In issue 54
Hollywood legend Morgan Freeman on Ben Hur
Funny man, Nathan Caton, straight outta Middlesex
TV Adventurer, Bear Grylls
And celebrity baker, Will Torrent
And Gadgets, Entertainment, Motoring, Movies, Technology
Plus, the greatest team of Christian writers ever assembled.
Recipe for change
Pastry chef’s great Ethiopian (pancake) bake-off
On a recent visit to Ethiopia with Christian relief agency Tearfund, award-winning pastry chef and chocolatier Will Torrent got more than he bargained for when he was challenged to a bake-off (of sorts). It involved cooking over an open fire, fermented pancakes and heartfelt stories that would change his perception of church and fellowship forever.
By Will Torrent
Sweat dribbled down my face as I carefully poured a white doughy mixture onto a hot stone plate. Like so many times while baking, I had dozens of eyes on me. But today was different. For starters, my surroundings were worlds away from my well-stocked and fitted British kitchen or the cooking show sets I’ve had the privilege to work on. I was in a remote Ethiopian village, standing over an open fire in indescribable heat. Above me, a straw canopy. With no extractor fan present to lessen the smoke and fumes, I had to muster every ounce of manliness to stop my eyes from tearing.
Adding fuel to the pressure fire, so to speak, was the fact that this was my first-ever attempt at making a traditional Ethiopian dish – a fermented teff flour pancake called injera. I was warned they can be rather tricky to get right.
Baking under these circumstances was most definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Despite my obvious discomfort and the imminent threat of me shedding a couple of (smoke-induced) tears, I felt an enormous sense of achievement as I served my humble attempt at injera to one of the village elders. Instead of my usual repertoire of delicate bakes and beautifully crafted chocolate creations, I had managed to produce something that closely resembled a local Ethiopian delicacy while baking over an open fire using an ingredient I’d only ever heard of.
At that moment, I was as far away as I’d ever been from the world’s finest kitchens and ingredients, surrounded by a crowd of people whose language I couldn’t understand. Through our baking that day, however, we had somehow managed to connect. Food, like music, is a universal language spoken and understood by anyone with a stomach and an appetite!
As a round of applause and good-hearted laughter erupted among the onlookers, I suddenly recalled the apprehension I had felt when Tearfund – a Christian relief and development agency – invited me along to this Horn of Africa country as part of their Give Like Jesus campaign.
Despite the obvious sense of adventure that accompanies any trip to this beautiful continent, the only reference point I had was dire images portrayed in the media – desperate poverty, sad groups of people and scenes that would move even the most rugged of men to tears (myself included, of course!).
My apprehension, in other words, had very little to do with the more extreme stereotypes associated with Africa, such as armed militia and disease. In addition to the media’s version of Africa firmly set in my mind, which can never serve as adequate preparation, was a little voice reminding me of the experiences my wife and some of my best mates had during their respective trips to Africa. They said it changed them forever.
But instead of believing my experience would be similarly life-altering, I had serious doubts that despite calling myself a Christian, my heart would be moved by the trip, that I would return a changed man.
Questions kept milling around in my mind. What if everything I expected to see – slums, poverty, disease and hardship – did not spur me onto some level of elevated understanding and compassion?
And then a still small voice – what if it did?
Despite my initial apprehension, I knew that nothing would deter me from visiting Ethiopia with Tearfund. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to go deeper than most tourists and visitors to this beautiful part of the world would ever venture.
The purpose of my visit with Tearfund to Ethiopia would be to see first-hand the impact of an initiative that was started in Ethiopia a decade ago – so-called ‘self-help groups’. From humble beginnings, this microfinancing initiative has evolved into a social movement that not only helps to eradicate poverty but has also brought about social change. When the programme began, there was only one group with 18 women. Today there are more than 18,500 groups with 330,000 members.
When hearing the words ‘development’ and ‘microfinancing’, however, I couldn’t help but be tinged by a degree of scepticism – not helped by the stereotypical images of Africa that clouded my thinking prior to my visit.
Nothing could prepare me for what I found instead.
A few months later, stepping off the plane with Tearfund in Ethiopia, I quickly realised that absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the heat. It was like stepping into a furnace. “How do people live here?” I wondered.
After spending a day or so settling in, we set off to a remote village where I would experience my baptism of fire in terms of Ethiopian cooking – quite literally!
Following my aforementioned successful ‘initiation’ into Ethiopian cooking, I was invited to sit in on a self-help group meeting. Like other self-help groups, the one I visited gave its members valuable skills when it came to financial know-how, the setting up of bank accounts and starting small businesses. Members took turns sharing their incredible stories with me.
One woman’s story stood out – that of 39-year-old Amarech, mother of seven. Desperate circumstances forced Amarech’s husband to leave her and the children to find work as a migrant worker in South Africa. She was left raising her children alone, and the region’s erratic weather patterns further compounded the already dire circumstances.
When Amarech heard about the self-help group, she realised that she had nothing to lose and decided to join them. As a first principle, she was encouraged to save two pence a week to add to the self-help group savings pot.
Somewhat perplexed, I remember thinking – what on earth can you buy with two pence these days?
Well, Amarech will tell you that as a group they started saving the equivalent of two pence per member per week. A few months later, with support from the self-help group, she was able to start a small business, of which the income eventually allowed for her husband to return. They were now earning enough through her business for them to be a family again.
But here’s the clincher: despite these obvious benefits, Amarech and the other group members told me that it’s not all about the money.
As much as members are focused on developing sound financial discipline, they all say the real benefit and the reason they can no longer imagine life before the groups was the social aspect, the sense of belonging, the strong bond they had with each other. Before, they told me, they didn’t really know their neighbours, but because of their weekly meetings, relationships in the community have greatly improved. In addition, their membership and engagement with one another grew their confidence, and as a result, relationships with spouses and their children also improved.
Amarech told me that when she built a new house for her family, the members of the self-help group collaborated and supported her. They helped fetched water for the builders, and brewed coffee to fuel their energy supplies. Her self-help group members no longer feel like friends – they’re family to each other.
