TV and the new face of God

Religious programmes are adopting a daytime-TV format in their battle to escape graveyard scheduling slots. By Peter Stanford

Religion on television currently enjoys a legally-protected status which can be both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, it means that fashionably secular commissioning editors are forced, usually against their better instincts, to acknowledge that God still does mean something to their audience. They have to find slots in the schedules for programmes on spiritual matters.

But set against that obligation is the resentment and ill-grace it generates. So try as the religious affairs department of the BBC and the small number of like-minded independent producers might to make material that stands on its own merits, they find it automatically relegated to graveyard slots - usually on a Sunday, precisely when the natural audience for such programmes is on its knees in church.

The religious programme makers have tried every trick to break free of the stereotype that regards all their output as variations on a theme of Songs of Praise. Documentary and discussion strands such as Everyman, Heart of the Matter and Channel 4's Witness take their specialist area into broader pastures with wider ethical resonances, while BBC1's FutureWatch, presented by Michael Buerk, linked religion with science and embraced an X-Files techno-obsessiveness.

But most effort is currently being directed towards making religion into light entertainment. So in September, The Heaven and Earth Show will become a feature on BBC1 on Sunday mornings until Advent. There's a bit of cooking with Rabbi Lionel Blue and Antony Worrall Thompson dishing up "soul food". There's a smattering of interviews on faith and motivation with household names such as Jo Brand, Uri Geller and John Cleese carried out by Catrina Skepper, one-time star of the Cadbury's Flake commercials. There's debate and news, plus the show's equivalent of the novelty singing nun - Sister Wendy Beckett musing on another old master. And playing Richard and Judy on this live Sunday morning hybrid are Simon Biagi, better known for his skills with a paintbrush in Real Rooms, and Amanda Reddington, once of GMTV.

"We represent a definite gear change for religious television," says series producer, Chris Loughlin. "Too much programming is directed towards those who are conventionally religious. We want to appeal to those with nothing more than an underlying feeling that there is something more to life than meets the eye. And we don't want to be taking our agenda from "church" news or churchy topics. That's being done well enough elsewhere. We want to look at the big questions of life as discussed by people everywhere and present them in a way that is not an objective examination, but a heated, participatory debate."

In such a catch-all formula, The Heaven and Earth Show's debt to day- time television is obvious. But there are signs that Loughlin may also have borrowed from the BBC's youngest terrestrial rival, Channel 5. In its first year school report, produced by the Independent Television Commission back in May, Channel 5 got top marks for news, children's programmes and religion. In this last category, the network's output, made by the experienced documentary maker, Roger "Death on the Rock" Bolton, was praised as pacy, fresh and full of vitality despite, as the ITC bluntly put it, "a lack of financial resources".

Over at the BBC, there is more money and so some of Channel 5's bright but underfunded ideas - such as My Sunday, the weekly celebrity "me and my God" slot, or Crossfire, the phone-in debate on moral matters - have been upgraded and added into the mix at The Heaven and Earth Show. More interestingly, Channel 5 has shown that such material can not only win plaudits but, especially in the case of its Christian rock music programme, The Alpha Zone, substantial audiences. Despite being broadcast on a Sunday morning, this show, presented by Jennifer Hughes, regularly notched up one of Channel 5's higher viewing and audience-share figures.

Loughlin is coy about acknowledging any direct debt, but admits to a wider link. "While other channels have been branching out in their treatment of religion for some time," he admits, "at the BBC we have kept within rather narrow confines."

Channel 5 certainly has demonstrated that with fresh input and an unashamed avowal of belief, religious programmes can make an impact with audiences. Whether The Heaven and Earth Show goes one step further and proves that religion can make good light entertainment remains to be seen. While there have been previous successes, such as the BBC's award-winning Heart and Soul in 1996, there have been many more failures, several associated with presenters with a good deal more experience and public profile than the likes of Biagi, Reddington and Skepper.

There was BBC's recent and much-panned It's Later Than You Think, a late- night Sunday series presented by Annabel Giles and Robert Elms. With guests such as Barbara Windsor, Mandy Smith and Jeremy Beadle, it struggled to give religion and ethics a look-in amidst a tired cocktail of comedy and topical debate. And ITV has in the past tried giving Gloria Hunniford, Sue Cook and Melvyn Bragg what were in effect chat shows but with a religious dimension.

It now, however, appears to be veering back towards a more high-brow product with the announcement last week that Bragg is to front Christian Millennium, a major new end-of-the century series which will follow 2000 years of church history in 20 hour-long episodes of reports and studio debate. Having almost single-handedly revived science as a fashionable subject on the airwaves, Bragg now seems set to work his particular brand of magic with religion.

Some insiders at the BBC, though, detect more sinister motivations in the rush to use the religious affairs department's budget to make programmes that dilute their special mandate with all-singing, all-dancing concepts that arguably belong elsewhere in the corporation. There is talk of plans to cut back religion to a few core areas - notably worship programmes in the Songs of Praise mould for radio and TV - and move the rest of the department's current output into the wholly secular arts and entertainment empire, based, like religion, at BBC Manchester. In this scenario, initiatives such as The Heaven and Earth Show take on the air of manoeuvres in a forthcoming take-over battle.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital