God on TV
Just in time for the launch of the Sandford St Martin Awards 2021 comes “God on TV”, a new series of books by Bryony Taylor (for many years a dedicated and tireless shortlister in our TV/Video category) and Rebecca Tobin. Starting with ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘Being Humans’ each book in the series focuses on a popular television series and uses it as a springboard for a wider consideration of morality, ethics and theology. The introduction to the series was written by our Chair, the Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley and is reproduced below.
If you’d like more information about the “God on TV” series, click here.
In 1957 the revered American journalist Edward R. Murrow – the same one whose searing broadcasts helped topple McCarthyism – referred to television as “the opiate of the people”. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Murrow was highly critical of what he judged were television’s passive audiences and the poor programmes offered them as entertainment. His remarks kicked off a debate that resonates even more loudly today. What is television for? And why do we watch so much of it?
In 2017-18, 27 million UK homes had a television and adults over the age of 16 were found to be spending on average almost 4 hours a day watching them. [i] Given the growing popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Sky or Amazon and technology which means we can now access television through a wide variety of screens, watching whenever and wherever we want, it’s no surprise that in general our relationship with television has only grown more intense and immersive.
Murrow would have been appalled – but I’d like to suggest there’s a flipside to the equation.
The mass consumption of modern television arguably unites individuals and audiences across borders, community, social and educational divisions like no other mode of communication. Think of how many people around the world tuned in to watch the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, or the hours of frenzied speculation and then bitter criticism that accompanied the final series of ‘Game of Thrones’, or how the shenanigans of a bunch of swimsuit clad twenty-somethings looking for love on an island have dominated both headlines and talk around the proverbial watercooler in recent years. All that time. All that attention. So what would happen if the power and popularity of TV could be harnessed as a force for good?
At the Sandford St Martin Trust we think that’s already been happening for a long time now and that there’s plenty of that sort of programming about. I mean programmes that offer a lens through which we can recognise ourselves, our neighbours, our communities and the wider world which we share. Good television can introduce us to intriguing human stories, digging deep into motivation and providing perspective and insight into what motivates people – their beliefs and moral values. This is the sort of broadcasting our Trust exists to promote and which we recognise through our annual awards: programming that engages with the world and addresses some of the big questions of what it is to be human. Quite the opposite of the sort of programming that Murrow thought was anaesthetising audiences to the world around.
When the TV writer and dramatist Jimmy McGovern won a double Sandford St Martin Award for his much-lauded TV series ‘Broken’ about a fictional priest (played on screen by Sean Bean) serving his parish in a down-at-heel part of north Liverpool, he said “religion sounds boring to some and contentious to others. But what it is to me is a wonderful source of stories about what it is to be human and a huge part of many people’s lives.”[ii]
At a time when regular church-attendance is in decline and it can be difficult to engage people directly in a discussion of faith or in bible study, good TV can provide a conduit to a new and different way of engaging with God and profound questions around who we are and why we’re here. For these reasons I’m very pleased to have been asked to write this foreword and to celebrate an excellent series of books. I hope they will resonate with readers and will introduce new audiences to a deeper consideration of their faith, theology, and how these are reflected in the world around them. So hardly, a source of phoney happiness, keeping us supine and passive – instead, a way to engage with the world and to explore ideas which can ultimately change the world and our understanding of it for the better.
Ultimately, I think even Edward R. Murrow would have approved of that.