moves towards him. There’s a determined look in his eye. Waving his walking stick in Gerald’s direction, he says, “Young man, I have a word for you. You know, young man, God is a perfect Father, and he has many wayward children. Do you think you are going to do better?”
It lifts a load from Gerald’s mind at a crucial moment when travel is picking up. His boys will be cared for by a father who has a greater love than Gerald can ever have.
As the years go by, Gerald begins to get better at managing the travel and his family. His boys have done well. Anona has appreciated Gerald’s ministry. And the miles apart have always brought about a greater appreciation of their marriage and family whenever Gerald has returned.
The plane lands. Two hours later, David and Gerald are in the Geneva home of the Romanian Royal Family. The room they are in overlooks the lake. The majestic mountains in the background and the manicured lawns outside the window create a beautiful picture.
It’s a mid-morning meeting. They wait. And wait.
Forty-five minutes later, a flustered Queen Anne comes into the room. “I’m so sorry to keep you. So sorry.” She is closely followed by King Michael. It turns out that they have had some troubling family news that morning and have been trying to deal with it.
“It’s not a problem, ma’am, we can go.” Gerald and David get up to leave.
“No. No. Stay. Please, sit down.”
An hour’s meeting turns into two. Then three. They stay for a light meal. David is struggling to believe what is happening. The Royal Family of Romania never change schedules. They never ask people to stay. But here is Gerald being asked to stop for the whole afternoon.
The talk is general, but as Gerald and David make to leave, Queen Anne asks Gerald to pray for them. He does so. A pretty general prayer, but with a few extra words under his breath. ‘Lord, please change their lives.’
As Gerald gets up from the beautifully embroidered armchair, he gives the couple a book by the theologian Ravi Zacharias. Both the king and queen are strongly academic so Gerald reckons they may well read it. As an afterthought, Gerald also leaves them a copy of his autobiography, An Intelligent Fire, because David is mentioned in it.
Three weeks later, Gerald gets a call from David.
“Queen Anne wants a meeting with you. She’s getting permission from Queen Elizabeth to enter the country and will come to your house.”
“But why, David? What for?”
“I’m not sure. She hasn’t told me.”
A week later, David, his wife Carrie and Anona are in the house praying. Gerald is in the garden, sitting under the oak tree with Queen Anne. She speaks for a while of family matters, as well as her concern for the British Royal Family. But Gerald knows there must be more.
“Excuse me asking, ma’am, but why is it you have come? How can I help?”
“It’s your book. I’ve read it twice in the last three weeks. I didn’t realise. I never knew. I always thought Christianity was to do with rules and dogma. And I hate rules and dogma. But it’s not like that. He cares. He cares for me. His friendship is for simple people like me.”
That day, in Gerald’s garden, he prays with the Queen of Romania to find a new faith. A friendship and faith for simple people. Like Queen Anne.
Another week on, Princess Margareta calls Gerald.
“Gerald, what have you done to my mother?”
“What do you mean, ma’am?”
“She’s different. She’s speaking of her faith. She seems to have found her vocation.”
While Gerald is on a speaking tour, out of the blue Queen Anne contacts him again and asks if she can join him. What do you say to a queen when she asks to speak on your preaching tour? “Yes” is the only possible answer, of course.
The meeting hall in Bristol is packed. Gerald hasn’t told the congregation about his special guest, but part way through his preach, he stops to introduce her.
“I have a very special guest tonight. She’s going to talk for a few minutes. Please welcome Queen Anne of Romania.”
The congregation hesitate. Then applaud. Did he just say, Queen Anne? There’s a queen speaking?
For a few minutes, she tells her story: of driving ambulances in the Second World War; of supporting the exiled French Army; of being thrown out of Romania by the Communists: of how the country has been devastated as a result; and of how healing is coming. And then she says: “I just want to say to you God is real. I have found God to be real in my life, and there’s nothing I want more than to live minute by minute for Jesus Christ.”
