The Weekend's TV: There's going to be trouble in paradise
Make Me A Christian, Sun Channel 4; Britain From Above, Sun BBC1
Monday 11 August 2008
The Church of England has enough on its plate without worrying about a new television programme, but if the denizens of Lambeth Palace were watching Make Me a Christian yesterday evening, they should have been depressed by what they saw. The Channel 4 series invited a diverse group of sinners from the Leeds area to sample a Christian life for three weeks under the mentorship of a quartet of dog-collar wearers, and potential viewers would presumably be, if not exactly ripe for conversion, then at least intrigued by what modern Christianity had to offer. Ten minutes into last night's opener and most of them would have fled from this particular path to righteousness. The programme dived head-first into the sort of prescriptive, preachy and judgemental Christianity that puts people off in the first place.
Take Martin, the most voluble of these reality-show pilgrims. A gap-toothed, beer-bellied biker-cum-tattooist, Martin was just the sort of argumentative outcast that Jesus would have loved – or still would, depending on your point of view. Having attended a sadistic-sounding church school in his faraway youth ("as much love on offer as a Fred West patio party"), Martin clearly had issues with Christianity. Somewhat less clearly, but surely discernible to a reasonably intuitive minister, was that Martin was crying out for answers. Instead, he got the Rev George Hargreaves, who shouted Martin down like an uninspiring primary-school teacher. Martin duly acted like a seven-year-old and headed for the door, and your sympathies went with him.
And then there was all the confiscation of personal effects that the mentors considered obscene, such as the kinky personal photographs and soft-core lesbian erotica belonging to Laura, a schoolteacher. The process seemed dictated by the need for conflict, or at least action, but it pointed up a fundamental flaw in Make Me a Christian. This was Christianity as a code of behaviour. But do you become a Christian because you act like one, or do you act like one because you believe in a living Christ? Any theological issues were always going to struggle for airtime in a series tied to this format, a series that doesn't know whether it is being Kim and Aggie for the soul, a Gillian McKeith for moral flab, or just a novel twist on Ladette to Lady.
The only female mentor here, the Rev Joanna Jepson, was perhaps the most impressive, since she attempted to explain to Kevin, a local lothario, the pitfalls of sleeping with a different woman every week while maintaining an oblivious (until last night, at least) long-term girlfriend. Kevin looked unconvinced and, with a little off-camera prodding, admitted that he quite fancied the Rev Jepson. But before he could get to work with his chat-up lines, he was ambushed with a surprise visit to the STD clinic, looking, not inappropriately, like a rabbit caught in the proverbial headlights. Kevin was ushered off by a nurse to give a urine sample and, having had time to reflect that he had had possibly more unprotected sex than the whole Catholic Church put together, he returned the specimen pot empty.
The popular idea of the Christian God is that He looks down at us from the skies, which is what Andrew Marr was up to in the first instalment of his new series, Britain from Above. Now, the last time I saw Marr in the flesh, he was editor of this newspaper and standing on a table to address the staff. I like the way he used to hop on to chairs or tables to speak, as if he was emulating the political heroes of his youth. By the way, when was the last time you saw a politician doing that?
The Independent was berthed on the 22nd floor of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf back then, so blow me down if Marr wasn't stuck up another east London skyscraper, this time addressing a circling helicopter. You might discern some sort of Olympian complex in all this, except you might also have watched last year's unexpectedly moving Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain, with its very un-Olympian message that the preceding decades have been a shared journey for us all. Britain from Above isn't in that league. It almost feels like a jolly, a chance to be Peter Snow for the day. Marr was choppered hither and thither and even leapt from a small aircraft, the wind distending his gums so that he morphed disturbingly into Richard Branson. Maybe all middle-aged men mucking about in the troposphere look like Richard Branson.
Last night's opener was titled "24- Hour Britain" and was chock-full of computer graphics allied to GPS tracings of the daily traffic across and around the UK of aircraft, shipping, telephone calls, internet connections and so on. Very novel and all that, and it succeeds in illustrating Marr's thesis that, invisible to the eye, Britain works like a vast, complex and well-oiled machine. Needless to say it all looks very different on the ground.
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