As I sat there listening to Amarech, I thought how differently we view our social networks in Britain. I guess the closest version of a self-help group some of us will attend is our church’s home group. But how involved are we in each other’s lives? And how committed are we to offer our shoulder to cry on or help in times of need to our home group members?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has at least used the lame excuse of “I’m really busy at work” to stay home instead of making the effort to fellowship with my home group and show real interest in their lives.
My earlier scepticism regarding relief work was slowly but surely evaporating in the warmth of the self-help group discussion, in their honest and truthful testimony of the impact the self-help group has had not only on their community but also on so many others. When you hear the words ‘relief agency’ you think of a van going in handing out food, water and clothes, but there was something else and far more powerful at work here.
Granted, during desperate times, emergency funding can become absolutely critical. Especially now, when an estimated more than 10 million people in Ethiopia are being affected by drought. It is for this reason that Tearfund recently launched its Give Like Jesus campaign, but it is interventions like these self-help groups that ultimately keep people on their feet once emergency interventions have helped them back up again.
The knee-jerk reaction to witnessing hardship like I did in Ethiopia would be pity, but instead I felt incredibly encouraged and inspired by the people I met and by the stories they entrusted to me. The visit also changed my perception of Africa specifically, and demonstrated the incredible power of fellowship and genuine interest in our fellow human beings.
Self-help groups are supported by churches, but members of all faiths are welcome to attend. Just thinking of our own church set-up in Britain, I was struck by how many opportunities we miss to involve others in our walk with God. Church is about so much more than the preaching that happens from the pulpit – it’s in our everyday interaction with each other, it’s in loving and forgiving those who cross our path, in going out with mates for a beer.
I guess I’m a good example of someone who perhaps does not fit the mould of stereotypical manliness (if ever there is such a thing!). I think in most people’s minds the baking world should be dominated by women, yet here I am spending my days as a pastry chef and chocolatier working on delicate intricate creations, tasting chocolate and sweets, experimenting with different flavours and desserts. Yet I also like watching football, fast cars, and enjoy having a beer every now and again.
My visit to Ethiopia and my open fire (cooking) baptism inspired me to use teff flour to tell the story of Ethiopia’s people and the incredible hardship they’re enduring with so much resilience. And so, a few weeks ago, at a big Christian festival, I found myself once again attempting to make injera with teff flour, but the scene was slightly different this time. A cool English country breeze was blowing, I was using an induction hob, and not too far from me, a health and safety officer was keeping a watchful eye on the procedure.
Representing Tearfund, I had the opportunity to share Amarech’s story with hundreds of festival-goers, and afterwards to give them a taste of injera. I went to Africa thinking I had something to offer, thinking my skills could somehow make a difference to the people there. What I realised instead was that the true recipe for hope was to be found in the weekly gathering of thousands of self-help group members, in the sharing of their fears and dreams, in the forming of bonds between friends that come to resemble family. Now, if only we can import that kind of thinking to Britain.
Trauma at sea
How a maritime charity is supporting the world’s seafarers through crises
Being kidnapped is not something most people think about when they go about their daily work, but for seafarers, the recent upward trend of kidnap for ransom is a very real concern. Earlier this year, ten seafarers were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf terrorists. After five weeks in captivity, facing fears of never seeing their loved ones again, the terrorists released the men.
Chaplains from international Christian maritime charity, Sailors’ Society have been able to provide emotional and welfare support to the seafarers and their families during this difficult time.
Sailors’ Society chaplain Muhartono Tito is based in the Indonesian port of Banjarmasin and acted as a liaison between the ship owner and the families while the seafarers were held captive.
Muhartono said: “The families were incredibly worried about the safety of their loved ones. When news broke that the terrorists had freed the men, I called the seafarers’ families; they were incredibly grateful.”
One of the seafarers’ wives said: “My husband is finally reunited with his family.”
Their release came a week after Abu Sayyaf beheaded Canadian businessman John Ridsdel and, according to authorities, the terrorists still have at least 11 people hostage.
Although the seafarers are in good physical health despite their ordeal, the mental strain of such a traumatic experience can have long-lasting effects.
One of the seafarers said: “We were very stressed because they frequently threatened to slit our throats.”
Muhartono Tito is also supporting a seafarer who was shot by terrorists.
Lambas Simanungkalit was working on board a tugboat when it was hijacked between Malaysian and Filipino waters.
Four of the ten crew were kidnapped by the armed men and later released.
“The hijackers came on board and threatened the men with their guns. Lambas saw four of his friends taken away and feared for the others who were being fired at,” added Muhartono.
In the confusion, Lambas was shot and fell to the ground. “He told me that the sound of gunfire was deafening.”
Still conscious, Lambas was helped by a friend, who covered his wound with a cloth and radioed for help.
Malaysian armed forces transferred Lambas to a bigger boat, where he received medical assistance.
He was taken to hospital in a grave condition.
“The doctor was amazed he was still conscious.”
But, following two days of operations, Lambas’ condition deteriorated.
“The doctors told his wife to expect the worst; he was weak and they gave him only a 20% chance of surviving his injuries.”
Amazingly, though, Lambas has recovered.
“His recovery is a miracle. We will hold a thanksgiving service in their home and invite seafarers and the local congregation to attend.
“Although all the men are … home safely, it is a real possibility that the seafarers and their families will suffer from stress. I have offered them counselling to help deal with their emotions.”
There are 1.5 million merchant seafarers across the globe, transporting more than 90% of the world’s goods and services.
Away from family and friends for months on end – typically 270 consecutive days at a time – many seafarers battle loneliness and isolation.
Founded in 1818, Sailors’ Society aims to transform the lives of seafarers and their families at home, in port and at sea through the delivery of chaplaincy, education and the relief of poverty and distress.
The charity works internationally to provide practical, emotional and spiritual welfare support, regardless of background or faith. The Society has a presence in 87 global ports across 26 countries.
Last year, Sailors’ Society chaplains and ship visitors reached almost 340,000 seafarers, extending a hand of friendship, hospitality and pastoral care to men and women who are often thousands of miles from home.
Although piracy and terrorism at sea may make the news, the human cost can be more hidden.