A quiet murmur goes through the building. People begin to clap. The applause gets louder. People are standing on their feet cheering. A queen and her faith. A simple friendship for, as the Queen herself puts it, a simple person. A life changed, and a vocation found.
Pioneer is published by Malcolm Down Publishing and is available in all good bookshops
His most challenging role yet.
by Jessica Young
With an imposing presence, David Oyelowo has made his mark quickly in several dramatic leading roles, and he continues to make captivating movies full steam ahead. The British actor is best known for portraying civil rights leader Martin Luther King in Selma. His other roles include Lincoln, The Butler, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, A Most Violent Year and The Help. The 39-year-old father of four also starred in the British TV series Spooks.
His latest movie, Captive, is a crime drama, based on Ashley Smith’s book Unlikely Angel, co-starring Kate Mara, Mimi Rogers, Michael K. Williams, and David’s wife, Jessica, and is the true story of David’s character, Brian Nichols. Nichols escapes from the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta in March 2005, during his trial involving a rape case. In the process of the escape, he murders the judge presiding over his trial, as well as the court reporter. He shoots a special agent and a police sergeant and is the subject of a city-wide manhunt. Soon, he arrives at the apartment of Ashley Smith, a single mother and recovering meth addict, whom he holds hostage. Smith gets through her time as a hostage by reading Rick Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life while Nichols searches for redemption. As she reads aloud, the hostage and her would-be killer come to a crossroads.
Why did you pick this movie, Captive?
I was more drawn to the story than the role itself.
What else intrigued you enough to play this role?
Whenever you look at this story, there was this blank spot of what happened over this span of time. You only had Ashley’s side of the story, you didn’t hear much from Brian Nichols, and he was facing trial … for murder, and is presently serving multiple life sentences. So, someone who had killed four people in the morning then turns around and not only lets this woman go, but gives himself up. Then in a weird twist of fate, she attributes part of her salvation to him. It’s something that generates intrigue in me.
How familiar with the case were you before coming onto the project?
I wasn’t at all. It happened in 2005, and I was still living in the UK at that time. I’d read The Purpose Driven Life, and to see it being such a pivotal part of what went on to happen between Nichols and Smith is what got my attention.
Ashley Smith was my greatest resource from that point of view. As you can imagine for those seven hours, even though her life changed for the better beyond them, that time with Nichols was very traumatic. She was being held hostage in her apartment, and she remembers it like it was yesterday. She was with us for a lot of the shoot. I relied on her quite heavily for how he moved, who he was, what he said, what he didn’t say. We were changing the script all the time just to make sure we didn’t embellish what happened between them.
Did you have a trigger that you would use, or did you stay in character the whole time?
I didn’t have one on this one. I’ll be honest with you. Playing Nichols was a very tough thing because to get your head into the space of being able to kill four people in a morning, cold-heartedly – I didn’t enjoy being there even for the time of shooting, let alone to stay in character the whole time. One of the things I learned early on as an actor is that you have to love your character. You have to not judge them. You have to understand them to be able to truthfully play them. For me, this is one of the hardest characters I’ve had to do that with.
What goals did you set for yourself in portraying Brian?
I wanted to acknowledge certain things that inevitably the audience do with characters like Brian, which is that you judge someone like him. He’s a big black guy; he used to play football. Packing on a lot of muscles [was] something I had to do. Partly to play with the audience’s perception.
You see a big black guy taking a white woman hostage. No matter who you are, where you’re from, what colour you are, that is very provocative imagery and prejudice, to be perfectly frank. And then humanise him. Then bring complexity. Then make you question the initial attitude towards him, but at the same time make sure you’re not exonerating him for what he did. It was a very tricky balance to strike, but the fact that Ashley Smith herself attributes part of her salvation beyond this event to Brian Nichols, you have to see that.
What else was involved?
