Prime-time religion to hit Channel 4: Series to feature cannibals and neo-Nazis bucks trend of marginalisation

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The Independent Online
THE WOOLLY jumpers and friendly clerics of the gentle world of religious broadcasting are about to be elbowed off-screen. Next month, Channel 4 launches a prime-time 'religious' series, Witness, which features cannibalism in the South Pacific, neo-Nazis - who deny that the Holocaust took place - meeting a survivor from Auschwitz, and a study of the 'Jerusalem Syndrome' whereby the devotion of pilgrims to the holy city drives them mad. E

Michael Grade, controller of Channel 4, is so confident the new series will be a ratings winner that he has scheduled itTHER write errorETHER write error in midweek peak time, at 9pm on Thursdays. This decision is in stark contrast to the rest of British television, which is rapidly marginalising religious programmes.

'Religious broadcasting is a disaster area and whether God is dead or not, it has done its damnedest to kill him off,' Nicholas Fraser, head of talks and religion at Channel 4, who commissioned the series, said. 'The BBC is locked into an outdated view of religion, centred on the Church of England, while ITV is putting religion on on Sunday morning, which everyone knows is a dump-slot, a death-slot where no one will watch the programmes.'

While more people watch religious programmes than attend football matches, there is still a reluctance to watch programmes of an overtly religious nature, according to Mr Fraser. To steer around this, the new series avoids organised religion and concentrates on personal belief, including a film by Brian Keenan on his life of freedom after his years as a hostage in Beirut, and a programme exploring the secret, often sad lives of vicars.

The Gospel, according to Mr Fraser, may be 'weird, embarrassing, humorous and disrespectful, but never indifferent'. He is not interested in 'religious broadcasting' but programmes about religious belief. He cannot legally transmit anything blasphemous, but has commissioned an entire programme on blasphemy for the second series.

'Religious broadcasting may be in retreat on other channels, but not on Channel 4,' Mr Grade said. In the last year, ITV has stripped its Sunday evening of Harry Secombe's Highway in favour of Hollywood movies, and the BBC has shunted its entire religious broadcasting department to Manchester, merging posts and making staff redundant.

The BBC's religious programmes budget is six times Channel 4's, but the BBC does not have any midweek prime-time religious programmes. Will Wyatt, managing director of BBC Television, said last week that Songs of Praise was safe, but there is widespread fear in the BBC that religion does not figure highly in plans for the rest of the decade.

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