Jasper del Rosario, one of the charity’s chaplains in the Philippines, was able to comfort the wife of a seafarer who died in a tragic encounter between Somali pirates and authorities. As gunfire erupted between the two forces, the seafarer sought refuge in his vessel’s engine room, where he tragically suffocated and died.
A year after her husband’s death, a powerful earthquake struck the Philippines, destroying their house and leaving the family homeless.
Once again, Jasper was able to step in. Thanks to donations, the society gave financial aid needed to rebuild their home, as well as the emotional care to help her rebuild her life.
Jasper’s colleague in Ukraine, Eduard Myrmyr, has also been supporting the wife and sons of a seafarer who was shot and killed by pirates.
“The boys’ mother is worried about them; they are growing and obviously miss their father. I talked to the eldest boy and he agreed to meet me regularly and share the difficulties he has to face,” said Eduard.
Seafaring frequently makes it onto lists of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
Coping with a colleague’s death is difficult at the best of times, but when you lose someone you have spent months in close quarters with, the loss is arguably even harder to accept.
In Scotland, Sailors’ Society’s auxiliary port chaplain Drew Anderson and ship visitor Murdo MacLeod were on hand to administer spiritual and emotional support to the friends of a Filipino seafarer killed while working in Scotland.
“When I went on board there were a lot of visibly upset people. Working together at sea for many months, the seafarers are close, and to them it was like losing a brother,” said Drew.
Drew contacted his colleague, Nic Tuban in the Philippines, who was able to comfort the seafarer’s widow and children in Manila.
Nic said: “His wife is devastated; she didn’t expect him to die so young. His job was the family’s main source of income and his wife said that he had recently spoken about retiring.”
Nic was able to pray with the family and comfort them; he was also able to give them financial assistance in the form of a Sailors’ Society welfare grant.
Travelling the world and visiting unfamiliar cities, seafarers can find themselves in challenging situations.
Chaplain Nikolay Yablunovsky, in the Ukrainian port of Kherson, helped a group of seafarers robbed at knifepoint on a trip into the city.
Nikolay helped them get new phones and provided emotional care for them: “I hadn’t heard of a situation like this in years and had thought these times had passed. I now warn seafarers of the dangers and offer them help travelling around the city,” he said.
Post-trauma care is just one way Sailors’ Society helps support seafarers and their families.
Last year, the charity launched a Crisis Response Centre in Durban. The centre provides a rapid response trauma care and counselling service for survivors of piracy attacks as well as other disasters at sea.
A second Crisis Response Centre in Ukraine opened in April. The new centre has already offered support to a crew released after two weeks of captivity at the hands of pirates off the Nigerian coast.
Crews can also find themselves imprisoned in foreign jails.
The MT Maro’s 11 Indian crew have been in a Nigerian prison since 2014.
Rev Boet van Schalkwyk, who heads up Sailors’ Society’s Crisis Response Centre in South Africa said: “Our role is to support the imprisoned seafarers in their spiritual, physical, social and mental states and provide critical incident counselling.”
When Boet arrived at the prison to help the crew, he said: “We were introduced to not just the Maro crew, but to 38 seafarers of all ranks and ratings. Most were awaiting trial and some had been there for years. One seafarer had served half of his eight-year sentence and another two were serving sentences of 14 years.”
Sandra Welch, deputy chief executive and director of programme at Sailors’ Society, said: “Our Crisis Response Centres provide rapid response trauma care and counselling service[s] for survivors of disasters at sea, such as accidents or piracy attacks. Sailors’ Society transforms lives at home, in port and at sea, and it is important that we are able to help not just those directly affected, but also their families.”
Nathan Caton’s been around the comedy scene since he emerged as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. A decade later, he is a familiar act on the television and the comedy circuit. Sorted caught up with him to talk about his comedy, faith and Brentford FC.
By Martin Leggatt
You’d probably recognise Nathan from his appearances on popular comedy shows Mock the Week, Russell Howard’s Good News and Live at the Apollo. For me it came as a surprise when I chatted to him that he’d also written for the popular CBBC programme Rastamouse, but when he explained how he’d got the gig, “Yeah, that was lots of fun. They needed someone to write with authentic West Indian patois” it made more than obvious sense. We share a laugh when I tell him about a friend, in his mid-50s, very middle-class and a solicitor to boot, who was addicted to the children’s programme. “I often find that there are more fans of the show who are adults without kids than adults with kids,” he laughs. Why does he think that is? “It was fresh and different, the West Indian character…so many were hooked.”
The Rastamouse gig came about through a connection at Paramount Comedy (now Comedy Central), a channel that also piloted his Nathan Caton Show. Sadly, the show didn’t pan out to a series but to Nathan there were far more positives to be taken away from the experience. “Yeah, it was back when I was young, a lot of fun at the time when I was still finding my voice,” he tells me, before explaining that it gave him a lot of material that he has developed for his act. How he invented lots of his characters, he would “dress as a woman, a teenage kid and a wannabee MC” and all this gave him little sketches that he developed to use in his act.
Are you looking forward to your upcoming tour Straight Outta Middlesex (which starts in October and takes in various venues nationwide).
Yeah, it’s great man. I do a one hour solo comedy show. I’m really looking forward to it.
It’s a shame you’re not from Kensington – you could’ve called it Straight Outta Brompton [He likes this a lot; I hope that he doesn’t nick it for his act.]
Yeah, exactly. A lot more gangster – there’s lots of green where I’m from, although we’re talking weeds, not that kind of weed.
Is it hard work?
The tour? The hardest part is all the travelling around. The rest is just my job. I’m always writing material, but no, I’m more excited, looking forward to it. When people come to the show they don’t see the hours on the train, bus or stuck in a car. There’s a lot to it.
A lot of hotels and driving?
Yeah, but I don’t want be stuck in an office, definitely not designing buildings [he has a degree in architecture].
Any more weird encounters in hotels with people recognising you?
Oh man, I’m not looking forward to any of those. It’s kinda good; it gives me a lot of material. No, mostly just strange randoms taking pictures of me and posting them on Twitter.
