What I learnt watching telly for @sandfordawards

For 2016 the Sandford St Martin Awards have benefitted from the expertise and enthusiasm of a particularly distinguished group of judges and short-listers.  Bryony Taylor, the author of ‘More TV Vicar‘ (a book that gets under the dog-collar of some of the best known religious characters on television) and a curate in Durham is one of them.  Such is her dedication to duty that she not only cheerfully watched each and every TV programme entered for an award this year but she agreed, in the run up to the Awards ceremony on 8th June, to share with us (and you) some of her highlights.  Our deepest thanks to her and her fellow adjudicators.  This blog first appeared on her own website where you can find out more about Bryony and her work.


This year I was invited to help shortlist for the Sandford St Martin Awards – an awards scheme for excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion, ethics or spirituality. The shortlisting process involved watching a lot of television (obviously) that covered themes as wide ranging as Joan of Arc, Muslim Drag Queens and Srebrenica.


I think broadcasting that covers themes of religion, ethics and spirituality is only going to become more important in our current times. You have only to see some views espoused on social media or down the pub about religion and belief to realise how ill-informed most people are (and I include myself in that). Despite the decline of print media and even the decline in live television viewing – most of us still consume a lot of television – we simply do this via catch-up now or streaming services or saving up for a box set. Levels of religious literacy in particular are at an all time low, we don’t even understand our own religious background (which floats around like a ghost in the back of our mind with a refrain of ‘he who would valiant be’ from Primary School) – let alone understand what makes a Muslim tick. Most people wouldn’t get the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ joke from the Life of Brian any more – or at least wouldn’t be able to say where the joke comes from in the Bible. So we need good religious broadcasting. We need to understand the ‘other’ better in our world of angry tweets and incendiary Facebook posts.

Fascinatingly, a lot of the programmes I watched for the shortlisting were about extremism – either Islamic extremism or forms of fascism and white supremacy. Whilst I found these quite interesting, they didn’t teach me anything new, but perhaps even hardened my view on extremism.

The programmes I found most affecting were those in which we saw ordinary people trying to live out their faith. I particularly enjoyed the Irish documentary series ‘Baz the Lost Muslim‘ about a man who had grown up in Catholic Ireland with a Catholic mother but Egyptian Muslim father who decided to explore the faith of his father for the first time at the age of 40 – he had some profound moments along the way – particularly the first time he prayed.

Another wonderful programme was a short film about Muslim style vlogger Nabiilabee meeting with ex-Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – they were sent on a mission to buy each other an outfit that worked with their own preferences – of course with modesty for the Muslim woman. This is a lovely programme which you can watch here – I particularly loved hearing Nabiilabee talking about ‘bad hijab days’! This was a really honest conversation about clothes and religious beliefs.

Another programme which showed the levels of diversity within a big religion like Islam was Muslim Drag Queens. Initially the provocative name put me off but this was a very moving documentary. The most striking part for me was when one more seasoned drag queen was teaching a new lad some moves in a night club (during the day). It came to prayer time and the younger lad was going to take his prayer mat into the corner to say his prayers. The older drag queen was horrified that his friend was happy to pray in such a place. It was fascinating – the discussion was not about their sexuality or the fact that they were drag queens but about their faith and how they live it out in Western Society. This was such a refreshing surprise – I’d love to see more programming like this. You can watch the programme on All 4 here – don’t let the title put you off!

My favourite programme which sadly wasn’t shortlisted ultimately (but got top marks from me!) was You, Me and the Apocalypse. This was a drama shown earlier in the year on Sky1. It is the most innovative drama I have seen in a long time. It benefits from having very high American drama production values and a very witty British script with a mixture of British and American actors. I think the reason it wasn’t shortlisted was that we shortlisted individual episodes, not whole series, and this is a series that really needs to be seen in its entirety and not one episode in isolation as the plot is complicated. The series is by turns hilarious, profound and moving and generates plenty of questions in the viewer. In my view it would be a great programme to watch over a few weeks as a small group from church or even as an adult confirmation course! The premise of the programme is that there is a meteor coming that will destroy the planet in 30 days and it tracks the response of a variety of characters in the UK and USA and other places whose stories begin to connect as the series progresses. I really recommend it and I was disappointed it didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak so I will sing its praises here!

I have only written here about a few of the programmes I watched. I thought it was a sad indictment of our times that so many were focused on the negative things to come out of religion or extremist beliefs. I hope that programme makers might look a bit more in the future at the more human stories of people working out what it means to live out their faith in the modern world as it is these stories we need to hear more. We all know what happens when religion goes wrong – we have the news for that – but drama and documentary makers have the opportunity to report on the real lives of believers and the complexities of being a person of faith – that is far more engaging and interesting!

If you want to know more about “More TV Vicar? Christians on Telly, the Good, the Bad and the Quirky”  you can listen to an interview with Bryony here.

All party parliamentary group on religious literacy in the media

In early May, an All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Literacy in the Media was launched at Westminster with a round-table discussion moderated by the Sandford St Martin Trust Chair, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, Lord Bishop of Leeds.  Among those also participating in the event was Iftikhar Khan one of the founders, a CTO and futurist at Alchemiya Media.  What follows is his report for MuslimView and was first published on their website.



