Torin Douglas

God: TV’s Holy Grail

A session about God at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

Surely not?

“We don’t do God” said Alastair Campbell and in recent years most TV commissioners have seemed to agree. Programmes exploring religion and faith have largely disappeared from the commercial channels, leaving the publicly-funded BBC to carry the flame (with quotas to stiffen its resolve).

Yet Friday’s Edinburgh session, “God: TV’s Holy Grail?“, was billed by the Festival organisers as one of this year’s hottest debates.

and so it proved. There were feisty arguments about quotas, quality and the definition of religious broadcasting (are comedies such as Rev and Citizen Khan ‘religious’ programmes?) as well as examples of best practice (The Story of the Jews, The Ottomans, My Brother the Islamist, Richard Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason) and preview clips of The Ark and Simon Reeve’s Sacred Rivers.

Chaired by Sian Williams, the presenter of BBC One’s Sunday Morning Live, pitted Polly Toynbee, vice-president of the British Humanist association, against Radio 4 Feedback presenter Roger Bolton, a Trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting.

Also on the panel were the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed; Ralph Lee, deputy chief creative officer of Channel 4 (which no longer has a head of religion); and the acclaimed screenwriter Tony Jordan who, after EastEnders, Hustle and Life on Mars, wrote The Nativity for the BBC and – coming soon – The Ark, starring David Threlfall as Noah.

So why now?

In recent months, religion has thrust itself onto the national and international stage. When David Cameron proclaimed that Britain was a Christian country – in effect saying “we DO do God” – 55 public figures wrote to the Daily Telegraph accusing him of fostering alienation and division, against the background of turmoil in the Middle East.

Reports that Hollywood had rediscovered the power of Bible stories – with Noah, Exodus and other epics in production – highlighted the success of the TV mini-series The Bible on the History channel, which was America’s most watched cable show of 2013.

The return of Rev – the BBC Two comedy about the tribulations of an inner-city vicar and his wife, played by Tom Hollander and Olivia Colman – made the cover of Radio Times and other magazines, as well as a host of features in the national press. Praising it in his Sunday Times TV review, AA Gill criticised broadcasters’ failure to engage properly with issues of faith and spirituality.

“Religion has never been more tangible in world affairs and public life” he wrote. “Not having more sensible and serious religious broadcasting isn’t modern, it’s a failure to face modernity.”

Ian Hislop, made the same point in Radio Times. Under the heading “Broadcasters must have faith in religious TV“, he said programme-makers and audiences were looking for good stories: “There are few richer repositories of stories than the world’s faiths and the extraordinary ways that human beings have attempted to find meaning through them.”

So what better time, we thought, for a proper debate in at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the annual meeting point for 2,000 programme-makers, commissioners and opinion-formers? The organisers agreed – hence this session, which the Sandford St Martin Trust is sponsoring.

The Trust has been giving awards for the best programmes about religion, ethics and spirituality since 1978 – and you can see recent winners and this year’s shortlist at www.sandfordawards.org.uk. But it it is fair to say that it has kept its light under a bushel. That is now changing and we are actively promoting excellence in broadcasting in ways such as this. This week, the award-winning BBC journalist and broadcaster Anna McNamee joins us in the new role of executive secretary, to steer the Trust’s work in new directions.

Ian Hislop and Rev are both former Sandford prizewinners, demonstrating that the Awards cast their net widely, embracing drama, comedy, current affairs and history, as well as programmes that more obviously tick Ofcom’s ‘religion’ box.

Simon Schama won this year’s Sandford TV Award for his BBC Two series The Story of the Jews, and he too has observed how views are changing. He wrote recently: “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…”

Ed Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, who chaired this year’s Sandford TV panel, praised “some superb entries that take religion out of the ghetto and reflect the way it touches history, current affairs and the lives of ordinary people.” 

But he told Press Gazette that the British media generally suffered from a ‘blind spot’ about the importance of religion around the world which damaged its news coverage. He deplored the absence of religious affairs correspondents in national newspapers, following The Times‘s decision to make Ruth Gledhill’s post redundant, and said “religious illiteracy” could lead to serious journalistic mistakes. 