What do you prefer – stand-up or TV shows?
Both. I’ll always be a stand-up comedian, it’s my bread and butter, I’ll never abandon it TV and radio [he has his BBC R4 show, Can’t Tell Nathan Caton Nothing] are fun, but I’ll always be a stand-up comedian.
What has been your toughest crowd?
When I was younger I did a really tough gig in London, where I’m from – it was in a cricket ground after a rock concert. I came on to this hostile crowd that were all moshing and expecting more rock music and lasted for five minutes. It was meant to be 25 minutes. Another guy, a really experienced comic, was meant to go on but he left, he didn’t even go on. So I came off stage and went straight outside for a taxi, it was really hostile. And I could hear it all quiet inside and then I heard someone on the mic saying “That comedian was pants!” and I’m outside thinking, “Man, this taxi needs to come quick!”
Have you ever had trouble with hecklers?
Nothing really, just the weirdest… Nothing harsh, just weird, tongue-in-cheek stuff. Although since the EU referendum I’ve had the odd shout of “Go home” and I’m like, man, I’m from London. Just silly stuff really, nothing brutal. I remember being on stage and a mobile phone went off and I’m looking to see who it is so that I can engage them and it’s my uncle sat in the second row – my family were all there to give support – and he answered the phone! In the middle of my gig! Yeah, thanks for the family support.
Do you find any conflict between what you do and your faith?
No conflict as such. Some people will ask, “Are you a Christian?” My answer is I’m a comedian on a stage, just telling jokes. Some people think because you’re a Christian or have a faith you can’t be funny. I say just chill out, relax, enjoy the comedy.
Talking of which, who makes you laugh?
Lots of comedians; Rob Deering, he combines music and comedy, he’s really funny; Carl Donnelly, Reg D. Hunter, he makes me laugh a lot. There are a whole lot of great comedians out there.
Who influenced you as a comedian?
Growing up? Eddie Murphy. All his stand-up stuff, the video Delirious, all my family were watching him, although I was too young. I’d be playing and could hear them laughing so I’d see bits of it, watching snippets. Lenny Henry as well. He was the black British comedian. We could relate to what he was talking about. He was, still is, a very funny guy. Then there was Robin Williams, an absolute master, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle. Chapelle and Carlin, they could make you think as well as laugh. You could watch them and laugh while thinking about some deep stuff.
Nathan Caton’s Straight Outta Middlesex tour starts 8th October at locations nationwide. Visit nathancaton.com for further details.
Svalbard - Journey to the cold shores
By Jamie Annetts & Corinna Leenen
From the second the plane slammed down on the frozen landing strip at Longyearbyen airport, I knew this place was going to be like no other. Taking one step into the terminal building I was instantly met by a stuffed polar bear towering over my head and the noise of pulks and expedition gear being thrown about, either with the excitement of arriving or the pain of departure. I took a deep breath and waited patiently for the flash of red which would signify the arrival of our pulks, eagerly waiting to see if Svalbard really could live up to its reputation. We had arrived two months after the polar night had started to slowly turn into dawn, with the sun rising high enough above the mountains to hit Longyearbyen.
An east-west crossing of Svalbard from coast to coast is the classic route on the archipelago, due to ease of access and a more relaxed permit system. We decided to be brave and venture to the far north of Svalbard instead. A seven-hour skidoo drive would drop us off near Newtontoppen, the highest mountain in Svalbard. After scaling this peak we would make our way back to Longyearbyen on a nine-day ski tour.
After a day’s admin we were ready to get out among it, although apprehensive with the weather forecast: high winds for the next few days and temperatures down to minus 20. If I had learned anything in my years of outdoor work and play, it was that knowing your limitations and making decisions accordingly is crucial on any trip. The consequences of a bad decision out here may be fatal. Shortly after we arrived we found out that the bad weather conditions meant a rescue team would need a minimum of three days to get to us if anything happened. Last minute, we changed our plans – now opting for the classic east-west crossing instead.
We met our local agent Jens who was already loading our pulks onto the back of the sledge. After a basic but appropriate skidoo driving lesson, we headed off 100km to Agargh on the east coast of Spitzbergen. The area we were travelling to is known as the place to be for spotting some of the island’s 3,000 polar bears. If you wondered about the polar bear – human population ratio: it’s 2,500 people and 3,000 bears. On our nine-day crossing we didn’t encounter a single other person or bear.
We arrived at the east coast, said our goodbyes and waved Jens off. Taking those first few steps out there may have been the hardest part of the expedition. As we watched the skidoo vanish into the distance there was a strange contrast between total relief to be in the mountains with all the complicated modern-world stuff behind us, and the awareness that 100km of remote glaciated mountain terrain separated us from civilisation. Our crossing would run through a skidoo-free area and we would see no one for the next nine days.
Having just returned from two back-to-back self-supported crossings of the Hardangervidda I was no stranger to remoteness, the cold, and hauling a pulk. Svalbard offered all of this, but with some added extras. Every one of our steps taken out here would break through deep into the soft powder snow, creating large channels behind us. Any glide with skis or easy movement in snowshoes was impossible. The normal routine of setting up camp by erecting the tent, creating a cold air well to cook and sit in was only the start of the routine. Following this we have to adapt the camp to bear country…
Each day started with a morning of sweating like crazy, dragging the pulks through, up and over glacial moraine fields – normally in extremely low light which merged all the features around us so we couldn’t see whether we were dropping down a 1m blip or a massive 20m cornice. In belligerent winds we were progressing at sometimes less than a kilometre per hour and the mountains on either side edged past us at a painfully slow pace, so loaded with snow they looked like they were slumping under the weight. One thing that struck me about the mountains was their deceptive scale – moving past them felt like being in the Khumbu valley below Everest, and you would glance at the map and realise that they weren’t any higher than Helvellyn in the Lakes.