Yasmin Qureshi MP for Bolton South East launched the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion in the Media with a round table session held at the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday 4th May 2016.

The stated aims of the APPG are to work for greater religious literacy in the media and political spheres, to foster a better understanding and representation of religion in coverage of news and culture, recognizing the priority of religion as a prime motivator for individuals and communities in the country. The APPG aims to encourage more diversity in media representation of religion. Also, under the public service broadcasting remit of the BBC and Channel 4, it will advocate the inclusion of a commitment to promote religious literacy.

Lord Baines (the Bishop of Leeds, and Chair of the Sandford St Martin’s Trust) very ably and engagingly moderated a panel discussion between several high profile speakers. Aaqil Ahmed, the Head of BBC Religion and Ethics spoke of the changing demographics within certain parts of the UK that, tied to underrepresentation and a lack of media understanding have led to troublesome coverage, for example the Trojan Horse issue in schools in Birmingham. An ignorance of the nature of more conservative views as in this instance will only lead to more entrenchment of withdrawal and isolation from society, rather than fostering understanding. Aaqil estimated that there is a 5-10 year window of opportunity to ameliorate this before the issue becomes of greater concern with the current status quo of mutual suspicions is unacceptable.

Roger Bolton, the former BBC Editor and Presenter (‘Sunday’ on Radio 4) noted that the default stance and credo in most mainstream journalism in the UK is of liberal secularism. He also provided figures showing that the budget for religious programming on ITV declined from £40M to £2M in the five years to 2013, and likewise from £40M to £20M on Channel 4; Channel 4 no longer has a Commissioning Editor for Religion.

Academic Dr Abby Day, the Research Director of the Religion Media Centre at Goldsmiths College opined that every newsroom should have at least one religion expert, and that a core element of all media studies courses should cover religion. There should be exchanges between religious media outlets and the mainstream media. Dr Day gave the regretful example of the Sun ‘newspaper’ carrying out a scientifically unrigorous survey that led to the front page headlines of ‘1 in 5 Muslims support terrorism’ and the subsequent tiny apology buried and hidden deep within the paper after censure by IPSO.

Dr Jenny Taylor of Lapido Media gained her doctorate studying the sociology of religion and in particular the migration of Muslims. She declared that the world is full of religion and that the religiously unaffiliated in the world population will decline from 16% to a projected 13% by 2050. Misrepresentation and bias in the western media does not reflect the way that religion shapes allegiances in the rest of the world. Dr Taylor also quoted Bernard Levin who observed that in the British language, “vicars” rhymes with “knickers” and that this (unconscious) word association leads to ambivalence in attitudes to organized religion in this country.

Sir Alan Moses, the Chairman of IPSO, and a lively orator, regretted the “unattended ignorant depiction of what communities in this country believe”, and that while the BBC and Channel 4 have a statutory obligation of public service broadcasting, the policies and regulation of the press is determined by a set of standards set by the editors themselves, and that this may not always coincide with the public interest. He also stated that he wished there was much more “intelligent and compassionate” discussion of faith in the media.

Finally, the historian and author Tom Holland mused that the broad consensus in the media reflects the automatic assumption that ignorance about religion is a source of pride. This narrow viewpoint ignores the fact that religion is a vast spectrum of opinion. Holland also noted that secularism is not religiously neutral, but is rather a Christian concept, mediated through Christian theologians and Popes, and hence we refer specifically to a separation of Church and State rather than as a general synecdochical term.

There followed a brief and spirited question and answer session from the floor, including opinions from various journalists and broadcast professionals and from Baroness Elizabeth Berridge and Martin Vickers MP who both sit on related committees, and Baron Idarjit Singh of Wimbledon (and regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day) decrying the lack of representation on the panel of anyone from the non-Abrahamic faiths. Yasmin Qureishi MP did counter this point by pointing out that this was not by design, and that as a kick-off meeting, there was limited time in this session, and that in future there would be fairer representation to those of all major faiths.

It is to be hoped that the APPG builds on the objectives and aims declared in this inaugural session with the same unified approach to foster better representation and understanding of religious life within society through more accurate representation, and wider coverage.

Both MuslimView and Alchemiya welcome and are supportive of these developments as this is also one of the aims of both organisations to be a source and a resource for religious literacy concerning Islam and Muslims in political circles as well as in the media.


How To Judge a Sandford Award Winner

Sandford St Martin Award shortlisters and judges are chosen for their wide experience of both religion and the media. They include experienced producers, programme-makers, directors, journalists and critics from a variety of faith backgrounds. In 2016 the comedian and Radio TV critic, Penelope Solomon, was one of the those who was given the daunting task of shortlisting our radio entries. Over the past few years, radio has been the Awards most competitive category. This year more than 90 radio programmes were in the running for prizes. In her blog, Penelope reveals more about the process and some of the highlights for her.

penelope on air


As a television critic, I like to select and compare programmes across different genres covering a range of topics. This helps to keep the viewing varied and interesting both for me and, hopefully, for my audience when I come to discuss the programmes live on air. For example I might watch a stand-up show like ‘Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle’ and then contrast this with a documentary programme such as ‘Bedlam’ about mental illness in a psychiatric hospital in South London. (Some might argue that these two programmes are very closely linked, but that’s a subject for another blog!)