You have to see that there was something in him that made her humanity awaken – her desire to be better to be kick-started. It was a tough character to play because, like I say, you can’t get away from what he did; but he is a human being, and I think that’s partly why Ashley was able to cut the red switch with him, in a sense. [It] is the fact that she also showed him humanity at that moment, which is what enabled me as an actor to show his humanity because he was having an interaction as opposed to a cold-blooded non-interaction like he had with the people he killed.
Were you able to meet Brian?
I wasn’t, no. The nature of his sentence means you can’t have access. But I did get to meet his mother, which was very intense, as you can imagine. The thing that was extraordinary about meeting her, even ten years on, is that she still can’t quite believe that this is her life and that this was her son that did this. It is still reverberating for that family…
Was there footage to use for research?
Yes, of the trial mainly. Not beforehand. My primary source for getting under the skin of Brian was Ashley. She remembers this event as if it happened yesterday, and she was on the set with us through quite a lot of the shoot. She had influence in so far as not from a creative point of view, but more from a factual point of view. I was very keen [to have her there], because I couldn’t speak to Brian, and because I was limited in being able to talk to people who knew him; I just wanted to make sure that what we were doing felt true, felt like it was authentic to the experience. It is one of those stories with no need to embellish anything. All of it played out like a movie.
Please tell me more.
When you think about the fact that Brian kills those people in Atlanta, and then it was a 45-minute drive to Duluth to the apartment complex, and then he finds his way into her specific apartment… You couldn’t write that, is the truth of the matter. So for us it was about sticking true to the story, and that was primarily her function for us while we were shooting the film.
Did you have any second thoughts about playing Brian?
Yes, I did. Because I know what it costs me to play these roles. You can’t phone that in. My job as an actor is to fully inhabit the character. And that costs with a character like Brian Nichols … what he did, and who he is, didn’t have the same draw as playing Dr King, for obvious reasons. But my job was the same. Your job as an actor is to not judge your character. You have to be able to understand why they do what they do when they are doing it, so that you function as a three-dimensional human being that people can believe.
The fact remains that beyond those seven hours, Ashley Smith attributes God with part of why she gained her life back. And when he held a gun to her head and said take the meth, and she said no, a drug that she had been a slave to for so long, the way she describes it is that she felt God took over Brian Nichols and said, “Do you want to live or do you want to die? You have a choice, turn away from this thing , take hold of life.” And so regardless of where you are coming from, [from] a faith point of view, something happened, something miraculous happened. Something that on paper shouldn’t have.
And that can only happen when, I believe … a degree of humanity is shared between these two people. So yes, the idea at the beginning of the movie is for him to be cold-blooded, and one of the things I really struggled with is, you have a guy, and this is what he did on the day, he had no shirt on, very muscly guy, two guns, running around Atlanta, the kind of guy who we normally deem an action hero in the movies – so one of the toughest things was how do we not make him seem like Jason Statham, or Bourne or Bond, so you have that to one side.
But at the end of the day, even though – especially if he had done what he did to any family member of mine – I wouldn’t want to see him as a human being … the fact remains that he was. And so yes, my job is to portray him with a degree of humanity that means you can take a look at these two people, who you could discard to the trash heap, making choices that took them away from the deadly path that they were both on. That can only be born out of humanity.
I know your faith is important to you and your family. Would you say this is a Christian movie?
I would be unhappy if it were limited to being thought of as a Christian movie because I have avoided films like that. People know I’m a Christian; it’s something I’m not shy about talking about, and I’ve had films like that be presented … I guess the preconception being that I would want to be involved with them. I don’t because I find anything preachy to not be evocative of what it’s like to be alive. I don’t think life is as clear-cut as someone has it all together, someone doesn’t, the person who has it all together helps the person who doesn’t, and they go on to find salvation.
What I love about this story is that these are two broken people, and undeniably something happened that took them on a path that was not what you expect. Brian Nichols killed those four people that morning but he let her go. He gave himself up. She went on to never touch that drug again. How did that happen, why did that happen.
