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Religious broadcasting - the wave of creativity that is defying secularism

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November 24, 2016 23:28

Many years ago, I had a testy conversation with a commissioning editor for what was called Religion and Talk. He is now a famous clergyman-broadcaster but at the time was at the helm of programming at one of the British television networks.

I had developed a concept with the late, great producer Desmond Wilcox about the three Abrahamic faiths inside a square mile of London. Desmond, his wife Esther Rantzen and I lived in the north west of the city and had come up with the idea of filming a year in the life of a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest and an Anglican vicar. Said the commissioning editor: ''I can't think of anything more boring than subjecting audiences to watching rituals and dreary clergymen. My wife is Jewish and I can tell you she would recoil in horror at the very idea of a series with rabbis.''

And so it was that we decided to defy the man from Religion and Talk. I will never forget having a telephone conference with Desmond one evening with Esther doing the washing up in the background and shouting suggestions, such as: ''We ought to confine the film to Lord's using the chapel there and the four places of worship in the immediate mile around the cricket ground.''

We went ahead with our project anyway; I raised money from various sources and eventually compiled our material, which we called Congregation NW8. It moves me to this day that, in the process of putting it together, I lost St John's Wood Synagogue's Rabbi John Rayner and Reverend John Slater as well as Desmond. But we did something in which we believed.

It was therefore a revelation to attend this year's annual Sandford St Martin Awards for religions broadcasting and to see the vast array of nominated programming.

The world of religious broadcasting has come a long way since my struggle with the man from Religion and Talk. Considering the secular mood of Britain since the Second World War, accelerated by the popularity of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, the breadth of material on offer at the awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace on May 29, hosted by the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, gives testament to a wave of creativity that defies secularism.

For the first time the Sandford Awards - which have been given since 1978 to recognise excellence in broadcasting on religion, ethics and spirituality - this year included a new, Children's category.

The winner was Children of the Holocaust, an animated project made by Fettle Productions for the BBC about those as young as five being separated from their parents by Nazi terror across Europe. The actual survivors telling their stories to animation is a compelling emotional juxtaposition; the impact of brief interviews with them at the end of the animation is palpable.

I met two Jewish sister-survivors at the Lambeth Palace event and have to confess was staggered by the fact that the entire Fettle Animation team was not Jewish. Considering that the Holocaust has in recent years been overtaken in the public and creative discourse by the controversies arising from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it was notable that the creative team on this winning project had such a passion for a story of Jewish survival.

The runner-up in the new Children's category was Children of Kabul - an Uncertain Future, a BBC Newsround special exploring the hopes, dreams and fears of children about to experience an Afghanistan without the presence of American or British troops. Also brilliant and moving, this programme could be said to be equal in stature to Children of the Holocaust; the other entries had merit and I do not envy the task of the judges, Hilary Robinson, Tim Herbert, Beth Hewitt and Jayne Kirkham.

It was noted in the introduction to the event that ''it is easier to build a child than to repair an adult,'' and that one of the judges hoped for future programming about children's mental health. In this world of food banks, bedroom taxes and child poverty right here in ''booming'' Britain, I agree.

On the way to the event I listened to Steve Hewlett's The Media Show on BBC Radio 4 and one of his interviewees was the Corporation's chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet, who discussed British secularism. In many interviews, she says she is a person of faith and at City University in October explained that she grew up in a traditional Catholic home in eastern Canada.

At the awards ceremony, she received the Sandford St Martin Trustees Award for raising the profile of religion in broadcasting. Sitting by me was the BBC's Mark Mardell, who every year hosts the January programme that tries to predict the big stories to come.

Doucet, in her acceptance speech, reminded us that on that New Year programme she had picked God as the one most likely to influence events in the coming months. She reminded us of the horrific events in Pakistan and France as 2015 dawned, motivated by religious fanaticism. A vignette of her memorable work was shown but I was sorry there was no clip from her superb Easter 2014 piece on Father Frans, the Dutch-born Catholic priest in Syria who had served the Christian community there for decades and who was assassinated just before Holy Week 2014.

I remember her saying he was a ''towering figure'' and providing an unforgettable tableau of the suffering of her fellow Christians. Doucet amused the audience with an anecdote about a man in her childhood home in Canada who predicted she would end up a ''nun or none,'' but she has by no means evolved into ''none''.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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