When I was invited to be on the shortlisting panel for the Sandford St Martin Awards, I was slightly daunted at first by the fact that I would be required to listen to a fair share of the almost eighty different radio programmes entered in the category and united by a common theme: religion, ethics and spirituality. Whilst I am interested in programmes which have a religious content, I thought the process might be a bit repetitive and dull. In truth, I didn’t really know what to expect. How delightfully surprised I was by the sheer range on offer from drama to documentary to live performances and church services. There was even a small selection of live Nativities!

Such was the diversity of voices, that contributions ranged from young Muslim women from Birmingham talking about wearing the hijab and fashion, to Jewish people ‘making Aliyah’ (i.e. emigrating to live in Israel) to an analysis of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s turbulent childhood. Questions around identity were a common theme in many programmes with different religious practices presented and issues affecting people from all walks of life, some who had faith and some with no faith. Some of the stories told were so gripping and evocative they brought tears to the eyes.

When a programme really works you can’t or indeed don’t want to stop listening. Strong resonant voices draw you into a carefully crafted story and somehow a connection is made which makes you want to keep on listening. During my listening I’d often find myself drawn in by programmes about topics I knew nothing about. When these stories were told well – through engaging contributors, a fresh approach and seamless editing – the result was extremely effective. I gained knowledge about different cultures and different ways of life and felt enriched and broadened by this new learning experience.

Music was a powerful and effective device used creatively in many of the programmes. Sometimes it was woven into the piece to break up or punctuate the narrative. At other times it was used to enhance meaning and emphasis within a story, to build up suspense and increase the tension. Stirring soundscapes were used to accompany chilling and harrowing stories. Occasionally music was over-used and became intrusive and distracted from the rest of the content, but this was rare. In some programmes the music and songs were so bold and stirring that I wanted to go out and buy the CD – if there had been one!) And then, there were other programmes which did not have any accompanying sound-track at all. It was interesting to note that some of these were equally as effective if not even more effective in engaging the listener. In these programmes it was the solitary voice and the spoken word which resonated and created an impact.

Several of the programmes explored current issues and contemporary themes such as same-sex marriages, religious fundamentalism, the radicalisation of young Muslims, freedom of speech or interfaith marriages and the fusion of eclectic family traditions. And the more I listened to these, the more I was surprised by how they stimulated my desire to discover more about other cultures, communities and religions and by how fascinating this learning was. I came away from the experience with a sense that I had touched upon some of the key issues that affect the lives of others and how important it is that this knowledge and information is shared.

In the end, my fellow shortlisters and I ended up with a long-list of fourteen excellent programmes which we then had to narrow down too a short-list of eight. We all had our favourites but after much analysis and discussion managed to agree in the end.

What strikes me on reflection is that there were hardly any comedy entries. Why is that? Is religion not funny? Are writers, producers or commissioners afraid to make jokes about Faith? Perhaps this is something for programme-makers and potential entrants to think about for next year.


You can read a full list of the programmes shortlisted for a 2016 Sandford St Martin Radio Award here.

Penelope is a Comedian and TV Critic for BBC Radio 4 (‘World Tonight’, ‘Today Programme’) and BBC Radio London.

As a performer credits include ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (BBC), ‘Fist of Fun’ (BBC), Sony Nominated ‘King of the Road’ (BBC Radio 2) and ‘Redeeming Brian’ by legendary sitcom writer David Nobbs (BBC Radio 2). She created and co-wrote ‘Tower of Bagel’ (Soho Theatre, Royal Festival Hall). Penelope has also performed live at: Theatre Royal Winchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, Salisbury Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and The Hackney Empire.

Penelope will preview her new live solo show at LEICESTER SQUARE THEATRE
on Saturday 16 July at 20.30

before heading to THE STAND COMEDY CLUB part of the EDINBURGH FRINGE 2016

You can find out more about Penelope and her work on her website: www.penelopesolomon.com

or by following her on Twitter: @aHackneyMum

One Million (and one) Dubliners

Aoife Kelleher - team

The winner of the 2015 Sandford St Martin TV Award was RTÉ’s beautifully shot, very moving film “One Million Dubliners” directed by Aoife Kelleher and produced by Rachel Lysaght of Underground Films.  Being about a cemetery, the film inevitably deals with death but ultimately it’s a film about so much more:  it’s about life, how to live, community, history and how individuals reconcile (or don’t) the past with their present.   In those respects and many more, One Million Dubliners was a more than worthy winner of the Sandford St Martin prize and we’re pleased we were able to celebrate it for its achievement.  But even better: it was an honour to be able to share in the lives of the people featured in the film as a member of its audience.  

Aoife Kelleher writes:

When I first told people that I was making a documentary film about Glasnevin Cemetery, opinions were divided. Some agreed that cemeteries were beautiful, peaceful and fascinating places – the backdrop to stories of love, faith, passion and heroism – and would be an ideal setting for a documentary. Others found the idea a little too dark and sombre. And of course, in any film about a graveyard, darker subjects – such as death, separation, loss and despair – have to be explored. But in making One Million Dubliners, my aim was always to retain a sense of light, hope and humour; to convey the experiences of those that work in and visit the cemetery and the events and emotions that have brought them there. Ultimately, I hoped that the film would illustrate that, as James Joyce put it in Ulysses: “in the midst of death, we are in life.”

