Faith in the Future

The days of ‘Stars on Sunday’ may be long gone, but a new era of intelligent and enlightening TV programmes has taken its place

by Caroline Frost, first published in The Radio Times, 30 March 2024

“Religion on TV”: three words to send television commissioners reaching for the comfort of their chocolate Easter eggs as they seek to balance satisfying Ofcom’s requirements that public service broadcasters “deliver a broad range of religious output” with trying to avoid ratings-killer projects that, in the wrong hands, mean dry-as-bone commentary pieces from white men with collars as long as their beards.

The Religion Media Centre reported a fall in religious content across our main channels from 243 hours to 140 over the past decade – but it wasn’t always so. When I think of the TV of my youth, so-called religious programmes were cornerstones of the schedules. Songs of Praise was as central to Sunday evenings as bath time, and “on the other side” there was Harry Secombe’s Highway. Before these, Jess Yates was resident host of “the God slot” with his “religious request show” Stars on Sunday.

Celebrities revealed their spiritual sides on The Heaven and Earth Show, Joan Bakewell dug deep in Heart of the Matter, and Everyman covered similar ethical territory. Throw in some drama like The Barchester Chronicles and Thora Hird banging her tambourine in the Salvation Army sitcom Hallelujah!, and for many years, as the 23rd Psalm would have it, my cup runneth over.

Such shows belong to a different century and, in their absence, you’d be forgiven for thinking religion had almost disappeared from our screens. But while we get fewer bells and smells these days, the breadth and depth of ethical content is evident in the shortlist for this year’s Radio Times Readers’ Award at the Sandford St Martin Awards, which recognise the best in religious broadcasting. The documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland told the story of the Troubles through personal accounts from all sides of the region’s Protestant-Catholic divide. In The Holy Land and Us, presenters Rob Rinder and Sarah Agha explored their family histories and how their forebears were affected by 1948’s creation of Israel, while Prue and Danny’s Death Road Trip saw Bake Off judge Prue Leigh and her son, MP Danny Kruger, exchange their passionate polar-opposite views on the subject of assisted dying. Timothy Spall starred in The Sixth Commandment, a drama based on a true story of how a man’s faith played a part in his personal shame – a drama so powerful it ended up being used by members of the clergy to illustrate church safeguarding. And while musician Nick Cave wouldn’t be the first person I would consider for a spiritual exchange – I’ve been on the receiving end of his distinctly earthy language – his conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury on Radio 4 was profound, as Cave discussed his grief for his dead teenage son, and his wonder at where he might be now.

The final entry gives me pause. Pilgrimage, now in its sixth series, brings together celebrities of disparate faiths or none for a walk-and-talk through holy sites. I have always suspected the celebrity aspect might drown out the spirituality of this show, something I put to Adrian Chiles, a Catholic convert who took part in series three. “The most cynical of celebrities can’t cheat it,” he says. “It’s too profound to be mistreated.” He makes the point that, when it comes to religion, it’s generally the extremists who get any coverage. The majority of us – the moderate, the unsure, the curious – never get the airtime. The meek might inherit the Earth but they don’t have PR agents.

News headlines remind us every day that religion is all around us. We can only hope to make sense of it if we sit down to explore each other’s beliefs and question our own moral frameworks. The Sandford St Martin Awards shortlist proves it makes cracking TV, too. TV commissioners, take note.

This article was originally published in Radio Times 30 March- 5 April 2024, written by Caroline Frost.

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