”Never ignore the power of religion” Stourton warned programme-makers and policy-makers in an article in the Sunday Telegraph: “You don’t have to like religion, but do take it seriously.”

Hopefully, after the Edinburgh debate, more commissioners and producers will do so.

Religion is a hot topic in the wider world but, with a few exceptions, television is sorely neglecting it

There is a scene in Sacred Rivers, an upcoming three-part series for BBC2, in which the presenter, Simon Reeve, climbs out of his car to escape an urban Chinese traffic jam and heads on foot towards a building that he compares to a sports stadium.

The building is, in fact, a church with seating for 5,000 worshippers, and Reeve relays to viewers that “by some estimates, there could be 400 million Christians in China in 30 years’ time, making it the biggest Christian nation on earth”.

Religion is a big story. Newsnight caused uproar among Conservative politicians last week with its decision to give a platform to the bloodthirsty UK-born Islamic State fanatic “Awlaki”, immediately after the murder of the US photojournalist James Foley, a story that dominated the news agenda.

And yet ITV has scaled back its religious programming from 104 hours in 2004, when it was under an obligation by the regulator Ofcom to cover the subject, to two hours in 2012, when it was not. Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster believes there is no money in the genre. Other channels take a similar view.

Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, is the only commissioning executive in British television with distinct responsibility in this area. At a time when religious disputes appear to be tearing much of the world apart, this seems like a serious shortcoming that leaves the audience deprived of information they need if they are to understand global politics and the cultures of their neighbours.

The BBC presenter Sian Williams, who hosted a debate on the subject at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last Friday, noted that a quarter of respondents to the 2011 census described themselves as being of “no religion”, up from 15 per cent a decade earlier. But this statistic is not in itself a good reason for television to turn away from religion. Williams hosts the popular Sunday Morning Live on BBC1. She has no religious allegiances and says her objectivity enables her to be curious of all faiths.

Roger Bolton, host of Radio 4’s listener response show Feedback and an experienced broadcaster, told the Edinburgh audience that “religious literacy has never been more important” but that the “potential of programmes in the field of religion … is far from being realised”. He is a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which gives awards for religious programmes but struggles to find entries. Like ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and Sky have all virtually abandoned the territory, he claims. “What we see, between 2007 and 2012, is a 35 per cent reduction in the amount of spending on what might be called religious programmes.”

But what exactly is a religious programme?

Polly Toynbee, columnist for The Guardian and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, argues that there should be no quotas for religious programmes or what she terms “advertorial for God”, saying that such an approach “breaks the impartiality of reporting”.

While Bolton and Ahmed happily include the BBC comedy Rev and Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews in their roll call of successful religious programmes, Toynbee regards this as “cheating” when evaluating the need for the genre. “They’re just great programmes,” she says. Ahmed also claims Citizen Khan, another comedy, as a religious show and notes that the BBC2 series The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors, presented by Rageh Omaar, was commissioned by the BBC’s religion and ethics department.

Rather alone on this issue, the BBC does 7,800 hours a year of “religious broadcasting”, the great majority on radio in the regions. More than 160 hours are carried on network BBC television.

Channel 4, as is its wont, does things differently. Religion is covered by its specialist factual team and “threaded” into the general output, says Ralph Lee, deputy chief creative officer. The coverage can be combustible. The 4Ramadan season in 2013 included a call to prayer that became the channel’s most complained-about broadcast of the year. The Sun splashed the story as “Ramadan a ding-dong”. But Lee said the series introduced a “generalised audience to what Ramadan meant” and was welcomed by many of Britain’s three million Muslims. He said the complaints were linked to the unfortunate timing of the long-planned season, so soon after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, and mostly resulted from an online campaign by the English Defence League.

Tony Jordan is one of Britain’s most successful television writers, responsible for hits such as Life on Mars and Hustle as well as many memorable episodes from EastEnders. He is also a notable maker of religious programmes and always pitches for a mainstream audience. His drama The Nativity for BBC1 attracted five million viewers. Another of his biblical pieces, The Ark – in which Noah had four sons but one didn’t make it on to the boat – will run on BBC1 in prime time this autumn.