For producers and directors who have never worked in the area, the idea of religious programming might also seem a bit forbidding. There might be a sense that one would be confined to a particular set of issues; limited to a tone of weighty gravitas and that the only suitable contributors would be people of profound faith. In fact, I have found the experience of making One Million Dubliners, which was commissioned and supported by RTÉ Religious, hugely liberating. In making a film about a graveyard that was founded by Daniel O’Connell for those “of all religions and none”, I was permitted to ask a wonderful variety of participants the big questions about life, death and devotion. Whether or not we have faith, a sense of spirituality or a strong religious belief, we are all grappling to understand our place in the universe, the meaning of it all. I believe that every individual has a unique attitude to life and death, which is what makes the subject so intimate, so sensitive and so compelling. In One Million Dubliners, the customs, expressions and even the beliefs of the bereaved vary entirely from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. By exploring such a wide variety of attitudes in the film, we created a space for our audience to think about their own opinions and rituals, to question them, to affirm them or to doubt them. The ability to create such a space, though not unique to religious programmes, is certainly one of its great possibilities.

We were delighted to be shortlisted for the Sandford St. Martin Trust Awards and absolutely stunned to have won the Television Award. It is particularly exciting to think that we are part of a community of programme makers across Ireland and the UK, who are addressing these essential themes, while also coming up with new ways to engage with them. We very much look forward to discovering this year’s nominees and their work.

You can watch a clip of One Million Dubliners here.

Read more about the team who made One Million Dubliners here or about Underground Films here.

Torin Douglas

Why is the BBC so uninterested in religion?

In this blog, the Sandford St Martin trustee, Torin Douglas reflects on the BBC’s Christmas scheduling and, in the run up to BBC Charter renewal in 2016, asks pertinent questions about what the BBC’s strategy for religion.  A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Huffington Post UK.  

As the Huffington Post reported this week, the BBC is under fire for the lack of original religious programming on TV this Christmas.

“BBC accused of ‘diminishing religion’ blared the headline in the Daily Express – “Only FOUR HOURS of Christian programming over Xmas”.

The paper went on: “In total, just eight hours of Christian-themed television, such as traditional carols and religious messages, is being aired over seven days, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  This is less than three per cent of the total and four hours of this are repeats. “

It said: “The shows include Midnight Mass, Carols From Kings, On Angel Wings by Michael Morpurgo but also two repeats, Westminster Abbey and David Suchet’s In The Footsteps Of St Paul. “

In fact that was over-generous to the BBC. The paper hadn’t spotted that ‘On Angel Wings’ was also a repeat from last Christmas.

The BBC’s religious output on TV has shrunk considerably from a decade ago, according to Mail Online: “In 2005 the broadcaster aired eight hours of Christian programming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone, the same total that is scheduled over a seven-day period this year.”

BBC TV’s lack of interest in religious broadcasting – even at Christmas – doesn’t surprise me. I’m a member of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics and morality.

In our recent submission to the BBC Trust on the review of the BBC Charter, we took the Corporation to task for its failure to take seriously – or even understand – its obligations in this area, at a time when it is widely acknowledged that religious literacy has never been more important.

We quoted, among others, the historian Simon Schama, who wrote: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong…”

Professor Schama is one of many distinguished programme-makers who have won a Sandford St Martin Trust award for the best broadcast programmes about religion, ethics and spirituality. He was a double award-winner in 2014 for The Story of the Jews on BBC Two.

And despite the apparent lack of understanding among many at the top of the Corporation, there are still some very fine programmes being made at the BBC, as our awards acknowledge.

Earlier this year we gave our Trustees Award to Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, for raising the profile of religion and the media. In her acceptance speech at Lambeth Palace, she spelled out exactly why religious understanding is now so important in coverage of world affairs.

In our submission to the BBC Trust, we urged the BBC management to take more notice of its own expert programme-makers like these.

In its July 2015 report, ‘Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age’, Ofcom identified religious programming as one of the “immediate areas of concern”.  This finding is recognised and is even quoted in the BBC’s own report, ‘British Bold Creative: The BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter’ which reports on “the immediate issue” relating to

“…news consumption and the provision of news for young people, drama that reflects and portrays British society back to a British audience, content tailored to the specific needs of the UK Nations and their regions, religious programming, children’s programming and investment in other areas such as music and arts.” (emphasis ours)

The BBC goes on to declare on page 49 on that same report that: “We have designed our proposals to address these needs.”

That is the last and the only time religious programming is referred to anywhere in the entire 99 page document.  In fact, religious programming is the only genre on Ofcom’s list of “immediate areas of concern” which the BBC neglects to consider, mention or even name-check in its proposals for the next Charter period.

In the Sandford St Martin Trust’s response to the BBC’s report we wrote “The complete absence of any proposals, or creative thinking, relating to this area in its document British Bold Creative does not give us any confidence that the BBC or the BBC Trust recognises its importance.”

The BBC has always held the prime responsibility to provide high-quality religious programming on television and radio in the UK. It is specified in the BBC Charter. At the Sandford St Martin Trust, we believe that this obligation is now even more important because of

(a) the need for greater understanding of religious issues, to deliver proper coverage of world affairs and community issues in the UK, and

(b) the clear market failure in religious programming on commercial channels as a result of the relaxation of the Public Service Broadcasting regime.

