August 2017

RTÉ has announced the first project to come from its co-production deal with European public broadcaster ARTE, and its first ever co-production with American Public Television (APT).

Countdown to Calvary (1 x 60 mins) is a special documentary for Easter 2018, presented by Hugh Bonneville. The Downton Abbey and Paddington star, who has a Cambridge University degree in theology, travelled to Jerusalem to tell the story of the week that changed the world – the last six days of Jesus’ life.

Shot in 4K, with all the narrative pace and production values of a political thriller, the groundbreaking project fuses Hugh Bonneville’s documentary elements with high quality location drama, state-of-the-art CGI and graphics, and academic insights from some of the world’s leading experts, in order to shed new light on the 2,000 year old story.

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

Outside the US, RTÉ Programme Sales will distribute Countdown to Calvary, which launches internationally at MIPCOM 2017.

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

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

The British actor, Hugh Bonneville, is known to viewers around the world as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham, Paddington’s Mr Brown and W1A’s Ian Fletcher. Less well known is the fact that he also has a Cambridge University theology degree and specifically studied the New Testament's Gospel writers — a background that makes him well suited to offer mainstream international audiences rigorous and compelling insights into the events, context and characters of the original Easter week.

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

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

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

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

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

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