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

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.

Torin Douglas

Death of religious broadcasting greatly exaggerated

Remember when bishops used to berate broadcasters for the reduction in religious programming? In the past month, there’s hardly been a shortage of people discussing their faith on the airwaves, or other programmes reflecting themes of religion and ethics.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby endorsed Time Magazine’s choice of the Pope as Person of the Year. He also insisted that despite falling congregations he was “extremely hopeful” about the Church of England and said good vicars could boost attendances. A few days later, he delivered his first New Year Message on television and via social media.

Dr Rowan Williams gave his Thought for the Day in the form of a poem and the distinguished theologian, the Rev Prof Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, analysed Monty Python’s Life of Brian, describing it as a remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus.

On BBC One, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson and comedian Ken Dodd discussed their faith in ‘Fern Britton Meets…,’ while Lord Justice Woolf and the novelist Ian McEwan discussed theirs on BBC Radio 3, in ‘Belief’ with Joan Bakewell.

Then there were all the Christmas programmes. As well as ‘Carols from King’s’ and the traditional services, there was ‘The Choir Christmas Final’ from Ely Cathedral, histories of carols on Radio 2 and Radio 4, and series such as ‘Pilgrimages’ with Simon Reeve, ‘Byzantium’ with Simon Sebag Montefiore, and ‘Sacred Wonders of Britain’ with Neil Oliver.

But it’s not only at Christmas that you’ll find stimulating programmes to do with religion. Last autumn also saw Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’, Rageh Omaar’s ‘The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Empire’, ‘Cathedrals’, ‘The Bible’ and ‘Requiem’, not to mention the ‘Daily Service’, Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’, Clare Balding’s ‘Good Morning Sunday’ on Radio 2 and BBC One’s ‘Songs of Praise’.

Like reports of the death of Mark Twain, the decline in religious broadcasting has been exaggerated. There may be fewer hours specifically classified as ‘religion/ethics’ – notably on ITV – as Ofcom pointed out in its latest Public Service Broadcasting Annual Report. But that doesn’t include all the programmes to do with religion, and the hours on BBC Two and Channel 5 actually grew. Not to mention all the new faith-based TV and radio channels, or the new online offerings.

I suspect that many people in ‘the faith industry’ simply aren’t aware of the range of programmes on offer, while many in broadcasting have little personal knowledge of people and issues of faith.

I recently joined the Sandford St Martin Trust, which runs the most prestigious awards for religious broadcasting, presented each year at Lambeth Palace. The awards, now in their 36th year, are open to all faiths and are highly valued (and not just because they carry cash prizes.) Entries for 2014 close on February 21st.

In recent years, those whose work has been honoured include the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs, David Suchet, Rowan Williams, Melvyn Bragg, Ian Hislop, Rageh Omaar, Howard Jacobson, Sir Mark Tully, Simon Schama and Anna Magnusson.

TV programmes recognised have ranged from drama series such as ‘The Nativity’ and the sitcom ‘Rev’ to the documentary series ‘The Life of Muhammad’ and ‘A History of Christianity’. Radio winners have included ‘King James Bible Readings’, ‘Resurrection Stories’ and ‘Faith and 9/11’.

In 2014 the TV judging panel will be chaired by broadcaster Edward Stourton and the radio panel by author Patrick Gale. There’s also an award for the best local/community or online entry and a separate award is voted for by Radio Times readers.

So don’t let anyone tell you that religious broadcasting is in decline. It’s alive and well and being celebrated by the Sandford St Martin Trust.

[This post first appeared in the January 2014 edition of Broadcast Now]

Tony Stoller

Faith and mountains

Gerald Priestland, writing about faith and faiths, once observed that there are many routes up the mountain. He was a classic universalist – author, broadcaster, former atheist, prominent Quaker, and BBC religious affairs correspondent in a Christian-dominated broadcasting environment.

Priestland described his faith as one of “reasonable uncertainty”. What would he have made of religious broadcasting today? Well, it is, on the face of it, admirably inclusive. We have enjoyed no-table recent television documentary series on the history of the Bible, the story of Mohammed and the story of the Jews; and fine inter-faith radio programmes. This is what all those involved with religious broadcasting would expect.

But we need more than that. With religion playing such a major part in issues right across the globe – in Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, Indonesia, so many countries and conflicts – we need to understand the nature of individual faiths, their history, and why they have such impact today. It is pre-eminently the job of broadcasting, whether formally ‘religious’ or not, to offer that information and understanding.