In our submission to the BBC Trust, we said: “The Trust believes that the withdrawal of the commercial TV channels from a core element of public service broadcasting increases the BBC’s obligation to provide such coverage; to make good the deficiency as far as possible; and certainly not to reduce its own religious programming output.”

We sent copies of our submission to the Secretary of State for Culture Media & Sport and the two parliamentary committees reviewing the BBC Charter.

We identified other areas of concern in the BBC’s attitude to religious broadcasting, including the effective downgrading of the post of BBC head of religion as a result of budgetary cuts (paragraph 48). BBC TV’s Factual Commissioning division announced in January 2015 plans to merge the role of Commissioning Head of Religion with those of Science, Business and History.

We were not reassured by the short responses that our chair, the Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines, received to our letters to the BBC and BBC Trust expressing concern at this decision. We noted that they had no answer to our question: “Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of religious programming?”

We also fear that future cuts outlined in the BBC Charter Review document of September 2015 will put further strain on the BBC’s religious output (paragraph 52). In particular, we are seeking assurances that the proposal to set up a new BBC Studios production centre will not reduce the level of knowledge and expertise in the BBC’s Religion and Ethics department.

There is already seems a lack of expertise among some of those who commission TV programmes about religion and ethics at the BBC. In a recent video aimed at programme-makers which claims to explain the BBC’s Religion strategy for BBC One, religion isn’t even mentioned until 25 seconds from the end!


You can review the BBC’s religious programme schedule for Christmas 2015 here.

And you can read Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about how religious broadcasting is not just for Christmas or Easter here.






More TV Vicar? – well yes, as it happens!

In October 2015 Bryony Taylor, a curate from Durham and self-confessed TV addict, participated in a panel discussion produced by the Trust for the annual Church and Media Conference.  The session was called “More TV Vicar?” …  Um, yes: we did shamelessly pilfer the title of Bryony’s excellent book exploring television depictions of Christians in all their – not always so obvious – glory.  And now we’ve twisted her arm and gotten her to write a blog for our website too.  Thank you Bryony!

Earlier this year DLT published my book entitled More TV Vicar? which charts the portrayal of Christians (and especially vicars) on British television for the past 30 years. I was delighted to be invited to be part of a discussion panel at the Church and Media Conference 2015 with James Cary, comedy writer (who I interviewed in my book), Daisy Coulam (writer for ITV’s Grantchester) and very excitingly, Frank Williams – the vicar from Dad’s Army!

We had a wide ranging discussion including some TV clips with famous vicar characters. One theme we discussed was authenticity – having two screenwriters on the panel helped us to note that character and plot are essential – these things come first, not what religion the character is supposed to be. This is something I explore in my book – many Christians expect too much of ‘Christian’ characters on television – they are not there as a great advertisement for the faith – they are characters in a story and they are there as part of an entertainment strategy, not a mission strategy! Daisy spoke of the importance of showing the human side to the Rev’d Sidney Chambers in Grantchester – that he has feelings too – he is a fully rounded character. This was the same with the Padre Mary character from James Cary’s Bluestone 42, she is depicted as flawed and weak, but is not a caricature. We are beginning to see on our televisions more rounded portrayals of vicar characters.

Frank Williams spoke about his own character, Rev’d Timothy Farthing, and that even though his character was depicting a cleric from the 1940s it was not a particularly sensitive portrayal. Rev’d Timothy is not particularly nice – which is part of the humour that comes across in Dad’s Army. Having said that his vicar character was very much ‘of its time’ and therefore familiar to people. Being a church goer himself (and a member of General Synod) meant that he could lend the character an air of authenticity. Frank went on to say that the feeling now is that people simply aren’t interested in faith or religion. The days of people being able to ‘get’ the ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’ joke from Monty Python’s Life of Brian are long gone. Dad’s Army, broadcast in the 70s and 80s was put out at a time when people knew what to expect of a vicar character – they all knew one in their own town or village. This societal shift could be perceived as being a bit depressing but I would challenge that.

People who know me well know that I am the eternal optimist – my husband says that my glass isn’t half full, I just think ‘ooh, I’ve got a glass!’ And so when my book came out I said in a number of interviews that I thought that we would see more ‘vicar’ characters on our televisions over the next few years. Little did I realise that this would come true very quickly – Grantchester is currently filming its second series, ITV just showed a flagship 3-part drama, Midwinter of the Spirit with a woman priest in the starring role and Sky 1 brought out comedy drama You, me and the apocalypse featuring Rob Lowe playing a swearing, smoking priest in the Vatican alongside an Italian nun. This is all in the 6 months since the book was published (maybe I need to get started on volume 2?) Why all this sudden interest?

Let’s take the character of the curate from ITV’s award winning crime drama Broadchurch. There is a scene at the end of the drama in which the curate (who is a suspect in the murder case at one point) organises a powerful act of remembrance on the beach for the murdered child. This is the climax of the series and illustrates the truth that:

‘The church is still a place where people put the emotions that won’t go anywhere else.’ – Rowan Williams quoting a former student[i].

