IN THE movies, things are seldom what they seem. The new film Angels & Demons is mainly set in the Vatican, but what we see on screen (bar a few clandestine shots) is a film-set rigged up in a Los Angeles parking lot.
The see of Rome was wary about permitting a work by the author of The Da Vinci Code (with its allegations of papal cover-ups and dodgy doctrines) to be filmed on its premises. Would this new movie undermine faith, and provide hostages to fortune for anti-clericalism?
Its custodians need not have worried. Angels & Demons revels in the glorious excesses of Roman Catholicism — but the real baddies are the scientists. In any event, is it entirely wise to refuse house-room to a film that is going to get shot, whether the Pope likes it or not? As Michael Corleone puts it in The Godfather II: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
Some churches treat the media as a threat. But how does Christianity commend itself if it refuses to engage with those who, at first sight, may appear hostile to the faith?
The view taken by the clergy at Lincoln Cathedral, which substituted for Westminster Abbey in The Da Vinci Code, is that if, in the wake of the film, people are drawn into the building, then an opportunity arises for that sacred space to speak to them. Tourists may become pilgrims.
In the words of the Very Revd Alec Knight, the Dean at the time, The Da Vinci Code is “balderdash”. Nevertheless, the evidence is that filmed churches have a significant increase in the number of visitors.
Obtaining permission to film at Lincoln was not easy. The chief executive of Lincoln Cathedral, Roy Bentham, said that, having commissioned a theological paper from the Precentor, the Cathedral Chapter had two substantial meetings in which the matter was thoroughly discussed. The Bishop of Lincoln was also consulted. “The conclusion was reached that the Christian faith has, over the centuries, withstood far more serious threats than this one.”
Of course, not every movie is based on such well-known material, read by more than 40 million people. Seeing the “shooting script” is therefore a must before agreeing to anything else.
In the case of television programmes, Ofcom, the regulatory body, has guidelines about ensuring that any organisation (such as a church) is fully informed about the content of the programme and also the context of the specific scenes that involve its buildings.
Many church scenes in films are of a purely conventional kind, depicting the occasional Offices. Sometimes, the church can be one of the stars, as in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And most clergy can provide wedding stories similar to the film’s make-do ring at the first wedding, the stammers and spoonerisms of Rowan Atkinson’s début marriage service, or the punch delivered to Hugh Grant in St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London.
The experience of this film certainly has not deterred St Bartholomew’s, which already had Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves under its belt. Since then Jude, The End of the Affair, Shakespeare in Love, Amazing Grace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Other Boleyn Girl, and the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes film all contain scenes shot there, as well as several television series.
Although the content of scenes is scrutinised by church officials, St Bartholomew’s takes a broad view. Human sacrifice (foiled) was allowed in one scene, but the Revd Mark Young, Assistant Priest at the church, felt that “language and nudity might be a problem.”
Churches, he said, have to decide whether they are closed or open communities. “Life should be in the church, and all life can be in the church.”
The result is that St Bartholomew’s gets a great deal of repeat business, and, in the process, has accumulated a body of experience in handling such requests, so that the worshipping life and ministry of the church is not compromised.
Filming funerals can be tricky. At St Peter’s, Thorner, my previous parish, we had a fortunate escape: a television company had proposed the filming of a Ken Dodd funeral-sketch in our churchyard, but then had dropped the idea.
Ken Dodd was to have played the vicar, with mourners lined up on either side of the grave. He would have said: “We have gathered here today to pay our last respects to someone who was the indisputable master of pantomime,” whereupon those to his right would have shouted: “Oh, no, he wasn’t;” and those to his left would have retorted: “Oh, yes, he was.”
Because we, as a church, did not have to decide how appropriate this behaviour would have been, among graves regularly visited by bereaved families, we never developed a filming policy. But the bigger problem has always been where to look for direction in these matters.
Stay for the closing credits of a film, and you will see thanks given to, for instance, the Film Office of Birkenhead or Braintree for their co-operation in making the film; they are offices that have built up some expertise in handling these requests. But churches have to find their own way through the technicalities, legalities, and moralities of whether to allow filming to take place.
Diocesan officials tend to shrug shoulders, unaware of any guidelines, and remind incumbents and churchwardens that it is their decision. In the same way, the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division offers no outlines.
Mr Bentham is not alone in believing universal guidelines would be difficult to draw up, however, as circumstances can vary so much. The Da Vinci Code was “a massive undertaking”, he says, whereas Lincoln Cathedral in the recent film Young Victoria, appearing once again as the double for Westminster Abbey, required quite different handling.
Perhaps churches could take a leaf out of the book of stately homes. While welcoming the experience that a nine-week shoot for Mansfield Park brought for Newby Hall, North Yorkshire, the overall advice from Stuart Gill, the administrator at Newby, is not to underestimate the impact of a shoot.
“Check how many crew and actors are involved. Also, the sometimes peculiar hours they work and the times of access required by them. Parking can be quite an issue. With a large crew, and the vehicles needed for technical equipment, costumes, props, canteen, and green room, this needs careful planning.”
In some cases, if a church decides to close its doors to visitors during filming, it may need to consider how much loss of revenue is involved. Rosslyn Chapel, which maintains itself from the fees levied on visitors, allowed the makers of The Da Vinci Code access only after the tourist season was coming to an end.
Money is often important. Church bodies tend to be shy about revealing fees paid to them. As a rule, most companies will make an offer, but are open to haggling.
The location fee paid by companies depends on whether it is television or film — in general, film companies pay more. It is a good idea to have a payment schedule, which means that a proportion of the fee is paid at the time of signing the contract, at the start of shooting, and before the final day.
What about disruption to worship? It is often the case that worshippers have temporarily decamped to alternative premises, as they do when a church is undergoing building work or redecoration.
“There are usually ways around this,” Mr Bentham says. “Sometimes an act of worship was transferred to another part of Lincoln Cathedral. Occasionally, an area of the building would be temporarily out of bounds.”
Stipulations, such as no noise from the film-makers during divine worship, are all part of the mutual respect required for such undertakings. The maxim is to give people good notice.
Of course, it is not just the contents of a film or the potential disruption of services that concerns ecclesiastical providers of locations. What all churches are agreed upon is that care for the fabric is paramount. Furniture may have to be moved, but a contract should ensure that the use of heavy equipment, such as trolleys, is restricted to areas unlikely to suffer damage. Harm to, or interference with, the fabric is strictly forbidden.
“It’s really lucky that we’re a television crew,” a producer once told me, while shooting a programme in our village. “Those movie crews are just animals.” Not so: any fears we had at Ripley Church, which recently hosted scenes in a Bollywood movie, 1920, were unfounded, despite the filling of the building with smoke.
Other churches bear testimony to the sheer professionalism and care taken by film and television people, something that needs to be matched by church officials. All who were interviewed said that they would welcome more filming in their buildings.
A contract with a film or TV company should cover all the points mentioned so far. While a church will remain responsible for its own health and safety policy, the contract will contain guarantees by the film company to cover any liability, loss, or damage.
Our own contract specifically stated that “the company shall not attempt to film any scenes at Ripley Church which are inappropriate within the context of a church, or are likely to cause offence to the parishioners or those watching the film.” We will have to see if they have kept faith.
Judging from other churches’ experiences of being filmed, the chances are that they will. But it remains to be seen whether the Vatican can be persuaded that film companies are angels rather than demons.
The Revd Stephen J. Brown is chaplain to ITV (Yorkshire).
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