But most programme-makers do not have Jordan’s influence with channels.

The result is a decline and marginalisation of religious content, with TV primarily focusing on extremism. Memorable moments have included John Sweeney’s screaming fit in his Panorama probe of the Church of Scientology, and documentaries on the poisonous Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary or eccentric Christian communities such as the Hutterites.

Current affairs is inevitably drawn to radicalism and 80 per cent of programme-makers told the Edinburgh television festival that extremist subject matter in religious content draws better ratings.

We need to hear those extreme voices, such as the Islamic State’s odious Awlaki, to appreciate the danger they represent. But British television’s treatment of religion needs to go beyond the dangerous and the bizarre – to teach the audience about the contemporary world as well as the past.

This blog first appeared as an article in the Independent, 24 August 2014.

Roger Bolton - Radio's Resurrection

Atheism is in crisis

Atheism is in crisis, not least because it fails to satisfy human needs.

This may seem a questionable statement given the success of the atheist author Richard Dawkins, but it’s beginning to occur to many of his readers that the God of the Old Testament which he so vigorously debunks, is not believed in by most Christians, Jews or Muslims today. He is demolishing a straw man.

And the consequences of discarding God are worrying the most unlikely people, some leading atheists.

In a remarkable article for the weekly magazine The Spectator the atheist, Douglas Murray, faced up to the difficulties involved: “The greatest challenge in the atheist argument,” he wrote, is that “contra most atheists, ethics are self evidently not self evident”.

As he pointed out: “We should look back only a century when entire schools of very intelligent non-believers could discern no moral objections to eugenics.”

“We may have to accept,” he said “that the sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian concept which might very easily not survive Judeo Christian civilisation. Those who do not believe in God and who stare over that cliff,” he went on “may realise that only three options remain open to us.

The first option is to fall into the furnace.

Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.

If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.”

In the same edition of The Spectator Theo Hobson writes that “the energetic universalism of modern humanism is rooted in Christianity”. He quotes the Marxist author. Terry Eagleton. as saying that “rational humanism is rooted in the Protestant passion for reform,” and he refers to the point made by American writer, Marilynne Robinson, in relation to the US Declaration of Independence. She writes:

“Is it self evident that all are created equal? Only in a religious conception. Jefferson makes the human person sacred and thereby sets  human rights outside the reach of rationalization.”

The most moving account of this disillusion with atheism which I have read is contained in the latest book by one of our foremost writers, Julian Barnes.

In Levels of Life, which concerns the death of his much loved wife in 2008,

Barnes reveals that his devastating loss has made him inconsolable. He writes:

“When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time?

No God,

no afterlife,

no us.

We were right to kill Him of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway.

But we sawed off the branch we were sitting on.

And the view from there – even if it was only the illusion of a view – wasn’t so bad”.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I went down last month to Hay on Wye, on the borders of England and Wales, to chair some debates organised by The Institute of Arts and Ideas which coexists with the Book Festival there. Religion was not directly mentioned and the organisers are mostly atheists.

They like to be provocative in their choice of subjects for debate.

One took as the question to be addressed: “Can neuroscience settle philosophical debates about the mind”.

The three members of the panel were a cognitive scientist, a philosopher of mind and language, and a neurobiologist. None were religious. Their answer was a resounding “no”. Neuroscience cannot settle debates about the mind.

The neuroscientist Professor Stephen Rose said that “we are not just a bunch of neurons”, that the brain is the servant of the mind and that we are nowhere near understanding how the mind functions. He said that 93% of brain scans, for example, were pointless. He later upped that to 98%

All three panellists agreed that neuroscience was in crisis, engaged in “scientific fishing expeditions”, without theories to investigate. The early hopes that we might understand consciousness for example were in shreds.

The mind remains a mystery.

A second debate also addressed a provocative question. Under the heading “Beyond Good and Evil” it asked: “Is Morality an instinct.”

