TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 33: Songs of Praise

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Age: 33. Began in October 1961, the chronological twin of Top of the Pops.

Frequency: every Sunday at 6.25pm on BBC1 - known as the 'God slot' - from September until June. Repeated on Monday afternoons on BBC2.

Ratings: averages around 7 million viewers - 'That's more people than attend church in the UK every Sunday,' boasts the blurb. Audiences grow in times of trouble: during the Gulf war, Songs of Praise pulled in nearly 10 million.

Whose idea was it? Accidentally, Donald Baverstock's. Back in the days when BBC transmission wasn't continuous, the assistant controller forgot to turn his set off when the screen went dark. It was suddenly animated by unscheduled pictures of chapel congregations lustily singing hymns in Welsh. It turned out BBC Wales was illicitly using vacant airtime to cheer up London's homesick Welsh community. Baverstock was entranced, and immediately commissioned Songs of Praise.

Formula: each week the 35-minute programme comes from a different place, usually in Britain. Local Christians unite to form a Songs of Praise choir and sing seven or eight (truncated) hymns. Church scenes are interspersed with gobbets of local history, feats of derring-do and, since 1977, snatches of chat with 'real people'.

Presenters: Alan Titchmarsh, the gardener, and sunny Pam Rhodes. Both are relentlessly energetic - donning anoraks to scale medieval towers, going out in lifeboats and up in helicopters - and supremely sympathetic, coaxing out heart-rending tales of cancer-battles and bereavement.

Any famous graduates? Almost everyone you can think of: John Arlott, John Cole, Richard Baker, Raymond Baxter, Dana, Russell Harty, Thora Hird, Gloria Hunniford, Sue Lawley, Kenneth McKellar, Sir Jimmy Savile, Moira Stewart . . . I could go on.

So which hymns are sung? They are chosen by the programme-makers in consultation with local people. In Top 10, traditional favourites such as 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind' and 'The Lord's My Shepherd' jostle with happy-clappy fare like 'Shine Jesus Shine'.

Can we join in at home? Yes, thanks to the new, karaoke-style subtitles.

It's armchair religion then? Well, you can see why some vicars don't like it: Songs of Praise is Christianity without the difficult, spiritually demanding bits. There's a short prayer at the end, but you hardly see an altar - it's usually obscured by the brass section. Sin doesn't get a look in. And the programme is as much a celebration of national heritage as faith. 'It is a travelogue too,' admits producer Chris Mann. 'And we're proud of that.'

Theme tune: distinctly churchy - organs and trumpets wrapped round a rushing stream of a tune. The re-graphics which accompany it, however, verge on the naff: softly focussed fingers strum a guitar bathed in a warm, orangey glow. The 'S' of Songs is as curly as a treble-clef.

Rivals: the coast is clear now Sir Harry Secombe's Highway has reached the end of the road. Various religious-programmes - Summer Praise, Sweet Inspiration - fill in off-season.

Social function: vital, according to Chris Mann. 'When you look at the news, it's murders, rapes and muggings,' he says. 'Songs of Praise looks for the good news. We need to be reminded that there are decent people out there.'

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? The show tends to reinforce John Major's vapid vision of Britain - village cricket, warm beer and spinsters bicycling to evensong. It shows up the Church of England for what it is: Anglo-Saxon, middle class and predominantly female, underpinned by frumpy humbles making jam and doing the flowers. This is truest of pretty places; oppressed areas like the Wirral and Northern Ireland provide grit. And although it is 'fiercely ecumenical' within the Christian churches, it largely ignores Britain's other faiths.

More prosaic function: it keeps the BBC's outside broadcast units busy between covering sports events.

The bottom line: how good is it? The singing's good. If you like hymns, Holiday, Wish You Were Here and Blue Peter, you'll like Songs of Praise. A national treasure.

(Photographs omitted)