Saturday, March 10, 2012

Broadcasting and Religion - BBC 4 "Catholics"

Often BBC  religious affairs programming on radio and tv  can seem contrived or patronising or  simply ticking a religious quota box  in a file   held  somewhere in the upper echelons of BBC HQ.

BBC Radio 4's  religious affairs programme on Sunday mornings  illustrates the point. Sometimes there are some really interesting and topical  pieces discussed during the broadcast. Usually however when the announcer summarises the programme's contents I get the feeling that some items are simply there with the objective being  more to fill a  quota for a particular religion than to  covering items that are really newsworthy. That tends to weaken the impact of the programme as a whole.

 Limiting the radio  broadcasts to  one or two items that have been in the headlines during the preceding days and which  would be of considerable  interest to listeners generally  would be appreciated more than the show's current  format of endeavouring all the time to  be and be seen to be all things to all women and men.

BBC 4 TV's recent mini series of 3 programmes entitled "Catholics", on the other hand was very well done and I should like to see a similar programmes covering structures and people of other specific faiths - 'warts and all' as they say.

The first 'Catholics' depicted trainee priests' lives during their times at Allen Hall    a small catholic seminary in London's fashionable Chelsea district. The simplicity of the trainees' lives contrasted in my mind at least  with the  general affluence of SW3. The individual stories covering their  studies practising sermon giving for example and what led to their entering Allen Hall were well told with little embellishment. Allen Hall seems a haven of sense and sensibilty (thank you Jane Austen) compared with  say the wealth and bustle  around nearby Sloane Square or the Kings Road both of which areas of London are also however  admittedly fascinating which serves as a reminder about the self sacrifice that can be entailed in following a priestly vocation.

The second 'Catholics' was set in Lancashire and centred around a small catholic primary school, its local catholic parish and parish priest. The simple way in which the children were shown as  being prepared for their First Holy Communion  was of itself educational for the viewer. The parish priest came across as a dedicated man whose energy and enthusiasm belied his probable age - in his 70s I would think. The way in which the mystery of the catholic teaching about  bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ at mass was discussed with the young pupils was I thought beautifully mirrored in the discussions about  the meaning of Communion  that took place with some of the women of the church and of the world in the third and final broadcast of the series.

The third 'Catholics' was set in Westminster Cathedral and concentrated on the women who attended mass there, worked as volunteers or staff,  prayed or simply dropped in. Cleverly too the programme makers spent time on analysing the place of Mary the Mother of God within catholic tradition and belief.

Our local Jesuit parish priest who knows Lancashire well felt that the 2nd broadcast was excellent in the way it depicted catholic life in the area and at St Mary's catholic primary school, as it is, with no playing up for the wider than usual audience. For me the 3rd episode was the most interesting. Westminster Cathedral's practice is to throw open its main doors thus inviting curiosity and visits from many who might otherwise pass by. The down side  of that in theory at least is that all the hustle and bustle of the  busy Victoria Street SW1 just outside is invited in as well as the people and true to form  the  many of  interviews with visitors shown on the programme  were interspersed with  noises off like police car sirens and the rumblings of passing buses.

Yet despite that  all of those interviewed seemed to agree that the Cathedral was like a home of peace and tranquility. I agree and felt that what can only be described as some lovely sounds of familiar hymns in the background and beautiful solo sung Gospel Acclamation in the foreground just quietly  relegated the commotions of  Victoria Street to the realm of the unimportant.

The BBC interviewed the whole cross section of women from the very devout to the very critical and no punches were pulled over such issues as child abuse horrors or the difficulties with the catholic formal teaching about contraception  and its possible  effects on the scourges of AIDs in Africa. One of the interviewees who came across as a remarkable woman without whose loving and hard work the whole edifice of the daily rituals  at the Cathedral would come tumbling down, talked momentarily about her own private turbulence stemming from divorce.

Questions about transubstantiation  and the answers  by the women were as interesting as those asked  and answered by the children  in programme 2.

Well done BBC (imho).

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