The panel consisted of a philosopher, a neuroscientist and a Professor of Bioethics. Again, none were religious. To the likely disappointment of the organisers the answer came back in the negative… No, morality is not an instinct.

One panellist said that instinct played a part in some moral decisions but the Professor of Bioethics, John Harris, was insistent that  “Morality is a matter of rational reflection and judgement, not instinct.” When I pressed him to say where concepts of good and evil and equality came from, he did not seem to me to have a clear answer.

The point I am making is not that religion is winning the argument against atheism but that it is very much in the ring and that its opponent is experiencing a great deal of self doubt, perhaps even exhaustion. Atheism does not have answers to some of the most important existential questions, and cannot satisfy our spiritual needs.

Nick Baines

Religion for the Times

It was reported recently that the BBC is to move current Defence Correspondent Caroline Wyatt to Religion, replacing Robert Pigott who has held the post for a decade. Given Wyatt’s heavyweight role in Defence since 2007, this is seen as a beefing up of the religion brief. Some of us have argued for years that the BBC should appoint a Religion Editor – recognising the importance of religion as a factor in the world and how we understand it. This seems like a re-beefing up of the ‘correspondent’ role and goes some way to meeting the need.

Ironic, then, that it was reported only days later that the Times is to get rid of the Religion Correspondent role that has been occupied so successfully for 24 years by Ruth Gledhill. This means that no English newspaper has a journalist dedicated to covering religion as a specialism.

This is the context in which the Sandford St Martin Trust – which I chair – is changing. During the last year we have conducted a detailed strategy review and clarified that we wish not only to ‘promote excellence in religious broadcasting’, but also ‘to advocate for’ it. To this end we are changing the way we operate and are currently advertising for a part-time Executive Secretary to help us run the Trust and develop our ambitions.

The Trust gives prestigious awards each year, presented at a ceremony at Lambeth Palace, and with judging panels chaired by people who know their stuff. We have been developing our presence, especially through good work in social media and a new website, but our ambitions go well beyond this to both stimulate and engage in debate on religious broadcasting.

More will become clear as plans are developed. However, the point is that the religious broadcasting drum will continue to be banged – but more smartly as we invest in making a difference

See here for more information about the vacancy for a part-time Executive Secretary.

(First published at http://nickbaines.wordpress.com )

Roger Bolton - Radio's Resurrection

Radio’s resurrection

Thirty or even twenty years ago it required a sort of blind faith to believe that serious radio had a future.

The majority of consultants beavering away for the BBC, and those who wished to dismantle the Corporation, agreed that the future was a blizzard of television channels. Speech radio would be increasingly irrelevant, the preserve of a small, ageing, elite.

How wrong they were.

Just look at the latest Rajar figures, those for the final quarter of 2013: more people than ever in the UK are listening to radio; Radio 4’s average weekly audience rose 3.1% quarter on quarter, aided by record listening figures for the World at One, You and Yours and PM; the Today programme increased its audience by almost 5%; the network’s weekly reach is now 11.2 million.

(By the way the two digital stations, BBC Radio 6 Music and the Asian Network, which the BBC tried to close only a few years ago, also enjoyed a bumper final quarter last year.)

Has Radio 4 achieved these figures from ‘dumbing down’? I would argue the opposite. The Controller has increased the number of challenging science programmes for example, and, interestingly, it has not been at the expense of religious and ethical programmes.

The Sunday Programme, the Moral Maze and Beyond Belief are still prominent in the schedule and there are frequent high quality documentary series. The Daily Service and Thought For The Day remain just that, daily. And I presented Sunday until a couple of years ago and used to delight in telling friends that it had a larger audience than BBC Two’s Newsnight… it still does.

These figures suggest a number of things to me:

  • That religion is once again central to world and British politics.
  • That knowledge of Christianity in particular is central to understanding our culture and that of the West in general.
  • That immigrant communities cannot be fully understood without an understanding of the faiths they practice.
  • That there is a growing recognition that science and religion are not incompatible.

I would like to make a couple of larger claims.

