The line between information and entertainment has more than blurred in recent years – it simply doesn’t exist. The Journey of a Lifetime series, filmed in the early 1960s does both rather innovatively.
The two-season, 39-episode series – not seen for decades and now out as a DVD box-set – follows newlywed couple Anne and John Browning as they tour the biblical sites of the Holy Land. Part travel diary, part history lesson and part pilgrimage, their trip to Israel and the Near East is scripted like a soap opera.
We first meet committed believer Ann (and her bible) in the final minutes of her flight to Israel. She has flown out to meet her husband John, a water engineer and relentless rationalist on assignment in the country.
The simple and effective conceit of pitching a believer against a rationalist gives some credence to the otherwise banal trope of travelling documentary presenters, with their all too-often sluggish attempts at onscreen chemistry. The scripted affection of Anne (Anne Lawson) and John (John Bonney) adds an extra string to the narrative’s bow, as the newlyweds try to understand each other and, in their own ways, Christ.
As they travel to the seminal sites of Old and New Testament tales, their playful disagreements about the truth and history contained therein graduate to surprisingly profound spiritual debate. It’s hardly Newman, but for television it is quite impressive. If Anne and John don’t agree, they share a degree of biblical literacy that amazes and amuses – the “exposition” is often far from subtle.
Each episode focuses on a place and two or three scriptural references thereto, becoming a parable of their own. The Brownings’s friends and the hitchhikers they pick up stand in as props for the teaching – the couple play good Samaritans on two occasions.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the absence of politics. There is the odd nod to refugees living in Jordan – one in three members of the population, according to John – but the travelogue steers clear of the subject otherwise. The film of John and Anne’s passage through Jerusalem and Israel is unencumbered with the heavy armour and weaponry that is now tragically and inextricably linked to our conception of the region.
Filmed and distributed before the Sixties started to swing in earnest, Journey of a Lifetime is something of a relic. It is charmingly twee but it has a sturdy backbone – an evident respect for its subject and treats belief in God like a perfectly legitimate position, which is disarming in the age of Dawkins.
Though the intellectual promise of biblical verse and parable has crawled back into the realm of respectability thanks to the likes of Jordan Peterson, actual belief is a step too far. And Journey of a Lifetime manages to outline a critical, if not entirely balanced, view of faith.
Much is made of the continuity binding past and present. As Anne and John are escorted by Daniel to Beersheba (The Well of the Oath, dug by Abraham and Isaac) they meet a group of Bedouin. They pass through the camp and see the traditional threshing and winnowing of wheat. Trodden upon time and time again by indifferent, languorous camels, it is then picked up and, as it hangs in the air, wind blows the chaff from the crop, as it’s been done for the last 5,000 years.
Guiding the pair through the panoply of biblical sites is a supporting cast of friends, priests, experts and fellow travellers. These conveniently positioned wanderers draw them into the histories of monasteries, towns and caves; explain theological distinctions between Samaritans and Jews and aspects of the modern day . The jumble of unfamiliar syllables printed in black and white, learned by rote and occasionally muttered on a Sunday, takes shape in the vivid technicolour of a living and breathing landscape. You can’t help but be moved when Anne walks into the Grotto of the Annunciation and gives an internal monologue worthy of a Brief Encounter-era Celia Johnson.
It is hard to describe just how striking it is to see the Holy places on screen. The hammy reenactments, flashy interactive maps and aerial shots prevalent in more recent documentaries are fun, but they are a bit OTT to the extent that I can’t help but wonder whether producers find their subject matter boring. Simply put, they can’t replicate the awe and intimacy of Anne and John’s humble self-reflection.
Casting Bonney as a water engineer is a nice touch. It excuses the heavy-handed geological monologues that might grate coming from the average punter tourist. More than that, his knowledge of the living landmarks of water sources and natural phenomena bids him face the truths contained in biblical miracles.
The Red Sea did indeed part, not into the walls of water that Hollywood put to film in Charlton Heston’s epic Exodus (1956), but thanks to a turn in the tide and a strong easterly wind. Moses bringing water from a rock in Exodus is perfectly possible if there was a reservoir – he just knew where to look. The mineral deposits in the sea of Galilee attracted the fish and filled the nets of Jesus’s disciples as they made their miraculous catch.
Anne observes, however, that it’s a little convenient, no? Who turned the tide on Pharaoh and his countless armies? Was it God, or was it water that caused that great slaughter? To the programme’s credit, it doesn’t force an answer. Like all good teachers, it presents the facts and lets you decide.
Journey of a Lifetime is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Network Distributing.
Ferdie Rous is editorial assistant at the Catholic Herald.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.