Radio: Virginity? No stigma

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A theology student once told me that the Paraclete - an alternative title for the Holy Ghost - can be defined as the presence of Christ's absence, a piece of information with which I have since wowed innumerable dinner-parties. Anyway, John Shuttleworth, Sheffield's king of the Yamaha organ, now stands in a similar relation to Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus. Following an article by Paul Donovan in last week's Sunday Times, complaining in advance of the profanity of Michael Redmond's comedy - which works on the premise that the Holy Family were Irish immigrants to Palestine - James Boyle, Radio 4's new controller, decided to pull the series and put on repeats of The Shuttleworths instead.

Among other things, Donovan cited jokes about Jesus's halo - the actual line was that it kept Eamon awake at night - and an exchange in which a Roman centurion "sneered" at the Virgin Mary "Who's that? I wouldn't give her one," to which Eamon replies, "Nobody ever has, in fact."

What's interesting about both these jokes is that they rely on the assumption of Christ's divinity and Mary's virginity - hence the mystery, never explained, that Eamon is Jesus's older brother (that point clearly went over the head of one newspaper this week, which referred to the programme as Eamon, Younger Brother of Christ). And it's hard to see where the problem is in having a Roman soldier expressing sexual distaste for Mary, whose attractiveness to men is not, one would have thought, an article of anybody's faith. The joke here is about the way men talk about women, and the peculiar doublethink that allows many of them to pray to a Virgin while treating other women with contempt. In any case, if we're not going to have Roman soldiers displaying irreverence towards the Holy Family, does that mean we are going to condemn programmes that show them doing stuff like, oh, I don't know, beating up Jesus and putting a crown of thorns on his head?

The basic point should be clear: to use religion as material for a joke is not the same as failing to take it seriously - and that's true even when the jokes involve sex and swearing (Eamon was, after all, being broadcast way after any conceivable watershed in the Late Night Opening slot).

Still, Paul Donovan's feelings aren't the real issue. The issue is James Boyle's reaction, which looks like either pathetic timidity and over-sensitivity to newspapers, or ill-judged authoritarianism. Either way, it doesn't sound like the Radio 4 we know and love.