Religion is still relevant because many of us have a spiritual awareness which is not a matter of belief but of experience, and because religion attempts to provide answers to the most important questions. Why are we here? How should we live? How can we find purpose and meaning? What is right and wrong?

Those questions will always be central, and the programmes which explore them will always be of interest.

Radio is especially suited to the coverage of faith because it is so personal, inside our head, often when we are alone. Listeners provide their own pictures and are not distracted by the visual imaginations of others and the restlessness of the TV director.

And radio can also do silence.

Perhaps there is one more reason for the persistence, perhaps even the renaissance of religious radio… We may be growing a little less arrogant. As billions of galaxies with billions of stars are discovered, as neuroscience reveals how far off we are from knowing what consciousness is, a little modesty is in order. We know so much – and so little.

This is not an argument for being credulous but for being prepared to listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before, and having a more open mind to faith, as we try to work out how we should live. We should keep our ears, and minds, open.

Refreshingly, radio is doing just that.

Ian Hislop

Broadcasters must have faith in religious TV

It’s only appropriate to begin a piece about religious broadcasting with a confession. I am guilty of the sin of pride. I won a Sandford St Martin Trust Award in 2012 for a documentary I made about Victorian bankers and am very proud of it – even though I did not actually think I was making a religious programme at the time.

In fact the documentary, When Bankers Were Good, opened with a shot of me standing in Canary Wharf shouting “BANKERS” at the top of my voice at the occupants of the financial buildings. It did not feel particularly reverent and I did not feel that I was auditioning for Songs of Praise.

But I had misunderstood the nature of the awards, which are designed to recognise programmes of all kinds that in some way take faith seriously. In our case it was the decision not to condescend to the believers of the past but to entertain the idea that their faith was indeed as important to them as they claimed, and that it may well have been the motivation for their extraordinary acts of philanthropy.

To look at some of the Quakers and Anglicans and Jews who were running the banking system 100 years ago and acknowledge that they had a system of beliefs and tried to live by a moral code was not exactly ground-breaking, but the contrast with the present-day bankers made their stories seem all the more remarkable. Or so the judges said.

And that is the point about these awards. They remind broadcasters operating in an often evangelically secular media environment that programmes that concern themselves with faith are still trying to engage with the world, rather than just trying to escape from it into the next. They can be current affairs as much as they can be history, and they can be arts programmes and books programmes and even comedy shows like the 2011 winner, Rev.

Admittedly they rarely overlap with the science department, but for range and quality they are often impressive. All of this is certainly true of the 2014 shortlist that makes an extremely strong case for putting such broadcasting at the heart – rather than the margin – of the schedules. All programme-makers are ultimately looking for good stories to tell. And audiences are looking for good stories to watch. And there are few richer repositories of stories than the world’s faiths and the extraordinary ways that human beings have attempted to find meaning through them.

Even if you disapprove of religion entirely it is difficult to resist, say, Simon Schama telling you why 20th-century Manhattan became the promised land for the exiled Jews of the diaspora, and why the classic musical expression of the American dream, Somewhere over the Rainbow, could only have been written by Jews in Tin Pan Alley. And this is just one tiny example from one programme from one series on the shortlist.

The public vote provides recognition that these stories are for a popular and not just a niche market, so as discerning readers of Radio Times, do vote as a reminder to the media powers that be that there is a significant body of viewers out there who appreciate this type of broadcasting.

Forgive the pride (again) but after the programme that won the award went out on television, I was told by a bemused young TV executive that “this stuff” did “surprisingly well” in the ratings. It should not have been a surprise. The one thing that broadcasters really should believe in is the audience.

First published in the Radio Times

Voting for the Radio Times Readers’ Awards in the annual Sandford St Martin Trust Awards is now open – cast your vote here.
Everyone who votes and leaves their details will be entered in a prize draw. One person, drawn at random, will win £1,000 to spend on home entertainment equipment.

Paul Handley

What Revs think about Rev

The plight of an inner-city vicar is being discussed openly and, for once, sympathetically. One of their number — admittedly, a fictional one — was on the cover of the Radio Times and, perhaps less surprisingly, the Church Times. So you’d expect the Revd Adam Smallbone’s real-life colleagues to be pleased.

