At the time of writing the United Kingdom is entering its 8th week of social isolation and lockdown in response to Covid-19.  For many of us, the pandemic has served as a reminder of the value of public service broadcasting. Particularly in a time of crisis, the media matters – not just because clear and trustworthy reporting and information matter, but because of the shared ‘space’ broadcasting can offer us to communicate ideas, engage and connect with one another beyond the walls of our homes.  In addition to virtual church services and new programming focusing on the many religious feast days and holidays that have fallen during the lockdown period – the Birthday of Guru Angad Dev, Passover, Easter and Ramadan, have all featured – broadcasters have been offering us “culture in quarantine” through live life-drawing, new poetry, plays, readings and musical performances. There have opportunities to exercise together and the radical enhancement of BBC Bitesize has helped parents and students keep up with homeschooling. Good broadcasting can offer succour; for a list of recommendations check out the shortlist for this year’s Radio Times/Sandford St Martin Readers’ Award.

Every year Radio Times readers vote in their thousands to choose their favourite programme exploring THE BIG QUESTIONS – religion, ethics, life, death and the universe.  And, while it really shouldn’t be allowed, this year the Trust’s Chair, the Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley has revealed a distinct bias in a column for the Radio Times published in the 16-22 May edition and reproduced with their permission below.

We need Ambridge back soon

The lull in The Archers reminds of love, loss and laughter matter

Just before the lockdown started in March, as part of the last sermon I preached in St Mary’s in Wath in North Yorkshire, I referenced the St Stephen’s Ambridge Lent appeal in The Archers, and in particular its message of kindness and positivity.  Little did I know that these attributes would be in high demand barely a week or so later.

My sermon came just after the shocking explosion at Grey Gables, and a lot has happened since then. Shula, who is on a journey to priesthood, has had her Bishops’ Advisory Panel and we won’t know what the outcome is for some time.  New episodes of The Archers are in the pipeline but we can’t hear them until 25 May, another unfortunate consequence of the current crisis. Poor Shula, waiting for news is difficult at the best of times.

“Worse than The Apprentice” was her verdict on the interviews on the selection weekend as part of her journey towards possible ordination. It made me think back to my own Bishops’ Advisory Panel (often known as a BAP: it’s not a bread roll) and I well understand Shula’s description of its intensity.

Maybe I can have a chat with the Bishop of Borset in the interim?  I’m curious to hear if he really does sound like Kenton’s impression of a bishop, because I can assure Kenton that not all bishops speak like that!

How I long for The Archers.  I have only been listening for 12 months, so I’m a relatively new convert, but now I would never dream of missing an episode, normally on catch-up while driving around the Yorkshire Dales.  I have been especially enjoying the drama’s commitment to putting faith at the heart of its storylines and I’m not remotely surprised to see it’s been shortlisted for the Radio Times Readers’ Award at the Sandford St Martin Awards for religious broadcasting. It deserves it, if only for showcasing Shula’s spiritual journey, which has captured fans’ imaginations.  First, she was accused of being a hypocrite for breaking her marriage vows.  Now she’s training for the priesthood.

Words spoken paint pictures of everyday life, and you don’t have to live in a rural setting to resonate with the human experiences of love, loss and laughter.  In every sense, it’s great radio.

I’ve actually found the recent episodes – recorded before lockdown and broadcast since – encouraging, not so much because they remind me of the life we once led, but because they remind me of the little things that matter and take for granted: human contact and all the ups and down of what it means to live in relationship with one another.

Unfortunately right now Archers fans are having to make do with repeats from the archive until the new recordings – made post-lockdown – are ready.  Patience is a virtue, of course, but I for one am finding it hard to wait. Now, more than ever, we look for the comfort of faith and in Shula’s troubled journey there were echoes of the nation’s struggle to make sense of our present difficulties. Put simply, Britain, and this Bishop in particular, needs The Archers.   Hurry back soon.