Williams goes on to say, in the same speech:

“I believe we are living in a society which is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused but not therefore necessarily hostile.”[ii]

The memory of religion lingers in British society. Occasionally the remembered faith re-enters the public sphere – notably on Remembrance Sunday but also events such as the Queen’s Jubilee and the Royal Wedding or whenever a crisis hits a town. Slowly the church seems to be regaining its permission to be there, legitimately to have something to say.

This idea of religion (for that, read Church of England in this instance) ‘haunting’ comes across in a curious comment in a recent report on the religious output of the BBC:

“Though both Songs of Praise on BBC One and Sunday Worship on Radio 4 have been a feature of the schedules for quite literally a lifetime, it always seems slightly surprising when the pattern of family viewing on TV, and news and magazine programmes on radio, are interrupted by a religious service. It feels at the same time to be slightly anachronistic, and yet strangely reassuring.” – Stuart Prebble (my emphasis)[iii]

It is not altogether different from the way people feel about the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4:

“The Shipping Forecast remained on air for no reason other than it is still wanted by many thousands of people who had no logical purpose in listening to it – other than the most basic purpose of all, of course, which was to make life a little bit richer in some intangible way.”[iv]

The same could perhaps be said of the church – and especially the Church of England. People still want it, they still want to see it on their televisions, they just don’t quite know why.

Christendom has lost its place and the church (especially the Established Church) is losing its footing but this could be an opportunity for creativity. Pope Benedict said that in our current times Christians need to be living as a ‘creative minority’. Green and Robinson develop this idea in their book Metavista:

“In times of liminality, such as the one that the West is presently passing through, it is more important to live as creative minorities than to live either as coercive minorities or as ineffective majorities.”[v]

We are still seeing Christian characters on our televisions and indeed the more recent of these have been well-rounded and realistic rather than stereotypes or caricatures. I think we will only see more portrayals of Christians on television, not less. People are curious again about what drives people of faith: it seems that television producers are picking up on this. That can only be a good thing.


[i] Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the public square’, Lecture at Leicester Cathedral, 22 March 2009

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Stuart Prebble, ‘A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output’, BBC Trust, July 2013

[iv] David Hendy, Life on air: a history of Radio Four (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

[v] Greene, C. & Robinson, M., Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2008), p214.


Find out more about Bryony and her book here.

And there’s more about the Church and Media Network who hosted the “More TV Vicar?” session here.


Never in the history of broadcasting have so many broadcasters, regulators and politicians alike wanted to consult us, the public.  It’s a reflection of what’s at stake.

Within five years, the BBC could be considerably smaller than it is now and the licence fee replaced by a levy; ITV may be under the control of some giant US media conglomerate, and Channel 4 could be privatised.

So there’s everything to play for and those who feel public service interests are in danger of being neglected – if not ignored – need to be on guard. Here, at the Sandford St Martin Trust, we have a particular responsibility to ensure that the arguments for intelligent and authoritative religious and ethical coverage are heard loud and clear.

These are the main consultations that have been announced already.

Concerning BBC Charter Renewal:

The BBC Trust has just concluded the first stage of its public consultation but are and will be others.

You still have your say until November 5th by filling in the questionnaire here: https://consultations.external.bbc.co.uk/bbc/future-ideas

The Government’s own consultation closes in mid-October, so you should fill in the online survey or write to the Department of Culture Media and Support with your views soon.

There’s more information about how you can do it here:


Following the DCMS’s public consultation, there will be at least two parliamentary committees dedicated to the subject of Charter Renewal: one in the Commons and one in the Lords.  Both will hearing evidence from interested parties and the Sandford St Martin Trust is gearing up to contribute to both.

The BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall has already said that it’s “inevitable” that BBC services will have to be closed or cut in response to the government’s green paper and the already agreed 20% drop in the licence fee.   Insiders believe he is likely to protect drama and popular programming.   But supporting a rich broadcasting ecosystem that includes excellent religious and ethical broadcasting means we’ll need to be alert to any proposals that involve cancelling BBC4 or cutting back on children’s broadcasting – both of which have already been identified as being at risk.

Then, most important of all in relation to the BBC, will be publication of the Government’s white paper which is expected early in 2016.

The Future of Channel 4

Despite ministerial denials that there are any plans to privatise Channel 4, only this week a government official was photographed walking into Downing Street with a document setting out options for its £1 billion sell-off.  The Treasury and the Secretary of State will argue that ownership is irrelevant, what matters is the quality of the output – but this is baloney.

Private owners will want to make profits and, therefore, will want to broadcast the most profitable programming.   Should profits drop, any remit will be cast aside.  Minority programming will underfunded and shunted to the edges of the schedule.

If you needed any proof, the government’s inadvertent revelation proves that once they have dealt with the BBC, the Government will turn their attention on Horseferry Road.


Given the circumstances, it seems increasingly likely that ITV will be taken over by US companies.  Last year Channel 4 chief executive, David Abraham dedicated his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International TV festival to warning of the threats posed by foreign media companies keen to “snap up” UK production companies.  Last year the US media conglomerate Viacom scooped up Channel 5 and the prospect that ITV may soon end up in US hands seems increasingly likely.  If this does come to pass, organisations like the Sandford St Martin Trust will need to lobby to ensure that the minimal public service requirements, which now exist, continue.