Not universally. This week I opened two emails within ten minutes of each other. ‘I’m probably in a minority,’ write one, ‘but I don’t get Rev.’ ‘Why am I the only member of the Church of England’ wrote the other, ‘not to consider that Rev. is the most witty and profound depiction of inner-city ministry that can be imagined?’ (In my role as spiritual matchmaker, I put the two in touch with each other. I hope they’ll be happy together.)

These are not curmudgeonly old gits, or Puritans shocked by Colin’s language in the show. One is Ron Wood, a Church Times cartoonist, the other its TV reviewer, Gillean Craig. Both are priests, one in Dorset, the other in Kensington (but formerly in Stepney, East London). Both have a well-developed sense of humour.

In his review for this week’s paper, Gillean expresses his admiration for the cast, the ‘delicious’ cameos, the background understanding — for example of the way in which a vicarage is used by members of the congregation ‘with no sense of boundary whatsoever’.

But, he goes on, ‘it’s the playing out of the scenario, the plot, where the piece (clearly for me alone) falls to bits. . . The script allows Adam so little in the way of initiative, even of basic competence — especially [in episode one], in comparison with his brilliant and humane Islamic counterpart — that it’s difficult not to side with the Diocese, and wonder why he should be allowed to soldier on so ineffectually. . .’

And, he complains, ‘The genre keeps changing: is it grotesque farce or realistic comedy or wry tribute to contemporary Anglicanism?’

I suspect that there is a real clergy/laity divide here. Of course I don’t wish to argue publicly with my reviewer, but the key phrase here is ‘basic competence’. As amateurs, Tom Loxley and I are content for the Tom Hollander character to come out on top in whatever way he can, usually by luck and accident. The professionals, however, can’t help wishing that he triumphs just occasionally by his own wit. There’s a fine line between hapless — what I think Smallbone is — and witless, which is what some of the clergy fear him to be.

If the writers, James Wood and Tom Hollander, had been writing for a knowing audience — and in the age of All Gas and Gaiters (remind me what a gaiter is again?) they might have been — then Smallbone could have been a stronger character. But Rev has to seek its laughs from wherever it can. It sacrificed reality early on — archdeacon’s wives don’t see their husbands as often as Smallbone sees Simon McBurney’s character — and lives in danger of sacrificing Smallbone’s character.

The payback is this great absurdist farce, combining real-life dilemmas with the sort of forensic wit that enlivens W1A. I can watch it without wincing, but then, it’s not my profession being made fun of.

Paul Handley is editor of the Church Times, and a Sandford St Martin trustee.

Rachel Viney

A dual reason to celebrate

This year’s Sandford St Martin Award winners will scarcely have had time to hang up their certificates before another religious broadcasting competition comes along. This time it will be the European Television Festival of Religious Programmes, taking place from 11–15 June in the Dutch city of Hilversum, home to many of the country’s broadcasters.

Even though it’s been going since 1969, the Festival is not as well known in the UK as it deserves to be. That may have something to do with the fact that it takes place only every three years or so, and in a different country each time. Perhaps some assume too that, given how different are the broadcasting and/or religious landscapes of some of the participating countries, there is little makers of religious programmes in the UK can learn from their European counterparts.

But make no mistake. The Festival is a must for anyone interested in television programmes that tackle tough religious and ethical questions, show the triumph of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity or enlarge our understanding of the world we live in. It’s also an opportunity to see such themes tackled by programme-makers who operate within a different set of social and broadcasting conventions from those we’re used to in the UK. For example, I’ve seen a number of programmes over the years on the subject of death or dying that took me a long way out my viewing comfort zone – but also moved and challenged me for that very reason.