Crossing this arctic terrain meant that every day we were making calculated decisions, alone and together, with and without discussion. On one particular descent, on a day when the light was so low that it might as well have been at night, we hit a riddled maze of moraine at the end of a glacier. The options were endless, and for each slope it was impossible to tell whether it was just a short slide or 100m down to the valley floor. After wandering about for what must have been well over an hour, we decided I would break trail for the pulks one at a time while Tracey would support the weight with a rope and a bucket belay at the top (basically, a big hole you sit in with the weight of your body securing the rope). This was a good decision as the ground turned out to be the equivalent of a Grade 2 snow gully in Scotland and it would have been more than interesting skiing down with a pulk on the back.
After a long morning of tricky navigation and after days of not seeing a soul, we were rewarded with companions for the first time. Not another skiing team, but a small herd of caribou. They seemed not the least bothered by us skiing down in the valley below them.
The process of planning this expedition has been as involved as the expedition itself: half a year’s planning, buying expensive maps and making contacts in the region; we obtained our gun licences in Switzerland, where we also trained for a week; then, kitting up with the appropriate safety gear and specialised equipment. We stocked up with Hilleberg tents, Baffin boots, Therm-a-rest NeoAir™ sleeping mats and pulks. For a week our office floor was scattered with expedition equipment, half-packed pulks and hundreds of ration packs.
The crossing was hard. Coming back from 78 degrees latitude to the rainy Lake District was even harder. Living off Mountain House dry rations, waiting out bad weather in the tent and the constant tug and pull of the pulk has been my routine for a month, and leaving behind the arctic solitude, I face the challenge of settling back into normal life.
Interested in polar travel, training and equipment? Email Exped Adventure (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your questions and we’ll get back to you!
By Simon Bell/FAMOUS
Tell us a bit more about your character.
Here’s the thing. When I walked into the meeting with Timur [Bekmambetov] I thought, “I don’t want to go and do a film where everyone won Oscars last time. I don’t want to go and do a film that was already made, and they’ve made it again, and they’re all happy with it.” Timur convinced me.
Was it the toughest scene for you, the most challenging scene, the chariot race?
The chariots? The chariot scene was three months of work. I got a thing called ‘trigger finger’. To cure it they put a needle of cortisone through your tendon … my finger was closed from holding the reins. You’re pulling four horses. That’s your strength divided by four, and I’m not that strong …
Were you afraid?
I was terrified, and it was a long journey. It was a month before I could pull four horses, because they’re very clever horses, and so you have to really figure out who needs to go where. I had wonderful horses. These were real thoroughbreds from England that I had, and my stunt double had Hungarian thoroughbreds, so they were really phenomenal animals on set … You’re being sprayed with sawdust and sand, and spit, and so the crew are like, “We can’t see your face.” It’s 38 miles an hour. There’s nothing I can do about it.
We had to do a couple takes where we went much less quickly, stood up and shouted at each other, and did the lines, so massively long process, but when you get to go, when you really get to let them out, it’s the most exhilarating thing …
What’s better for you? Is it the message or the metaphor?
There’s a bunch going on. For me personally and honestly, it’s forgiveness. The story I was there to tell was the brother of the man who takes a journey to lead him to forgiveness, and I have to do the same thing in a mirrored manner.
This is retelling, and in the book there’s all of that upbringing. There’s that entire journey of life, and so it was important to do that and have an actual shared journey so that there could be forgiveness, because it was weird without it. That’s what the story’s about for me. I know it’s about Jesus converting a man from Judaism to Christianity.
What kind of relationship did you have with the original movie?
The Heston one?
I watched it afterwards. I remember watching it with my mother when I was younger … I felt that if I’d watched it before I’m either going to steal something, and people are going to be, “He stole that. There, he stole that!” or I’m going to be irritated and arrogant, and I’m going to go, “Oh, I’m going to make this better. I’m going to …” I thought it was just better to read the script I was given and do the role I had.
Do you think it’s possible to do it better? Because that’s a major classic.
I don’t know if you can. That’s a movie where they had 300 sets … We built the amphitheatre in Cinecittà …
The reason I did this [was] because the visual effects [were] kept to a minimum … They had done it to make the thing large in scale. We shot in Matera. Every time people are seeing it they’re like, “So that’s a set.” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a set.” That place is where they shot The Passion of the Christ. It’s an old medieval town, Matera.
The big set was in Cinecittà, you said?
The chariot race was [in] Cinecittà, so when you go there … you’re, “How are we going to do this thing?” … Then you start to realise that [the original] film, the reason it won 15 Oscars is because it was something enormous.
Were there a lot of conversations about that movie while you were working?
It came up a great deal, and it’s a perpetual conversation that will keep going on. I think what is fantastic is that [the Heston] film is owned by someone else, so they’re not doing a remake. They read the book. They went through it. They scanned it. They said, “How can we retell this story?” In retelling that story we are telling something different.
We’re telling a different version of what the book was, and as we all know when we read a book we’re like, “This bit, and this bit. They should have had that bit. That was important.” … No, that film stands alone, and it always will. I don’t think there’s a competition for that.
Our story actually does have a bunch of great actors. You’ve got Morgan Freeman, he’s incredible to be around. He’s a very, very bright man, and he’s incredible at his craft. There’s a lot of great acting going into it. There’s a lot of hard work.
Is there something that jumped out in the script we haven’t seen before on our screens?
I honestly felt what was nice is that conversation [on] forgiveness and how valid and important that is, and belief [about] someone being bad, whether it’s a bad decision or whether they’re actually, to their core, evil. The good versus evil conversation …
How long is the chariot scene?
… You’ve got Pilate … You’ve got what happens in the audiences with the Zealots. You’ve got Morgan’s character and his conversation with Jack’s character throughout, so … They’re trying to show every part of it.
First of all, we have some battle sequences. We did all the battle sequences. Messala has more of a real brotherhood with Judah’s character, so there’s a real problem for them to solve. It felt like that’s what we were focusing on rather than the chariot race, although the chariot race took three months [to film].
Films aimed at Christian audiences are very big now.
Yeah, I think people claim The Passion of the Christ did so well because of the Christian audience.
I watched that film … I just thought it was phenomenal. It was an incredible film. Yeah, if people want to go and see it for the Christian message there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a personal belief. I can’t make you feel anything!
Timur Bekmambetov and Roma Downey
Firstly, why Ben-Hur? Why did you get involved?