That’s why I’m interested in that seven-hour interaction between them. It wasn’t born out of a Christian faith in my mind. It was born out of a miraculous circumstance. I would hope that it wouldn’t get boxed into just being deemed a Christian movie.
How do you hope the film connects with audiences?
One of the most dramatic things Ashley ever said to me when I was talking to her about that night is she said that when Brian Nichols broke into her apartment, she was aware of who he was and what he had done. She had been a slave to meth for a long time, and she felt that this was God’s way of saying, “You have run out of chances.” She thought she was going to die because that’s what she deserved. The opposite is what happened. It was the day beyond which she gained life. Not only life, but she never touched that drug again. I’m still blown away by the fact that this was a drug she pursued, she spent all her money to get and use, and Brian Nichols asked her to take that drug three times at gunpoint and she said no. What happened there? How would you go from someone who pursues this drug to a murderer saying, “Take the drug”? I would take the drug. You know what I mean? And I’ve never taken any drugs. So to me, my hope is that people watch the film and see that no one is beyond a second chance, no one is beyond redemption. This is a woman who felt she was beyond redemption and gained it and stepped into it and now her life is impacting other people. I just find that to be a very powerful thing.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
The tough thing for me was to have all those things Nichols did but to work very hard not to glamorise those moments. He was a cold-blooded killer. What he did that day, there are people alive still dealing with the pain and the fallout of what he did. Glamorising it and making him feel cool in any way was the opposite of what I wanted to do. We just wanted to make it feel as it was, which is terrifying and cold-blooded, and instantaneously people’s lives are changed forever. That was the thing we worked very hard to do.
The Action Man
Sorted talks to author Andy McNab.
Written by Martin Leggatt
I meet author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab in the upstairs room of a private members club in London. I’m not entirely sure that I should be bandying his name about, and I find myself doing this weird checking either side of me thing as I tell the receptionist I’m here to interview him. It doesn’t help that I whisper his name at the end of the sentence. She indulges me with a smile before announcing loudly that “Mr McNab is a member here”. I realise that she knows him by sight – an advantage that not many people have.
I don’t know what he looks like, but I’m betting he won’t be sitting with a black strip across his eyes. She laughs, and I’m introduced to a relaxed-looking man in his early 50s. He looks intolerably fit. He extends a hand and immediately makes me feel at ease. As the interview progresses, I notice how he has that knack of making you feel incredibly relaxed. He’s a very animated talker who punctuates his sentences with expansive arm movements and hand chops to the table top for emphasis.
We talk on a wide range of subjects, from the rising costs of property in London and New York, a homeless man that he’s seen in New York who changes into his business suit to go to work each day, and his recommendation of software to make my writing a lot easier. Mostly we talk about his Nick Stone thrillers and that mission.
Nick must be getting on a bit now.
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s the eternal 35-year-old, he’s one of those guys who never sort of changes … he never has a birthday in the books.
Do you have to make changes to how you write Nick, with him getting older and changes to his physical condition?
Well, no. Obviously over the years he has to change, he has to have different views, he has to mature. He has to make different decisions. But you can’t have him going too far or you’ll have him hugging trees by now. You can’t have that. It’s more about his character art and the way he thinks about things. He’s got to move on; he’s got to be different because people are, aren’t they? He goes off sometimes a bit too extreme and [messes] up and then comes back again. In that way, there’s a change, but as we all do. But not as an age thing – I just try to keep out of that. No, he’s the eternal 35-year-old.
What I like about him is that he’s just like a normal bloke, but with some unusual skills.
Yeah, certainly in the early days, and I never knew he would take off, it was to try to make him a realistic character. He comes from a normal background; he’s got a lot of the same likes and dislikes, but he can do this and then [he chops his hands on the table for emphasis] because it’s a first-person narrative he can explain what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. I wanted to make him as realistic as possible so people would say, “Yeah, I know someone like that.” That can only happen when you know the superpower isn’t a superpower because you’ve already connected with him.