Programmes at the Festival have a habit of challenging preconceptions too. I was fortunate enough to chair the jury at the 2007 Festival, where one of the winning programmes was a documentary from Irish broadcaster RTE about the impact of Catholic teaching on celibacy at the grass roots. If we jury members were expecting a less-than-tough approach from a programme made for a predominantly Catholic audience, we were wrong. Indeed one of the notable things about it was that the teaching’s strongest critics were not the disaffected, but devout Church members. Another winner was a programme I initially felt rather nervous about. Billed as a celebration of Christmas, it came from an Amsterdam synagogue – an audacious choice of location. But, thanks to the skill and sensitivity of the programme-makers, the broadcast proved to be a remarkable demonstration of how a festival ‘owned’ by one faith can also find resonance with people of different faiths, or no faith at all.

This year in Hilversum, in addition to the daily screenings of shortlisted programmes that form the backbone of the Festival, there will be an opportunity to reflect, with the help of eminent speakers, on how religious broadcasting can build bridges of understanding in a pluralist society. Among those contributing to this part of the programme will be the UK broadcaster and Sandford St Martin trustee Roger Bolton.

Both the Sandford St Martin Trust and the European Television Festival of Religious Programmes are committed to celebrating broadcast programmes that engage with the challenges and complexities of belief in today’s world. And this coming June – with the Sandford St Martin Awards, closely followed by the European Festival – there will be two opportunities for such celebration.

More information about the festival can be found at www.signis-wacc-tvfestival.eu

Tom Oxley

What’s so funny about Rev?

Some say it’s thin on jokes, others that the humour is gentle though “life affirming” (is that a whisper of faint praise?). I disagree. Little makes me laugh out loud on television – once a month I’d reckon if I was carrying out a time and motion study and I watch TV for a living – but my moment for March came on Monday night in the opening sequence of the new series of Tom Hollander’s terrific comedy. Olivia Colman giving birth in a taxi, attended by a hapless archdeacon singularly unsuited for emergency midwifery, was very funny. Fawlty Towers funny. And that’s saying something.

But I’ll tell you what’s really funny about Rev: that so many are prepared to cut it the slack, to judge it on its merits, because it is religion on television and that normally means people have made up their mind before the titles sequence has even finished. Okay, it’s religion in the very loosest sense but Rev has enough soul to be a winner at the annual Sandford St Martin Trust’s Awards for religious broadcasting and a favourite on the Radio Times Readers’ Award shortlist in 2011.

So why do so many believe in Rev and the travails of Hollander’s creation (he co-wrote the show) the Reverend Adam Smallbone? The atheists aren’t carping, the church isn’t grumbling, the critics are applauding (even if they’re not guffawing) and the audience are watching in their millions (Rev is giving Michael MacIntyre  a run for his money over on BBC1 in a similar time slot).

“There is certainly something inherently funny about men wearing dresses, but we set out not to make Adam Smallbone a comedy character,” is what Hollander told me before the last series: “In a way he’s the straight man of the show and that’s why we have been welcomed by the church because, unusually, we don’t make the priest appear ridiculous. His predicaments are ridiculous, but he’s not a stuttering, hand-wringing stereotype of a vicar. We have tried to create someone who is as ordinary as you or I, a sort of Everyman in an extraordinary environment.”

Which is of course what we can all identify with. If we want to know about life on earth we can switch on David Attenborough, Brian Cox can stroll open-mouthed through the wonders of the universe. But if you want to know about the human condition and the world we live in, better call on someone in the thick of it (no pun on another television comedy intended). And that is where you will find the Reverend Adam Smallbone at 10pm every Monday night on BBC2.

Mary Colwell

Songs of Praise or Call the Midwife? Is religious broadcasting about doctrines or doing good?

A Jesuit friend of mine commented that Call the Midwife is the best portrayal of religion he’s seen in a very long time. Why? Because it is non-judgemental, grounded in compassion and deals with real issues. Many think Secret Millionaire does a good job too in showing the world a glimpse of dedicated yet ordinary people who do good things for no other reason that it is right. They are not seeking wealth or adulation – they just do it in an unsung, un-fussy type of way and we are thrilled when they get rewarded. But are these two programmes religious? Can they be put in the same frame as Songs of Praise for example?

