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Inspiring interviews

With the ever-increasing number and quality of entries received by the Trust year on year, judging the Sandford St Martin Awards has become more and more of an immersive experience.  Not least for our shortlisters who are charged with having to negotiate long lists of sometimes very different programmes, made for very different audiences with hugely varying budgets.  Agreeing a final few for the shortlist is never an easy task and, what shortlisters tell me is that, even after the final list has been agreed, they’re often “haunted” by a programme that personally resonated with or inspired them but isn’t in the final running for an Award.  

Such is the case with Bryony Taylor, a priest and the assistant curate at St Michael and All Angels Church in Houghton-le-Spring, who helped shortlist in this year’s Interview category.  In a vlog, originally posted and which you can watch on her own website, Bryony drew inspiration from “A Thousand Words” with Iain Campbell, a programme made by GRF Christian Radio for the smallVOICE podcast.

Iain Campbell is a portrait painter and Artist in Residence at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow city centre.  In this interview he talks about his painting ‘Our Last Supper‘.

Inspired, Bryony used the painting to inform her own meditation for Lent.


 

This is a painting imagining a modern day Last Supper – Jesus with his disciples around a table.  The figures in the painting are the men that attend a homeless charity in Glasgow.  Our images of Jesus and the disciples are often sanitised.  We have images of men in long flowing robes with beards and halos walking around.  In reality, Jesus based his ministry in the forgotten North East of a forgotten part of the Roman Empire.  The back of beyond, literally.  He chose as the people to spend his time with, those on the edge of the community.  The people excluded by others.  The poor fishermen scratching a living on the shores of Lake Galilee.  A young man that was part of a terrorist cell seeking to resist the Roman occupation.  A hated employee of the government, a tax collector.  Not to mention various women, some of whom had a history of mental health problems, others who were wealthy widows who put the lads up when they were visiting from town to town.

Look at this painting.

Many people ask which one of the men is Jesus.  But the artist deliberately left it unclear.  Judas had to go over in the Garden of Gethsemane and embrace Jesus to let the guards know which one Jesus was; it wasn’t obvious which of them was Jesus.

Where do you see Jesus?

Do you see him in different places, in different people?

The artist chose to paint the Last Supper because Jesus said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ – share a meal together to remember me.   Don’t remember me in the isolation of the cross, all alone.  Remember me among friends, around a table, enjoying food together.  This is how I want you to remember me.


Our thanks to smallVOICE, Iain Campbell and Bryony for sharing their work with us.  It’s worth knowing both that you can see the original of Iain’s painting at The Wild Olive Tree café in Glasgow and that Bryony is the author of the book ‘More TV Vicar?‘ a enthusiast’s romp through the annals of British television to discover what Christians on television say about our attitudes to religion and the religious.

 

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.

sandford

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.

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.