He’s not some James Bond type, then?
No, none of the Dom Pérignon and all that, he’s more of a Big Mac and Diet Coke man.
Is there a lot of you in Nick?
Yeah, there has to be. Purely for the first-person narrative, for all those things to work. Number one because it’s easier to write. Certainly for all the thought processes, so hopefully it becomes a lot more realistic and a lot more personal, so that when people read it they can embrace it a lot easier. So yeah, there’s a lot of thought processes, and that’s the only way to do it. Certainly you can create a third-person character but he has to be larger than life, but with a first-person narrative you have to be slightly more personal otherwise it doesn’t work.
He’s been through a lot over the course of the 17 books: Kelly, Sarah, and a lot of loss. How are you shaping him to cope with that? Is it something that mirrors yourself?
Yeah, certainly about ten years ago he was having therapy and then he thought “I’ll bin that and get on”. He has all those dramas; he has to because they’re traumas that people have. He has to have them because then readers can recognise that trauma and realise that people deal with it in a different way. Clearly he’s got to carry on and get himself into a load more trouble. Nine out of ten times it’s him getting into trouble, trying to get out of trouble, rather than fighting evil. So to represent that we had Kelly, but it got to a point where she was getting so old that I had to make a conscious decision, does she become the parent in the relationship? She was maturing quicker than Nick, and you think, how do you play with that dynamic? The easiest thing was to kill her. And then he’s got to try to deal with it and then start to move on. So he has the drama and then gets on. Otherwise, you have to keep wasting pages explaining the backstory.
And now he’s a family man. I never thought I’d see the day.
Neither did he. [Laughter] Again, he’s got to sort of move on. He’s got to get on and do all these new things, like the providing. There’s a bit of conflict going, which generally happens in life, and we’ve all got to get on with it. He’s in that same situation; it’s slightly more raised because of what he’s got into; he’s got a lot of commitments to fulfil. And that’s certainly what’s driving the whole of this new book on, particularly towards the end. He’s balancing this new commitment against what he does.
I love the names of the characters, for example, Hubba Hubba. Where do you get think them up?
A lot of that comes down to the military; everything’s cut in half or everybody’s got a nickname. In some cases, you can go years without knowing someone’s real first name and you go “Oh, your name’s Jim, or Steve”. Certainly in the book it makes it more personal because we all use [nicknames] in some way and it’s a lot clearer to write. So they’re Hubba Hubba or that guy Slack Pack. Slack Pack is a guy who really exists.
I saw the advertising posters on the train ride up here. The strapline says, ‘What doesn’t kill him, makes him stronger.’ Is this true of you as well?
Yeah, I think there are two ways you can go with drama – you can collapse in a heap, or get on with it. Ultimately no one gives a [fig] they’ve got their own problems. They can give you sympathy, but they can’t really help, they’ve got other things to do. There are only two ways to go from there, you know; blame everybody else, or just get on with it. Ever since I was a kid, I just got on with it. You’ve no control over it, so just get over it. It’s much easier that way.
Is your pseudonym Andy McNab now more of a brand than a security precaution?
No, not at all. The threat is still out there. I was doing a book tour last year over in Ireland, bizarrely a fundraiser for the PSNI. It was doing events raising funds for injured officers and it all got out of control. Death threats came in and there was a bomb scare. So it’s just being sensible, really, but it’s also nice to have that anonymity. You can do stuff, which is great, you can bounce around and do all your stuff. But at the same time you get this benefit of this brand, which is great …
I read somewhere that you’ve moved to New York.
Yeah, in and out. This year’s been quite busy, so most of it’s been in the States, either New York or Los Angeles. I quite like New York, I find LA quite bland, but New York’s fantastic. This last two or three years we’ve been there pretty much full-time. The chances are that’s where we’ll live; I’ve got the American driving licence, all that stuff, so the chances are we’ll be there permanently. It makes sense; that’s where all the work is. And for people like me it’s really true that America is the land of opportunity. Without a doubt.
