A reflection on 'The Servant', a film by Jesuits in Britain

January 15, 2024

'The Servant', a day in the life of a Jesuit priest

Afficionados of 1980s television might remember the BBC police procedural, ‘Juliet Bravo’. The programme used locations from East Lancashire to create a fictional northern town called Hartley. Some buildings in my home-town of Burnley were used as fixed points in the story-lines, but to those who knew the geography it jarred, because when an actor turned a corner of a familiar building, they were then filmed walking down a street which, in reality, was miles away. Watching ‘Juliet Bravo’ was a rather disorientating experience.
Seeing ‘The Servant‘, I was struck, in contrast, by how the team had consciously tried to retain the original structure of that particular day, not squeezing an unrealistic mosaic of scenes into a fictional day of a life.
So, on that Tuesday morning we did begin with the Parish Mass, then moved to the SVP Centre for the meal, then in the afternoon I was interviewed in the parish house, and for the final shots the crew for the evening walk into the centre of Newcastle – with the crew continuing to film as they headed to the train station to travel home, while Fr Peter Randall and myself were going to a meeting at the Cathedral opposite the station. The video was only 7 minutes but it gave a genuine feel of that particular day.
If you drop into the video at exactly 4 minutes you will see John. A regular at the SVP meal, he would sit on the end of Table 1, always somewhat ‘holding court’. A tall man, he radiated an uneasiness and, at times, his raised threatening voice required the intervention of Jan the Cook to challenge or calm. He always bellowed a greeting towards me when I arrived – “‘Al-ow, Farver!”
When I first saw John on the video I was pleased: he could easily have avoided the encounters, but that he was willing to be filmed by the crew and even volunteered to be interviewed on the day was a blessing. The camera catches him sitting with a light-coloured polo shirt, with dark bushy eyebrows and a row of broken teeth. No longer feeling the need to make his presence felt, he talks wistfully to camera about ‘keeping each other company’ in a threatening world. A gentle moment.
John disappeared from the Tuesday meals about six months ago: it happens – regulars go off-radar. It was said that he was not well.
Then, just before Christmas, Andy, one of the other Tuesday volunteers came up to me during a break – “Do you remember John from Table 1?” he said. “He died… cancer apparently.”
We sometimes pass like strangers on a shadowed road; we glimpse a presence, but we fail (through fear? selfishness? confusion?) to really acknowledge a fellow traveller on the pilgrim way, and we hurry-on by.
John was somebody I didn’t know well, but I should have known better. May he Rest in Peace.

by Fr Dermot Preston SJ

'The Servant' has been entered into the Smiley Charity Film Awards. You can watch the film and vote for it here.

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