At Sandford we will continue to try to monitor all these developments and to actively lobby Parliament, regulators and broadcasters where appropriate.   But we can’t do it alone and we know we’re stronger when we work with partners who are equally determined to secure the future of our rich broadcasting ecosystem.   We welcome advice and assistance from anyone who shares our interest.


Anna McNamee

Interesting Times: the results of our online “religious, spiritual and ethical broadcasting” poll are in

“May you live in interesting times!” are the words ancient Chinese sages apparently used to curse their enemies. Somewhat inauspicious then, perhaps, that they’re also the words that sprung most readily to mind when I reviewed the results of the Sandford St Martin Trust’s first public survey on the state of religious, ethical and spiritual broadcasting today. “Interesting times”, after all, are rarely peaceful or settled times. Rather, they are periods prone to insecurity, instability, confusion and change – which pretty much sums up the dilemmas facing contemporary broadcasting – not least, those facing what’s identified as “religious” broadcasting.

Recent years have seen religious coverage and programming evolve radically both in form and content. Propelled in part by a rash of geo-political conflict where religion and religious issues are being used around the world as rallying calls for violence, the average citizen is probably exposed to more news broadcasting and media about religion and religious identity now than ever before.   Consider this alongside the revolution in broadcasting technology which means that “traditional” media now competes for audiences with rapidly growing satellite, cable, online, user-generated, user-propagated, non-regulated, 24/7, niche broadcasting services – among others – and it becomes clear that the familiar and comforting broadcasting “auntie” of old has got some very young and noisy upstart nephews and nieces.

“Interesting” times, indeed.

Will the current climate form the basis for a renaissance in religious broadcasting? If the response to our recent “Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?” session at Sheffield Doc/Fest is any indication, then there are some programme-makers, producers and commissioners who think so. Others are more cynical and believe that their practice is being steadily undermined by both an increasingly competitive broadcasting ecology and a culture that denigrates the spiritual. Listen to the vox pop recorded by the student-journalist Lucy Wilson at Sheffield and you’ll get a sense of the mix of opinion out there.

Which brings us back to our survey. Response percentages have been published here in our Briefings section, and, while the survey sample was small and can only begin to tell part of a story, I think what appeared under the “any other comments” section was particularly telling. These comments, I believe, raise some very pertinent issues – issues that should be at the heart of any discussion about whether or not the UK needs more or less religious broadcasting. Many respondents wanted to talk about the mixed quality of religious broadcasting as well as about quantity. Some lamented what they identify as a general decline in religious “literacy”. And there was a call for religious programme-makers to “drag religion up to date using new media”. “Grey hair can mean grey opinion”, one respondent wrote.

Another comment in response to the question “Should religious, ethical and spiritual programming be ring-fenced within public sector broadcasting?” echoed a chord. It went: “My answer… depends on how you define a religious programme as compared with a programme that has religion in it. For example, is it more powerful to have a Christian boy band win Britain’s Got Talent (watched by millions) than to have a programme about the Bible/Torah/Koran? Or have Corrie deal with religious discrimination rather than a programme about religious discrimination?”

Good question.

When Ralph Lee, Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer, was asked to name a good example of religious broadcasting at the Trust’s Edinburgh TV Festival debate last year, he chose Gogglebox. Gogglebox regularly features the bubbly and loquacious Rev Kate Bottley on one of its sofas and Ralph’s point was that programmes like this give a new, different, colloquial or even mundane perspective on the Church and/or someone living a life of faith that is often missing from loftier-themed religious programming. Polly Toynbee, who was speaking at the same event, claimed calling something like Gogglebox “religious” was cheating.

What do you think? How broad a church (if you’ll forgive the obvious metaphor) should what we call religious or spiritual or ethical broadcasting be? In these “interesting” times, which for broadcasters and programme-makers are full of instability, insecurity, confusion and change, we’d like to hear your opinion.  Drop us a line by commenting here or e-mailing admin@sandfordawards.org.uk

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?

Lucy Wilson is a journalism student at Sheffield Hallam University.  She attended the 2015 Sheffield International Documentary Festival and was part of the audience attending the Trust’s “Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?” session.  In this special guest blog she considers the role of religious documentaries today and gives her response to what she heard.

If you happened to be in the city of Sheffield between 5 and 10 June, one thing is certain: you were aware that DocFest, the UK’s largest festivity of documentary filmmaking, was in full swing.

As a student journalist, I was privileged to attend the Sandford St. Martins Trust’s sponsored session, ‘Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?’ For me, I’m not a particularly religious person, so I was keen to understand: why do we need religious documentaries? What do religious documentaries achieve? Probably not unusually for my generation of upcoming journalists and programme-makers, I had presumed that religious documentaries were dying out; to me, the genre evokes memories of my Grandmother perched on her sofa in her slippers singing along to Songs of Praise on a Sunday afternoon.

In the glorious ITV town hall reception rooms, I was stunned to see an audience of around 50 turn up to hear the debate about religious documentaries.

The panel consisted of the BBC’s Commissioning Editor for Specialist Factual TV Martin Davidson, Chief Executive for CTVC Peter Weil, the Insight Film Festival Director Abdul – Rehman Malik, and, trustee of The Sandford St. Martin Trust Roger Bolton. Kicking things off, Roger Bolton said, “By doing sessions like this, we hope to enthuse you.” I couldn’t help but to ask myself how difficult that would be.

