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Interview: Michael Wakelin head of BBC Religion and Ethics

19 December 2006

Angela Rippon’s legs on The Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special were just one of those memorable seasonal moments — along with wondering what the big film would be that year. I am ashamed to say I am terribly keen on The Sound of Music, which always used to be shown every Christmas.

I have very warm affection for Noddy Holder and the Slade song “Merry Xmas Everybody”. One of my childhood highlights at Christmas was Top of the Pops after the Queen’s speech. Although the weekly programme has been axed, it is still doing a Christmas special this year, and I hope to watch it.

I am in a dads’ band called Old Play. We are all going through our middle-aged crisis in a musical way. We do fund-raising gigs for our kids’ school, which is Roman Catholic. We have great fun. I play the bass guitar.

Last year, the Doctor Who Christmas special was big in our house. My son Tom, who is seven, was jumping up and down with excitement, and I expect my daughter will this year.

I don’t remember my early Christmases in Sierra Leone and Kenya. My first memories of Christmas are a haze of sage-and-onion stuffing, cinnamon, and freezing Norfolk. We had huge family gatherings, and still do.

I might be preaching on Christmas Eve. (I am a Methodist lay preacher.) Otherwise I am toying with visiting Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, where Archbishop Patrick Kelly is leading our service, which will be broadcast live. On Christmas Day, we always go to church and then take a big walk; we have our main meal in the evening.

The church we attend in Cheshire is very important to me. It is where I met my wife Jacqui; and my mother-in-law plays the organ.

On Boxing Day we will go down to London, where my brother is hosting a massive family gathering of 50 or more. He is a Methodist minister in Muswell Hill, and I always love to hear him preach.

We have been singing carols in the department since September, when we recorded the New Year’s Eve Songs of Praise. In fact, it was on the day after the Last Night of the Proms. It’s a big singalong in the Royal Albert Hall, with Katherine Jenkins and 5000 voices. It is stunning. These sorts of programmes have to be recorded; you would not get such a crowd out on the day.

Don’t forget that BBC Radio celebrates Christmas in all sorts of ways. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is live on Radio 4 (3 p.m.), as well as being on television later. It probably is the jewel in our crown at Christmas.

Scheduling is an issue. Our documentaries have to punch their weight. But it is not true that our programmes are always confined to the graveyard hour.

A Bleak-House-style Passion is being scheduled for Easter 2008. It will run strictly over Holy Week. It is at the scripting stage. We are advising theologically, but it is being produced by BBC Drama.

I cannot speak highly enough of an ob. doc. [observational documentary] we are running in the New Year about Helen House, the children’s hospice in Oxford. There are eight programmes going out. It has taken us to new areas of broadcasting.

My personal faith is not very relevant to the job. I am a BBC man, and have been working here as a broadcaster for 20 years. My faith gives me passion and experience, but does not cloud my judgement about what works.

The BBC has always made a point of covering all the faiths. This has not changed since I started: I think the climate is just more rigorous, and people are more aware.

I disagree with Dr Sentamu’s comments that the BBC gives Christianity more of a bashing than Islam because it can get away with it. We give pride of place to our Christian coverage. You have only to look at our programmes. The vast majority of religious people in this country are Christian.

I have been surprised at how much I am enjoying the job. [Michael Wakelin took over from Alan Bookbinder in the summer.] One of the things I particularly like is meeting representatives of all the different faiths; we get enormous support from the faith communities.

I love reading, but I am slow. One of my first major BBC jobs was working with Brian Redhead on the Good Book series. I have been enjoying Sarah Water’s books, Fingersmith and others. I also love the Inspector Rebus and Rumpole series.

As a child, I was desperate to work for the BBC, because my friend at boarding school regularly received letters from his dad, who worked there. I was completely taken by the red BBC logo.

My most significant act was writing a letter to David Winter, former head of BBC religion. It changed everything, as I asked for a job in his department.

I regret not being better at football. My blood has turned yellow and green, as I am a Norwich City fan. My son supports them now. We could have gone for Manchester United, but it can be good to support the underdog.

Martin Luther King and his life and preaching have been a serious influence. I made a programme about him that won a Sony award.

Psalm 23 has always been important to me. When I was studying theology at Birmingham University, my Old Testament lecturer used to have tears in his eyes when he spoke about it. I also enjoy looking at the harmony of the Gospels when all their texts are laid out side by side — particularly the eye-witness accounts of the Garden of Gethsemane.

I am not a terribly angry person. I tend to get cross over something silly, like my son taking ages to put on his shoes.

I love my job, but I am happiest when I am at home with my family. Am I allowed to say “cuddling my wife”?

Sometimes in the supermarket, I think: if something does not have a Fairtrade label, does that mean it is unfairly traded? But, seriously, we do buy as many fairtrade products as we can.

We spend a lot of holidays in France. My wife is half-French, and we have a big extended family out there, which is a great privilege.

For spiritual retreats, if I get the time, I enjoy Taizé and Wells Cathedral. There is also my study, where I do a lot of praying and reflecting.

Michael Wakelin was talking to Rachel Harden.

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