TELEVISION / Bleeding hands, not bleeding hearts

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ABOUT halfway through Network First's (ITV) film about stigmatics, strange red marks began to spontaneously appear on my forehead. Sceptical colleagues insist this might have something to do with the fact that I was beating my head violently against my keyboard at the time but, honestly, some people wouldn't believe anything. I think it was a message. Christina Gallagher was talking at the time - an Irish lady who had weeping wounds on her hands and feet - and who took this as evidence that 'a chastisement will come upon the earth'. 'Those who rebel against God,' she added with pious relish, 'will be totally wiped out.'

I prefer my divines not to talk as if they're auditioning for a Schwarzenegger movie, but others do not share this taste. Christina Gallagher has a small but growing following in Ireland, none of whom finds it strange that God should torture one of the devout, nor that he should choose to advertise through the medium of blood and unhealable pain. It won't be long, I guess, before someone's doing a roaring trade in Gallagher's blood-soaked bandages; later in the programme a well- spoken Catholic lady revealed that one of her most treasured possessions was a scab from the hands of Padre Pio, the celebrated Italian stigmatic. It might not look like much now, she explained, but it wouldn't half appreciate in value when he was beatified.

John O'Regan's film reserved its own scepticism about this phenomenon for the final reel, a decision which you could either applaud as open-minded or grumble at for its side-show calculation (don't give the game away too early). So while in the early sections you were invited to marvel at Heather Woods, a stigmatic visionary of the Holy Celtic Church (and to defer the average punter's diagnosis that she was a bleeding nutcase), it was only in the final part that the makers handed over some highly pertinent information.

The first reported stigmatic miracles, for instance, coincide with a dramatic change in the pictorial representation of Christ, from a bloodless image to one in which the pain and torture of crucifixion is graphically depicted. The location of the side-wound, which is unspecified in the gospels, switches from left to right between stigmatics, while the wounds in the wrists and feet tend to replicate an image the sufferer has seen. The American priest who, unusually, displayed wounds above the wrist had a crucifix in his church which also, unusually, placed the nails there. If this is a miracle, it seems, it is a miracle of human psychology. This conclusion doesn't necessarily make frauds of those who display the wounds of Christ but I would have thought it does call into question their religious humility.

I guess Network First just about qualified as Easter programming, though of a rather peculiar sort. Not as peculiar as that available on BBC, though, which is leading up to Easter in as inoffensive a manner as it can contrive. Inoffensive to secular humanists, that is. Both The Easter Stories (BBC 1) and Saint of the Day (BBC 2) opt for an awful jocular Christianity as a way of jollying us round the embarrassment of a naked expression of faith. The religious observance they offer is not to Christianity but to the shallow modern virtues of 'relevance' and 'irreverence'.

So, in The Easter Stories, you get comedians retelling the events of the Crucifixion from an unusual perspective: Mike Harding as the tavern-owner who rents out the room for the Last Supper (not a bad gag but done better already by Mel Brooks), Helen Lederer as Mary Magdalene plugging her book Jesus and Me on a chat show. Saint of the Day has a bit of fun at the expense of some of the more arcane saints in the calendar. Brian Glover started it off by expressing blokey scepticism about Guntram, and last night Neil and Glenys Kinnock took exception to the ascetic lives of Gwynllyw and Gwladys. The word 'irreverent' appears in the Radio Times billings for both programmes. What next? 'Superstitious' science documentaries and 'ill-informed' news bulletins?