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It just happened. Three years ago Sean Daniel, the producer of the movie, called me and [asked] if I wanted to direct this project, and I was not enthusiastic about it.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: Because it’s just so famous. Then he said, “Just read the script,” and he sent me the script and I read it. It was so powerful, so emotional, so bold, and then I understood that I [could not] miss it.
The other actors we talked to all said similar things about it not being a remake of the 1950s version. It’s very important that it’s its own thing.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s very different. It’s just very different from what we know about Ben-Hur, because it was three movies and many shows and TV shows. Because it’s more the tone and the message of the original book, written in the 19th century by a general who killed so many people during the Civil War and felt guilty and wrote this book.
Just from a market point of view, are you not worried the first question audiences are going to ask themselves is: “Why remake Ben-Hur?”
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s not for me question. It’s for [the] studio.
ROMA DOWNEY: Also you have to understand when I told my children how we’re going to be producing Ben-Hur, all three of them said, “Ben who?” I think that there’s a whole new generation that [is] going to discover the story [and they] are going to be thrilled by the action that the story gives them.
When have you ever seen a chariot race on the screen? 1959 is a long, long time ago. The beauty of the story, I think, is that it has all of that and yet woven within it is this deeper, really intense tale of forgiveness.
What kind of relationship did you have with Ben-Hur because you would have been kids when you first saw this movie… Did you have a special relationship with the movie?
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: For me, no. I grew up in [the] Soviet Union and there [were] not [many] very good movies, and religion was forbidden. I saw this movie [for the] first time when I was maybe 30-something.
ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, I remember seeing it as a child with my family. I think what’s interesting is I remember more the experience of who I was with than what I saw. You know? I will say that our film, in rewatching the ’59 film, it’s theatrical. It’s a big show. It’s shiny. This is gritty. This, you can feel the dust in your mouth from the chariot race.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s cumulative effect. Of course … I shot [the] crucifixion, and it’s not [an] easy scene to shoot because it’s scary, because at some point as a director you should tell people what to do and it was very tough. It was cold.
ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, it was freezing. The logistics to put a man on a cross, to make sure the cross is bolted to the ground, to make sure that he’s safe, that he doesn’t fall on his face. I mean, there’s like a million things. The platform to get it up … It was so cold. It was the coldest I’d ever been, and I had coats on, and I was behind a heater, and Rodrigo is in a loincloth. We wrapped him in aluminium blankets.
You’ve been working two years and a half, three years on the movie, and then in one week, one week. Most of the time you get the first weekend and then the next big movie’s going to come out.
ROMA DOWNEY: Yes, but look at the opportunity for families to see it. It’s not just about going to the theatre that first month anymore. It’s an important film because it has such a message that’s needed in our world. That you can put it down, that you can be free, that if you forgive, you can be free… Ultimately, that’s the message of the movie.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: It’s a message of the movie. [The] biggest achievement, I believe, because usually there [are] no big commercial projects where the people [are] talking about forgiveness. The crew we had had a very interesting connection with the movie because the … You’ll tell the story.
ROMA DOWNEY: Yeah, our wigmaker … His father was the wigmaker on the 1959 movie. Our horse trainers came from the family who trained the horses in 1959.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: The [character] who whipped Judah in the galley, his grandfather whipped [Charlton Heston].
Religion, forgiveness. Now a lot of people choose not to forgive. Do you think, as you said, this message in the movie is important because of that?
ROMA DOWNEY: Yes. I mean, I think that the elements in this movie would probably better be referred to as faith and religion. While Judas has had this transformation because of an encounter with Jesus, the transformation, I think, has a universal appeal. We’re really hopeful that globally … this movie will speak to all the places … that we are hurting, you know, and are desirous of hope. That’s just about everywhere.
I fully agree. Did you guys see a lot in the script and the book that you don’t think was in the last film that you wanted to bring to the story?
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: Yes, but overall there is the message – the idea of [a] brother forgiving his brother was not in the 1959 [film]. They just took it away. Without it the whole … Well, this book has no sense.
ROMA DOWNEY: I think also, don’t you, that you really understand both points of view? You know? It’s not: “Oh, he’s the baddie and he’s the goodie.” It’s more ambiguous, and it makes the movie much more interesting because you can really understand how one thing leads to another, such as the things that happen in our lives.
It’s not that usually that somebody just makes one awful decision. It’s a series of things that bring you to that place, where suddenly they’re in this separation. They’re so far apart, yet they’ve loved each other so deeply. Then there’s an opportunity for redemption. It’s a beautiful healing.
TIMUR BEKMAMBETOV: In our story both characters, they’re both brothers. They’re not fighting with each other. They’re fighting with the faith, with the rules of the world, with the political situation in Jerusalem.
By Simon Bell/FAMOUS
Tell us about stepping into this character (Jesus); how did you approach it? What did you try to stay away from?
Well, obviously this is a character that has been played by many actors, [and] that has been done so many times – that was the first question I had for the director: “What’s your vision? How do you think we can we can do this?” He said he wanted a very human approach, the most human possible. We want to see him among people; it would be more through his example. Because, actually Jesus, if you pay attention to [the] Scriptures and even films, all the references, instead of really talking about being compassionate, he showed it, how to do it. It was more like, “Let’s make him palpable, let’s make him accessible, not somebody that is up there and just teaching.” Which I thought was a very interesting way to approach this character.
Of course, it’s a huge challenge and risk, but equally a huge privileged opportunity just to put myself into that space for a couple of months. Preparation is reading things and watching things, but mostly driving myself into a very centred, loving place … His teachings were very simple and clear, and I [tried] to practise it. I [tried] to go to that place.
I took it as a personal journey; I didn’t rationalise, psychologise too much. I didn’t look at this [as] a character, a job. To me, it was a personal experience. Just the little tiny glimpse that I had of the understanding [of] this love, of this heart, already changed completely my values and even my heart. It was rewritten; it was like a whole different story, just because I allowed myself to be in that space. Not saying that I got even close to what it was. We don’t know, right? We hear, we read.
Would you say he is the most interesting character in history?
