It was with great sadness that the Sandford St Martin Trustees learned of the death of Rabbi Lionel Blue in December last year. Over the last three decades, Lionel had secured a place in the hearts and minds of many people but particularly Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme audience. His contributions to Thought For the Day were warm, thoughtful, thought-provoking and often guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
We’re now deep in the throes of planning the 2017 Sandford St Martin Awards – judges are carefully sifting through the entries, guest lists are being updated, trophies and certificates being ordered to celebrate some of the best religious broadcasting there’s been over the last year. Broadcasters like Lionel who in 2010 was given a Sandford St Martin Personal Award for his unique contribution to the genre. You can watch a video of Lionel speaking about the Award below.
Our condolences to his many friends and family. He will be missed.
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.
I WAS A SANFORD ST MARTIN AWARD SHORTLISTER
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.
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
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
[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.
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.
This year the Sandford St Martin Trust launched a new award for Children’s broadcasting. Sharmini Selvarajah, formerly with the Sutton Trust and a freelance broadcaster and journalist, was one of those media professionals invited to help hone a shortlist from the many excellent entries. She writes here about the experience.
As a child I thought about religion more than average. My family included Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics, Anglicans and Buddhists, and, thanks to this, I had direct experience of different customs and festivals. But growing up in 1980s Britain, I’m not sure if the same could be said of many of my contemporaries.
Religious Education – or RE – consisted of learning scriptures off by heart or illustrating Bible stories. And although I was interested in religion throughout my childhood and teenage years, I don’t remember ever being engaged with religious ideas at school, or through the mainstream media.
Shortlisting entries for the new Sandford St Martin Children’s Prize has shown me how much things have changed though. The experience opened my eyes to the diversity and quality of children’s broadcasting on religious issues. Unlike the worthy, and usually boring, videos we were shown at school, these entries spoke directly to young people, informing them without being patronising.
I was particularly impressed with the high production values of many of the submissions. It’s true that some came from big production companies, but many of the specialist films aimed at schools were beautifully made with limited resources.
There was also a welcome diversity within the programmes, with subjects including Hanukkah, Bible stories, Humanism and even an exploration of Ji’had. In addition to explicitly religious themes, there were also entries which dealt less directly with ethical issues. These programmes were particularly interesting, though often hard to judge. Not all met the criteria of the Award, to include a “strong religious or spiritual element”, but those which did were inspiring. They demonstrated that religious themes can be effectively included in mainstream programming for young people.
I watched and listened to many of the entries with my three children, and took on board their comments when making decisions. Seeing their enjoyment and engagement with the process convinced me that the days of poorly produced, unimaginative, religious programming for children are long gone.
Recent blog posts
- Did the BBC lack faith in its Year of Beliefs? January 22, 2020
- Is Truth Dead? December 17, 2019
- No Destination: Sandford St Martin Award Winner to become a Feature Film December 3, 2019
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