Praise the Lord] And go borrow the donkey: Elisabeth Dunn watches her parish prepare to star on BBC television

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ON AN average Sunday morning the bells of St Mary the Virgin in the sleepy village of Powerstock, Dorset, summon about 20 God-fearing parishioners to worship while the rest of the community goes off to a car boot sale or the garden centre. But for this Sunday, Palm Sunday, the BBC has conjured up a choir of 100, suspended the regular organist, shipped in its own musicologists to direct the choral effort and, in no small way, divided the community against itself. Songs of Praise has come to town.

The vicar, the Rev Gregory Page-Turner, is taking it very well. He is accustomed to media attention. Years ago he used to live next door to Derek Nimmo in Earls Court. Later in his career he was parson at Woodstock (also the scene of a Songs of Praise during his incumbency), to where he returned three years ago to officiate at the wedding of the Marquess of Blandford. So he does understand about being in the public eye.

Powerstock's response to this honour has been predictably mixed. At an advance meeting called by the BBC in the village hall, boycotted by those who felt their spiritual privacy to be under threat, the media folk met the locals, who were invited to nominate their favourite hymns for Village Praise (the current offshoot of Songs of Praise), which specialises in reflecting 'the realities of modern country life' in villages around the country.

There was a slight scuffle over Abide With Me, a BBC front-runner, but the locals won and the hymn was excluded. The vicar declared that he wanted nothing to do with the practical arrangements, and that Beatrice Sanctuary had taken over the organisation, an attitude deplored by Mrs Sanctuary, the upright and energetic secretary of the Parochial Church Council. She had a word with the parson: 'I said I didn't mind doing the work but I didn't want to be spoken to like that.'

She it was who, on a bright February afternoon, had first encountered an advance party of film-makers on the hunt for locations. She showed them the church and her videos of earlier films about Powerstock, which are legion. That clinched it, really. Powerstock was chosen.

Tickets were to be allocated only to regular worshippers. News of the forthcoming celebrations spread throughout and beyond the benefice and Mrs Sanctuary's telephone line started to heat up.

She refused all but those she knew to be attenders until it became clear that relying on regular worshippers would produce a congregation of about four-and-a-half pews. Askerswell, one of the five scattered parishes in the area, declared that it had no intention of applying to the churchwardens of Powerstock for permission to attend the service.

As for the choir, Mrs Sanctuary was soon trawling foreign territory in urban Bridport for the complement of 40 sopranos, 20 altos, 20 tenors and 20 basses. The string quartet playing Oh Sacred Head and linking passages throughout the service, was less of a problem and was three-quarters drawn from the benefice. Little was seen of the organist, a man of few words, but his feelings were thought to be keenly wounded.

Whispers of mutiny circulated among the bell-ringing team, of which I am proud to be a member. Our captain announced that if the BBC intended bringing in its own ringers, he would go up the tower and take away the clappers. In the event, the worst he had to look forward to was the instruction that Pam Rhodes, Village Praise presenter, would give the ringers' starting signal, pull a single stroke on the treble and then move elegantly from the ringing chamber to the nave, reciting a portrait in words of Powerstock's history.

'What I don't understand,' said the captain, 'is, they choose a place because it's simple and country, and then they want to import everything.'

The hard-nosed finance men of Powerstock had seen the BBC coming. Vivian May, sometime proprietor of a London secretarial college, a man of boundless ebullience, an unlimited capacity for Scotch and known to the world as Fido, appointed himself negotiator. Like many parishioners, he remembers the golden days when Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced was filmed in the village, and houses in the neighbourhood were rented out at pounds 500 a day. 'I've asked Mr Christopher Mann, producer at the BBC, how many noughts am I to put down?' Fido said. 'Is it pounds 5,000 or pounds 50,000? We've got a tower restoration to pay for.'

When Mr Mann reasonably observed that television licence payers might feel the tower of St Mary the Virgin was not their responsibility, and anyway he was dealing with the treasurer of the PCC and not Vivian May, Fido went into overdrive. 'Now look here,' he told the producer, 'The treasurer of the PCC is a good Christian woman. You're dealing with me now and I'm the best pheasant shot in Dorset.'

In the end, they settled for a couple of noughts plus a bit for the heating.

On Monday morning, three giant BBC lorries drove into the village. Clusters of Volvo estates blocked the lanes while the crew captured slices of village life. There was a brief but frantic search for an east-facing casement window from which a small village girl might recite a poem to the morning sun. The only suitable location to be found proved to be Mrs Sanctuary's lavatory window, with the child perched upon the bathroom chair.

A couple of donkeys from a village the other side of Bridport were led into the school yard to provide Palm Sunday colour. In the evening, the crew trundled off to Poorton, another of the benefice's tiny parishes, to film the children of the Rev Page-Turner's confirmation class. This proved quite difficult because the vicar was by now getting the hang of acting, and developing perhaps too warm a relationship with the camera. There was a sense in the community that balance was being sacrificed.

Happily, it was not entirely lost. The BBC, like generations of film- makers before it, discovered Mary Legg, who daily drives her herd of moody cattle along the highway from field to milking parlour. To the visiting lensman she is a living reminder of a style of agriculture pursued at Cold Comfort Farm, and she is reputed to be the richest heiress in all Powerstock. Moira Kean, director of Village Praise, reckoned that with a new-born calf tottering about the yard, she had struck 24-carat gold. She didn't reckon on the calf's mother, which let fly an explosive bowel movement - all over the lady from London. So much for cinema verite and the realities of modern village life.

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