I’m not sure if ‘interesting’ is the correct word; he is definitely the most known. If you think about it, there [are] billions of people all over the world that have a personal relationship with Jesus, or with the image of Jesus. They have an idea, an expectation, so it’s definitely a very present and powerful image in the collective unconscious all over the world. That is very powerful. It’s a big risk just because of that. No matter which actor will play him, and I’ve watched everything that I could, there’s always going to be somebody who said, “I expect it to be different.” Maybe that’s why … in the previous Ben-Hur, they don’t show him. It’s a conscious choice.
You talk about playing a religious figure. These days, religion is much politicised and there’s a lot of special interest groups that can make a lot of noise. Any concerns or fears about that?
No, no. No, because, first of all, it’s always what we do and it’s always a representation of something, it’s an interpretation of something. As artists, what we’re trying to do here is to tell a story, to talk about human beings, to talk about the phenomenon of life. Nobody here is trying … it is really not about religion. It’s about Christ and his teachings. Especially in Ben-Hur … It’s based on Lew Wallace’s novel … Even though it’s called A Tale of the Christ, it’s not the classic story of Christ that we follow. You see his teachings through people’s lives and relationships. Through Masala and Ben-Hur. So it’s much more human in that way than the religion. That’s not where we try to go.
What kind of relationship do you have with the original movie?
I had watched it a long time ago. I didn’t remember [it] so I had to go back [to it] because I was very young when I saw it. I think it’s a beautiful film. This is nothing to do with that. It has the same story, but it’s another movie based on the novel. It’s not a remake; I mean, who would go there and make a remake? Why? A movie that won, I don’t know, ten, 11 Oscars, and it was so well done … This is a version of the novel and it’s very different. Especially because Timur’s approach, it’s much more realistic. It’s completely different. Even Jesus, now you actually see him, you didn’t see [him] in the other one. The beauty of this one, it’s the relationship, again, which brings … a human level between Ben-Hur and Jesus. It put them like two men. It’s very interesting. That’s what I really liked about trying to contribute in this project.
Do you think this movie changed you?
Just to have a little understanding of that love. Just trying to go in that direction and practising that every day. Just trying to approach that in a very deep way, in a real way, and not fool myself. We fool ourselves 24 hours a day, ego and mind. Trying to step away from that and being completely in the moment, present and interacting with people. It was a huge change. It changed my own heart. It changed my perception of things. It changed [my] values. It changed my sensibilities. It just changed, because now I, not that I saw the light, but I saw something within me. I experienced something that made me feel – I can’t explain. The peace and the satisfaction is just a good place, no worries. You put your focus on different stuff. You’re not worried about that stuff. All of a sudden you’re looking at people and animals. It’s just calm and you’re just in a different place. It’s hard to talk because it sounds mystic. It’s not, it’s very palpable. It’s physical.
by Simon Bell/FAMOUS
So, tell us a little bit about your character and working with Timur on this movie.
OK. Esther is a slave in a house of Hur, and her father was a slave before her in that same household, but it’s a family environment so they don’t treat them as second-class citizens. They are very much part of the family.
Of course, Esther and Judah fall in love. Judah gets taken away and sent to the galleys, because he was accused of trying to kill Pilate. So she witnesses the death of her father and the love of her life being torn away from her. She loses everything, basically. Then she becomes a follower of Jesus, and then when Judah comes back from the galleys, he finds her again, and they reunite. She has strong morals, and outside of the Jesus character, she is the moral compass of the film.
She is very vocal in standing for what she believes, and voicing to Judah and Messala that this race is not OK.
How familiar were you with the film from the late 50s?
I watched the 1959 version when I was a child, probably ten or 11 years old, and then again about a year ago … I’ve seen it twice.
Do you have different memories of it from when you were little?
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting watching it as an actor, because I wasn’t an actor the first time I watched it. The thing that’s glaringly obvious is that acting styles have changed, and film-making styles have changed.
I think it’s very timely and necessary that there is a retelling, or a re-envisioning of this story, because it’s a story [that] is important to tell. This is … closer, has more of a loyalty to the book, I think, than the 1959 version.
Do you think this version says something that the 1959 version didn’t, and should have?
I think my character – I can only speak on my character … I think that she’s stronger and more vocal. She has more of a presence, and I think women are going to like seeing that because she’s more relatable. I think we’re used to seeing women in that era more demure and subservient. Even though she’s a slave, she has a voice; she knows how to use her voice. She’s not afraid of confronting Messala and Judah, and speaking her mind. Again, she does it with grace. She does it without judgement. She does it with compassion.
I think that’s true strength, when you can speak your mind and speak truth. There’s no need to raise your voice. This is how it is.
What is Ben-Hur about for you?
Clearly redemption and forgiveness. For me, love conquering hate is the main theme, and is something that everybody in the world can relate to. No matter what race, or nationality, or religion, or creed, or anything. At our core, we are able to overcome hate with love. It’s just a matter of choice. I think that’s why this film is so important. It inspires change, it inspires hope.
I love being entertained. It’s highly entertaining, but it also has a message. For me as an actor, because I’m an activist, I enjoy being part of a project that is the best marriage of acting and activism, where you can make a film and a project that resonates with audiences, and inspires hope and change.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
That people were less selfish.
Selfish could condemn us all…
I’ll clarify. We’re driven to be right, and make other people wrong. I think if each one of us, instead of trying so hard to say we are right and they are wrong … say, “How can they be right? How is it possible that I am wrong?” I’m not saying that I am wrong. I’m saying how can it be possible that they’re right, and I’m wrong? If people looked at it from both sides, it’s just finding common ground. I think war is built on that concept of “we are right, they are wrong”.
[In] this film, at the end of the day, that’s why Judah and Messala come together. They both realise, we’re both right, and we are both wrong. I just watched the film and I cried in that moment, because I wish the world was like that.
The world today, religion, is so politicised. When you read the script and considered the movie, did you think “something in here is going to upset somebody, somewhere”?