The need for inter-faith awareness extends well beyond broadcasting. As the editor of the Friends Quarterly, a Quaker periodical, I have included in the current issue articles by Quakers outlining their approach to challenging the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and by a rabbi praising and explaining Simon Schama’s nuanced Zionism in his recent television series. Well before boosting ecumenism through his meeting with Pope Francis, Justin Welby featured in the pages of the Quarterly.

Helped by an enlightened media, we all can appreciate others’ routes up the mountain, and learn from them.
And yet, and yet. Intolerance of a multi-faith approach never seems far away. We know how incendiary are any media references to religion in Israel/Palestine, in the Arabic and North African lands, and even closer to home in Northern Ireland. People of faith face the aggression of the militant atheists, one tweeting recently that “we must respect the RIGHT of people to hold stupid beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we have to respect their stupid beliefs”.

There is not only sensitivity and insensitivity to contend with. There is also misunderstanding, whether accidental or wilful, which can be hugely damaging even where it has previously seemed safe to tread. Harvey Gillman writes in a recent issue of The Friend about mistrust, sorrow and even anger between some British Quaker and Jewish communities, over the question of the boycott of goods from the West Bank. Those who were so recently friendly neighbours can all too quickly become antagonists, whether – as TS Eliot put it – on the shores of Asia or in the Edgware Road.

In our re-casting of the work of the Sandford St Martin Trust, the trustees are placing stress upon the inclusiveness of our work to promote excellence in religious broadcasting, and therefore in the type of subjects for potential award-winning programmes. That is not a sudden departure. Award winners in just the past year have included Maya Vision’s Islam: the untold story for Channel 4 and Hearing Ragas made by BBC Bristol for Radio 4.
But in a time of rising militant religious (and atheistic) fundamentalism across the globe, it seems particularly important to stress our enthusiasm to look across the entire mountain range of religious broadcasting, and unlabeled broadcasting which still has much to say about religious and ethical concerns. Excellence in religious broadcasting is not only about production values, or popular appeal. It must also offer knowledge and understanding and context, and where necessary cast light into places that have remained obscure to those who know only their own ways of belief and worship.

Nick Baines

Are you are fan of religious broadcasting?

It is hardly surprising, but I am a fan of religious broadcasting. Not any religious broadcasting, or bad religious broadcasting, but good and excellent religious broadcasting. And there is plenty of it about. However, much that would qualify as such does not hit the radar of most commissioning editors or producers.

One of the most frequently expressed prejudices about religious broadcasting is that it involves broadcasting religion. In other words, it is about evangelising, proselytising, propaganda or privileged special pleading for fantasists and escapists. If it was, I would not want any part in it. There is no place in public service broadcasting in particular for such activities.

Yet, broadcasting (as opposed to narrowcasting) always involves assumptions on the part of writers and producers about how the world is and why it is the way it is. There is no neutral space that can be occupied by the non-religious holder of the middle ground; everyone holds a world view through which events are seen, interpreted and mediated, and religious world views are as valid as any others.

This is a drum that needs to be banged regularly. Because good religious broadcasting offers a particular lens through which the world and its people can be seen. It does not demand uncritical assent, but invites critical reflection on how the world is and how people behave.

Religion necessarily involves real people who live in real communities which espouse real values and behaviours. It is impossible to understand the world we see on our news screens if we don’t understand religion – not just religious phenomena, but the motivation that religion fires for public behaviour. In other words, 9/11 is incomprehensible without an understanding of Islam, its factions and histories, its personalities and politics. Contemporary German politics and economics are incomprehensible without a proper appreciation of the Christian history of Germany through the Reformation, Bismark, Weimar, Hitler, division and reunification.

Good religious broadcasting tells intriguing human stories, but digs deep into motivation and spiritual as well as moral values. And just as good economics broadcasting demands interpreters who know their subject, so religious broadcasting requires presenters and interpreters who empathise with their subjects, and don’t pretend to some neutral scepticism that implies that cynicism is clever.

The Sandford St Martin Trust exists to promote excellence in religious broadcasting: excellence in explaining and portraying religion (as dogma and practice), excellence in interpreting the world in the light of religion, and excellence in handling religious themes with the same intelligence and integrity as must apply elsewhere.