Do you miss being ‘Herbal Henry’ [a nickname given to him by his neighbours in Norfolk]?
[Laughs a lot] Yeah, I do, actually. Yeah, it’s funny, I do like that. Years and years I had it, ‘Herbal Henry’. Nobody told me, I just heard it; they all thought I was a drug dealer. I’d go into the pub for Sunday lunch and everybody was very polite. Yeah, it was great.
It’s inevitable that you’ll always be asked about Bravo Two Zero. Invariably it’s referred to as a failed mission. You were in the army for 18 years and you must have had hundreds of successful operations. It’s always struck me as being a bit unfair.
Well, you’ve got all these armchair experts who all know better, and nine out of ten times they’ve never been in the military. It’s not science. We’ve got media, film and TV, and it’s broadcast that it’s got to go like this and this and this. In the case of its mission, it was a failure: we didn’t find the fibre optic cables, but the other side of it, and I think this is one of the reasons why people tuned into it a lot … it was a human story. It was a bunch of lads who could be your next-door neighbour as opposed to the memoir of a general. And with all the media I think people just wanted a more intimate account. Yeah, technically it was a failure, we didn’t find the fibre optic cable, but what came out of it was certainly a re-establishment of what the regiment was about. That small group of soldiers getting on with it. And the Brits are very good at celebrating these [mess-ups]; actually, most nations are. So technically it was, but in the big scheme it actually wasn’t. If you look at it in a military context, it’s still used as an example of a mission that goes wrong but actually because of the planning and preparation, the Plan B, the Plan C, and the resistance to interrogation training, that actually works. Because in a military context everyone understands, it’s not a science, you’ve got a group of individuals. You know, if it’s a science you’ve got rules that if you’ve got an element it responds in a certain way, but you can’t dictate that.
At the end of Bravo Two Zero, you mention what would happen if you met the two men who tortured you and who enjoyed it. Is that still the case?
Yeah, yeah, still the case. I’ve been on the board of a private military company for donkey’s years and when the Americans took Iraq in the second Gulf War, as is the nature with all these companies, we’re in there within 48 hours trying to make contracts and all that sort of thing. As that was going on and we were getting established and all the contracts were coming in, you’d get all the fixers coming in and they’d say, “I know who the guys were who did it” and in the chaos you could do whatever you wanted. So it was a case of giving them a couple of hundred dollars and you’re rattling into the city and it wasn’t these guys anyway. They were just after the money. So after that I didn’t bother anymore. But no, if I thought I could get away with it, yeah. It was only a couple of them. The military guys were alright; they were at Sandhurst when we used to train the Iraqi army during their war with Iran. They were all right; they were saying, “You’ve got a job to do, we’ve got a job to do.” It’s the secret police guys; they were the boys really going for it, and they were really enjoying it. So, yeah, those two guys.
Didn’t you go back to the place you were held?
Yeah, loads of times. It was quite hard initially, trying to find it. Certainly the interrogation centre. It was near, again a remnant of the Brits, it was called the something Hunting Club. Bizarre, isn’t it; they’d have guys running around in pink coats and Abu Ghraib was a complex, not an actual prison. So eventually we found the interrogation centre, and by the time we’d found it the Americans had moved in and it had all been repainted and it was really weird. And then we found the wing, one of the sections of Abu Ghraib where I’d been interrogated, and all the metal had been ripped out, all the locals had taken the rails out, all the doors, and it was all canvassed up. It was being used by all the homeless people, people that had been bombed out of the city, they were all living there. It was quite…
Something good had come out of it?
Yeah, yeah, and all the tanks, they’d all been repainted, and by then people were living in them, like flats. I’m serious; they had flowers on them, and families would move into a taxi, rip everything out and live in there. Incredible.
