The Man Born to be King
17 William Tewantin, 730pm, 3rd December
The story behind the play
Just before Christmas in 1941, families across England gathered around their radios. Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, and the U.S. and Britain had declared war on Japan. The year before, massive German air raids had descended across England with no signs of letting up. Hitler’s troops had murdered countless Jews, invaded Poland and Austria, and forced the people of Czechoslovakia, Greece, and Yugoslavia to surrender. Seven days after Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the U.S. By Dec. 19, 1941, Hitler had launched one of the most horrific attacks in human history.
But on Dec. 21, 1941, families and neighbors in England gathered around their upright radios not for the latest news on the war, but to hear a dramatic program from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It was the story of a particular baby in Bethlehem who had been born outside a ‘shepherd’s cottage,’ whose birth was celebrated by wise men but threatened by a king as evil as Hitler. Herod was his name.
From that first December night until October 1942, the BBC aired eleven more of these radio plays about the life of Jesus Christ, written in modern dialect and delivered by a cast of English radio actors. Two years before, the BBC had commissioned Dorothy L. Sayers, a mystery-writer-turned dramatist and essayist, to write the series of plays on “the Life of Our Lord.” The BBC’s director of religious broadcasting, J.W. Welch, felt they were necessary because, “God was no longer a factor to be reckoned with in making decisions and the language of religion had lost most; everywhere was a great ignorance of Christian Faith. Many (perceived) it was possible to live without any vital belief in God. He did not count.”
Welch wondered how—and if—a radio series could, “make Christ and his story live again?” Sayers agreed to try and The Man Born to Be King was broadcast in every town throughout England, repeated again the following year during the Lenten season.
Two million people listened to Sayers’ drama, against the backdrop of wartime raids and food rations. And in hundreds of letters to the BBC, many admitted that The Man Born to Be King shocked and challenged them, changing what they thought they knew about Jesus.
May this performance of the Christmas story—and this Advent season—do the same for us.