There’s a phenomenal line in the film where the chariot race happens, and there’s a lust for blood from everybody. The Zealots, the Romans, everybody is there, just bloodthirsty because that’s what oppression does. You oppress one people; they then want blood from the other people. It’s a never-ending circle, right? Then Pilate says, I forget what character says to Pilate, “Well, I guess you lost” – I think it was Morgan Freeman’s character, Ilderim. He [says], “Lost? Look at them” – they’re all cheering because there’s death and there’s carnage. He says, “Lost? Look at them. They’re all Romans now.” I think that’s my point. That resonated with me so much, because you’re essentially saying, when you cause bloodshed, they now want bloodshed, and there’s going to be more bloodshed. He had his victory; Pilate had his victory because there was bloodshed. … The Zealots, and the Romans, and everybody now is celebrating the bloodshed. Is there a winner in that situation? No, and yet everybody is celebrating. What are they celebrating? There was a political message in the film, in a sense that unless we have unity, we have nothing. How could that offend anybody? That’s what I took away from it. I don’t think there’s any group who can walk away from this film and say, “I’m highly offended”, because they’re asking us to choose love over hate.
Morgan Freeman - From Hur to eternity
By Samantha Reyes/The Interview People
An Oscar winner for Million Dollar Baby, in 2005 Morgan Freeman was famously nicknamed ‘The voice of God’. He has played God in Bruce Almighty and appeared as deus ex machina in many other movies. His beautiful and soothing baritone voice with a sublime vibrato is very much in demand for documentaries and series such as Through the Wormhole. Now Freeman, 79, anchors and narrates nothing less than The Story of God, a new National Geographic six-episode series. It’s a sort of a spiritual travelogue exploring the human relation with the divine throughout the world.
“I don’t consider myself a religious person, I don’t go to church,” says Freeman. “And yet I embrace the concept of divine and I think I’m a spiritual person. I meditate every single day. But please,” he implores with that sardonic smile, “enough with this ‘Voice of God’ thing: I don’t want it to go to my head.”
Tall (6ft 2in), strong, casually bearded, with intensely magnetic green-grey eyes, Freeman smiles a lot, as though he’s making fun of everything. And yet he is extremely serious and disciplined with his work. He’s also executive producer of the drama comedy series Madam Secretary starring Téa Leoni, and as an actor he has a new batch of films coming up (including the remake of the epic Ben-Hur, and the sequel of Now You See Me). With histrionic nonchalance he shows us his brand new dentures, and his semi-paralysed left hand, held in an orthopaedic glove, the result of the car accident he suffered in 2008. Freeman is the living challenge to the old adage that Hollywood disposes too easily and too early of its elders. Age is good for him: he hasn’t stopped working a minute. Nearing 80, he’s very much in vogue, even among young people.
After this long journey into religions, did you find God?
I think God is difficult to find. But I found the divine that is in all of us. But see, I’m very curious about life, and one of the biggest questions about life is death, and what comes after that. And all of that is included in our ideas of God and religion.
Did you try to find an answer to those questions?
… For many God is the answer: for me, God is the question. In this respect, science and religion get along with each other, they coexist, Big Bang and creationism, theory of evolution and dogma.
You travelled from Texas to India, from Jerusalem to Rome to Turkey for The Story of God: what were the most memorable moments?
I vividly remember Bodh Gaya, India, and the Bodhi Tree. The Zen master was seated in the middle of his class. He saw me; he had no idea who I was – I was there incognito – and he came close and he told me: “I like you.” He saw something special in me, maybe my smile. The other special moment was in New Mexico, among the native Navajos, during a ceremony, a sort of a tribal Bat Mitzvah: a 13-year-old girl must spend a day and a night running and climbing, and harvesting and cooking to get in touch with the ‘first woman’. A search for the divine… very strong and moving.
Did you search for the divine in yourself?
My search started and ended when I was 13. I was part of a club called IAH, I Am His. I read the Bible, I learned that God is everywhere, even inside me. I used to go to the Baptist church on Sunday, as [do] all the blacks in Mississippi, where I come from. Baptist masses are fun: the choirs, the music, the screaming pastors and their sermons, people passing out. A colourful mess: that’s how my passion for performance, acting and melodramas began.
How did you become what you are? What lessons did you learn?
I don’t know about lessons, but I had a lot of positive input growing up. One, I was a good kid, and number two, I was a smart kid, and if you are a good kid and a smart kid and you are in school, you are going to run into one or two teachers who are going to hold you in the palm of their hands. And that was me. I can name three or four teachers.
What can you tell us about Ben-Hur?
I play Ildarin, a sort of rich gambler in Imperial Rome: he’s a breeder of thoroughbred horses, and teaches Ben-Hur how to ride chariots. It’s a very accurate and faithful adaptation of the 1959 William Wyler classic, plus a lot of digital effects.
What do you do in your spare time?
I used to spend a lot of time sailing on the Caribbean on my beloved boat. Today, be it my age or my handicapped hand, I don’t sail anymore, and spend time on my Mississippi farm. But I have to tell you, guys: I’m always on the move. Not much downtime.
About Madam Secretary: what are your biggest concerns when it comes to world politics, and the involvement of an American secretary of state towards world politics?
Well, because we are creating our own world, I don’t have any negative concerns about the direction the show might go in. All my negative concerns are with the real world. [laughs]
That’s what I meant, the resonance in the real world.
Well, we’re literally on the brink of serious confrontations. With the stuff going on between Egypt and Iran, and North and South Korea and China, another … potential hot spot … and we have got [huge amounts of] material … that we can use, my personal concerns are, are we really going to be watching a World War Three develop? Could be.
Who was your best teacher?
I learned a lot from Stacy Keach and Viveca Lindfors, with whom I did my very first Off-Broadway shows when I was in my 20s. I had not worked before with actors [of] that calibre. The thing I learned about acting was it was a giving process. You give, you take. It’s like karma in [the] Buddhist religion. And nobody teaches you how to act except other actors.
Is there any role you haven’t played that you would like to act?
If I wasn’t too old I’d say Bass Reeves, a deputy US marshal in the 1870s in Oklahoma, the only time America exercised meritocracy. Then I’d like to either producer or [be a] grandfather, though I’m afraid the moment I stop moving I’ll die.
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