What constitutes religion is an interesting area in this fast changing and culture-merging world. It is not a new debate. In 2005 a report on issues facing the BBC looked at religious broadcasting and lauded the change in name of the religious programming department to the Department of Religion and Ethics to reflect a society more interested in spirituality in general rather than religion per se. The media articles at the time were full of debate on whether religious broadcasting should be about showing the doctrines and practices of the faiths of the world or more widely explore the abiding human fascination with good and evil, right and wrong, selflessness versus selfishness.

These eternal battles have been told in tales around Palaeolithic camp fires, sung about in ancient sagas, acted out in theatres, written about in books and now broadcast across different media for thousands of years. We will never tire of telling and re-telling stories about what is good and bad. But is that enough in itself to be classed as religious? If so then for sure Call the Midwife and Secret Millionaire fit the bill, but arguably so do Sherlock, Dr Who and perhaps some could suggest the likes of East Enders. Where is the line in the sand today between religion and a more “spiritual” stance on what is the right way to live? Should there be one?

The two schools of thought occupy well-trodden ground. The first is that religions are too important to mass together with more diffuse programming. Believers want to see their faith as it is. For Christianity for example, as numbers in pews fall, to show that traditional worship is alive and well is needed more than ever. People welcome the fact that what they believe (no matter how up front their beliefs are in public) is there in front of them and they can join in. It is surprising how many people say they don’t always manage to get to church but they do watch Songs of Praise every week. Pure, unadulterated religious programmes definitely meet a need for many people of faith. It need not just be programmes like Songs of Praise, documentaries about St Paul’s journeys or the life of the Buddha or observational documentaries on what is a Catholic or the day-to-day running of an Islamic funeral parlour are all in the same camp. They are about the stuff of religion and how the faithful live.

Others say that any expression of good is a sign of God (any faith’s God) and so programmes like Call the Midwife follow closely what St Francis urged all Christians to do – always preach the gospel and sometimes use words. Religious programming is more to do with how people exhibit the undeniable bedrock of human goodness than concentrating on specifics of a faith. Watching how people struggle with life’s problems, make courageous choices or whatever, no matter what actual religion they are following, is as religious in content as any documentary of a well-defined faith. In today’s western society there does seem to be a consensus that traditional beliefs are a minority and airing issues of universal ethical concern appeal to more people. This is nothing new and this argument has been raging for years. Have things moved on? I think they have. 9/11, the paedophile priest crisis or the Arab Spring have changed the landscape. Also, in the West, climate change was still largely theoretical.

It has been said many times that 9/11 shook the world to its core. It made a complacent humanity realise that faith was not a minority hobby but a powerful force that could, when combined with politics and power, virtually bring the world’s most dominant nation to a halt. Who were these religious extremists who killed themselves and many others so audaciously? The paedophile clergy crisis has shaken the seemingly unshakable Vatican and rocked the largest Christian denomination so violently that sweeping reform is underway. Pope Francis is watched by the world as he tries to turn the old order upside down and change the institution that influences the lives of one billion people. From the Arab Spring emerged the factions and in fighting in the Muslim world which have confused the West about what exactly it means to be Islamic. In other words the religious world is not what it was and is still changing fast.

In times of distress and uncertainty people turn to religion. In a survey last year in the US 57% agreed with the statement “When a natural disaster occurs, my interest in God increases.” Church attendance rises and donations to religious relief funds increase. My guess is that this pattern is repeated around the world.

Many of us look on with increasing concern as weather patterns change and records for coldest, wettest, driest or whatever are broken. The earth is destabilising along the lines predicated and instead of being dependable has become a shape-shifter. It is now not fanciful to imagine mass migration away from unsuitable areas that no longer support populations. It is thought food and water will be the cause of wars, not oil, as our ability to grow food and supply water is increasingly stressed. To think that religion won’t play a major role in helping people face these realities is naive in the extreme.
Religious broadcasting, to my mind, is more important than ever. We need to understand and monitor how the faiths of the world are dealing with all these evolving situations. I believe there is a real interest in how religions are reacting to the many crises we face. Are they up to the job ahead? Do they have an opinion, a strategy, a vision? I will throw my hat into the ring and say I want more, not less, religious programming. I’m not convinced though my wish will come true.