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Radio: Unexpected passion

11 April 2012

by Edward Wickham

INSPIRATION during Holy Week can come from strange quarters. Who would have thought that, with five hours of The People’s Passion (Radio 4, Monday to Friday), and sermons galore, the most articulate and impassioned words about religion should come from Baroness Williams?

You did not have to agree with her, but, as a spokesperson for the spiritual in politics, Baroness Wil­liams on Belief (Radio 3, Monday) was fearless and forthright. The welfare state was a Christian vision, a kind of Second Vatican Council for politics; the abolition of gram­mar schools and the development of the comprehensive system was a recognition that every human being is divine.

About the inconsistencies in her Roman Catholic loyalties she made no apologies. She is a Roman Catholic because of its “inter­nationalist, non-racist” nature, not because of its stance on women priests or contraception. And she is not going to hurry to the con­fessional and admit sins against the authority of the Pope. Rather, the RC Church should confess to her on some of the issues that, in her opinion, it has got so wrong.

It was bracing stuff: her father’s presents of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, and the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, bestowed when Shirley was five years old, have clearly had some effect — although perhaps not that intended by the Thomases.

And so to The People’s Passion, Radio 4’s ambitious season of plays, music, and discussion, running throughout Holy Week. While the format of Nick Warburton’s dramas was not new — stories of betrayal, trial, resurrection, and redemption expressed in contemporary terms — the decision to set these within a cathedral will have created a frisson of familiarity among those who have spent time in such an institution.

The cathedral voluntary choir, for instance, can be fertile ground for intrigue and politics; and so it proved in Warburton’s world. Some storylines held the attention more effectively than others: the one involving the retiring verger and his disabled daughter was particularly affecting, and brought the cycle to a fitting conclusion — one of Anglican ambiguity rather than Pentecostal confidence.

As prologues, Radio 4 pro­grammed Cathedral Conver­sation, in which politicians, clerics, and art aficionados admired and reflected on a particular building. It is not an easy thing to do — to walk into an ancient building that you know well, and expatiate effusively to your companion via a micro­phone. So the prize for keeping our attention went to Loyd Grossman at Durham Cathedral: all those years on the television show Through the Keyhole have stood him in good stead.

The soundtrack to The People’s Passion was a newly commissioned anthem from the composer Sasha Johnson Manning and the poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Skilfully created to encourage participation from hundreds of UK choirs, the anthem surely creates a record for the largest number of individual performances in its “opening week”.

This was a laudable project by the BBC, which continues to invest impressive thought and resources into Holy Week broadcasting on the radio. Like the chocolate that cur­rently fills our larder, we are going to have to make it last.

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