Did that help – going back?
Yeah, it was more curiosity than anything. I think it was more trying to identify, and by then I’d been up to Al-Qa’im. Well, a couple of the lads from the company went up there and I just jumped up there with them. By then there was this cairn that had been built during the second Gulf War, but I remembered the village and the bridge by the Euphrates and the general areas and managed to find it [the place where he’d been captured].
After reading your books, I read Frank Collins’ [a colleague of Andy’s who left the SAS and became a Church of England vicar] book Baptism of Fire. It was a huge shock to me that Frank had taken his own life; it must have been terrible for you.
Yeah, yeah. Well, he died about the same time as Nish [another former SAS colleague who sadly took his own life]. We were having this party for the Eurovision Song Contest and it was fancy dress. Frank turned up in costume with these huge stick-on sideburns and all that. So that was on a Saturday night, and then he turned up on the Sunday afternoon and said he’d come to eat up all the pasta or something. But what he’d actually turned up to do was say goodbye. So we’re all asking him what he’s been doing, and basically he’s just doing the rounds and saying goodbye before he topped himself. So all planned and then he’s got on with it.
I think Frank was so confused. There was that movement to Christianity, going through all that from happy-clappy to trying it all, you know the Pentecostal and getting ordained, all that, and it wasn’t enough. Which was really weird. Cos that’s the sort of bloke you’re supposed to be going to with your problems, isn’t it? And that’s why it was such a shock. The last person you’d expect.
In his book and yours there’s mention of Frank giving you a Bible.
Yeah, when I first went into the regiment he’d already got into Christianity, he’d been over with the Americans where there’s a strong movement and he’d come back with God. And we were all reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail [sic] and trying to find ways of catching him out, but we couldn’t. When we were in the troop, and about nine or ten months later, we were in Northern Ireland and he’d give us this book and it was the Bible. We’d all tell him: “No, not interested mate” and he was increasingly getting into it. And after that tour was when he left the regiment.
Back to Bravo Two Zero. In the two films of the mission based on your and Chris’ books (Chris Ryan, author of The One That Got Away), you were played by Sean Bean and rather unflatteringly by David Morrissey.
[He laughs] Yeah. It’s interesting, because at the time, what happened was, I was approached by the producers and took some advice and said no. And then they went to Chris and with all the Paul Greengrass stuff, he’d just done Spycatcher and was into all these conspiracy theories, and then the BBC came to me. At the time it [cheesed] a lot of people off and a lot of people were angry with Chris, but now I can realise that it was the business, that’s just how it is. I’ve been really well advised, and actually you can just get carried away with all this [stuff] and it gets taken away from you and it gets turned into something else. So at the time – yeah, I was quite [cheesed] off but now I understand that that can happen.
Now I’m involved in TV and film, especially in America, and it can be a nightmare. So it’s understanding how those things can be hijacked. It’s easy to sign on the dotted line, but you’ve got to take all the hassle if it gets out of hand. At that time, we were all upset with Chris, especially for the way Vince was portrayed, but now I can understand how easily these things happen.
I see that there are still plans in the pipeline to make a film of Firewall. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s one of the things we’re doing now. Basically, the film business is fantastic in that you can make a load of money without actually making a film. I’ve sold the options three times over the years, but you get to the point where the studio won’t make the film because the balance of payments is too great to proceed, and that’s where we are now. So we’re not making a film, because there’s more money in TV, certainly American TV. So, we’re in negotiation with the Weinstein Company, Big Bad Harvey. We’ve got director Antoine Fuqua [Training Day] on board as producer with me and Bonnie Timmermann and we’re nearly there. And that will be ten hours of American TV, Nick will still be a Brit and all that and it’ll come over here. That’s been a brilliant learning curve. It’s nearly there.
Who’ll play Nick?
Who knows? That’s the next step.
Detonator is published by Bantam Press and is available in hardback and eBook.
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