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Holy humour

19 July 2013

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SOME Vicars with Jokes (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) was not, as one might have expected, a digest of the proceedings of the recent sessions of the General Synod, but served up exactly what it said on the tin. The model was last year's Old Jews Telling Jokes, and the comparison was illuminating.

The elderly American Jews, male and female alike, told almost uniformly filthy jokes, while the British clerics, though happy to refer to matters of a sexual nature, were much more restrained (the best joke of the evening employed the rudest language).

As a measure of clerical openness to the vagaries of life, and ability to entertain, it offered an admirable riposte to the widespread assumption that ordination involves surgical removal of the funny bone. It was not just vicars: the term was used in the media-sense of anyone with back-to-front collar. Incumbents shared the stage with chaplains and ministers of other denominations, and the event was dignified by the participation of a diocesan bishop (retired).

I suspect that the material will be recycled more in after-dinner speeches than as sermon illustrations. In one respect, the performers will have felt completely at home: recorded as simply as possible, the venue appeared to be an echoing hall with a tiny and generally unresponsive audience.

Relentless cheeriness was the hallmark of Rashid Khan, our guide to A Very British Ramadan (Channel 4, Monday of last week), an introduction to Channel 4's daily Ramadan Diaries. This year, Ramadan comes at the most difficult time: the length between sunrise and sunset is as long as possible, making the fast from food and drink exceptionally challenging. But what we saw were people, young and old, excited by its approach.

It was impossible not to draw comparisons with our keeping of Lent: Islam integrates religious observance with ordinary daily life in a way that most British Christians would consider reserved for excessive enthusiasts. Khan met a wide range of Muslims eager to talk about how the holy month brings them spiritual discipline, builds up their relationship with God, encourages them to greater hospitality and charity, and binds them together in the nightly feast.

Keenly awaiting 30 days of getting up at 3 a.m. to pray is, to say the least, counter-cultural; how challenging for us to have so many neighbours delighted to live out their faith with such commitment.

There was a different approach to food in Great British Budget Menu (BBC1, Thursday of last week). Three top chefs were confronted by the food poverty of many UK households, sharing for a few days the lives of a pensioner, a couple with four children, and a single mother with a teenage daughter.

After paying necessary bills, about £2 per head per day was left for food. The chefs surprised their hosts with a nutritious and balanced diet, and served up a great banquet for £1 a head - but then they spent all day shopping, and had a lifetime's skill. More impressive was their outrage at the conditions many ordinary people experience in our wealthy country, and their resolve to use their celebrity status to challenge them.

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