Earlier during the week I had undertaken recording vox pop interviews with people at the festival for the Trust and discovered I wasn’t the only person struggling to answer the question of ‘What are your opinions of religious documentaries?’  Until recently, if you’d asked me I’d have said I don’t think I’ve watched any documentaries of the religious genre.  I have seen classical blockbusters like “Sister Act” and “The Passion of Christ,” but I guess they don’t really count.

So where is the opportunity to experiment and develop outside what most people expect to see periodically which is histories of the faith? The panelists agreed there is plenty of scope. “Out of all the specialist genres I am looking at, religion and ethics are by far the broadest and by far the stickiest,” said Martin Davidson, “You can step outside of faith community entirely and look at aspects of the world where religion can bare people on a personal level, a spiritual level but also culturally and politically.”

And here, I could undeniably see his point. Everyone knows that religion is a taboo subject in certain situations. Whenever you bring it up, and whomever you bring it up with, you know that it can turn into a 3-hour debate. Everyone has his or her own opinion.

We heard that the fundamentals of a good religious documentary are the same as those in any genre and go along the lines of ‘Are you doing this in an interesting way?’ ‘Will you bring an audience to it?’ ‘What does it deliver to the audience individual?’

One of the films showing as part of the festival was Parvez Sharma’s ‘A Sinner in Mecca.’ The film shows Parvez, a homosexual filmmaker making the pilgrimage to Mecca as part of an attempt to reconnect with his Muslim faith. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death and, as a viewer, the film was striking and had me on the edge of my seat. At any time, Parvez could have be caught and executed. This film gave me an insight into religion that I had never seen before. Afterwards a female Muslim member of the audience couldn’t hold back her tears. She said: “The world needs to see this.”

If more people are going to see films like ‘A Sinner in Mecca’ then we need the world of religious documentaries to evolve. So is there a potential for religious documentaries to go online? Yes! Nothing is off limits in the broadcasting world. There’s no getting away from the fact that more and more people are accessing programming through the net.

From an international perspective, Director of Insight Film Festival Abdul-Rehman said: “Over an 8 month period we receive 180 submissions, out of which 90 are pretty good and 60 we’re looking at programming. In a non-dogmatic way the stuff coming from Iran is amazingly good.” Abdul-Rehman is sure that on an international scale, there is space and a demand for these faith documentaries.

We were told that Channel 4’s religious programming practically disappeared in 2013 – with a dedicated spend on religion of £40 million in 2008 being drastically reduced to £2 million in 2013. In 2004 the network committed to 104 hours of religion; in 2005 it decreased to 52 hours and in 2014 only 2 hours of self-identified religious programming was broadcast on the channel. It is clear to see that there is a statistical problem when it comes to religious programming. The optimism of the panel was inspiring, but can religious broadcasting raise its audience figures?

“I think that religious and ethical programming is there for everybody,” said Peter. For instance, Muslims form 4.44% of the population. If half of this population watched religious documentaries, this would create a substantial audience.

After the panel had the discussion, they took questions from the floor.  The first question was for the BBC’s Martin Davidson: “What are you actually doing to engage with my religion (Sikh) and other minority religions?”

Davidson answered that the programme-maker had to ask whether or not a documentary about the Sikh religion could do enough to reach a mass audience. The audience member was clearly not impressed with the answer to his question calling it a “cheap response,” and I have to say, I agree with him. For me, religious documentaries should be representing all religious groups.

Perhaps that’s what is going wrong with religious programming? It is pessimistic to assume, for example, that a Sikh documentary would only attract Sikhs who make up just 1% of the UK population. For me, religious documentaries, like all documentaries need to represent society in its widest sense – representing diverse religious groups. Perhaps this is what’s needed – a variety of religious documentaries in order to reach a mass audience. The world needs to be more knowledgeable and exposed to a wider range of faiths. In this way, it could remove the taboo of the subject and make people less ignorant towards minority groups.

Our thanks to Lucy for writing this blog and for her invaluable contribution towards publicising the Trust’s Sheff Doc/Fest session on social media.  As well as recording the vox pop with delegates, Lucy live-tweeted the session.  If you’d like to tell us what you think of religious documentaries you can comment here, tweet us @sandfordawards or visit our Facebook page.

A full audio recording of the Trust’s Sheffield Doc/Fest session can be heard here

Nick Baines

The Best in Religious Broadcasting

This evening I will be chairing the 2015 Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace. These annual awards are prestigious and pull in some amazing examples of excellent programming.

The re-shaped Trust has this year attracted an enormous number of entries in three categories: television, radio and – for the first time – children. Our short listers did a brilliant job, and the winners will be announced tomorrow evening. (The list is too long, so go here to see the full set.)

The first prize of the evening will go, as always, for the Radio Times Readers Award – the only one voted for by the public.

It has also been announced this week that this year’s Trustees Award will go to the BBC’s wonderful Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet – an award that will be presented to her by James Harding, head of News at the BBC.

Exciting, or what?

Anyway, before then I will be doing Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 and then rushing off to the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech (and other meetings). More anon, if I get time to think and write.