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Failure of the BBC

25 April 2014

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THE duties of Holy Week require, of course, from all clergy, the year's greatest commitment of time, energy, and emotional engagement. In 2014, however, here at St Mary Abbots, this was greatly exacerbated by, first, the time I spent combing through the TV schedules seeking programmes relating to this very heart of the Christian year; then, second, by the effort required to channel my frustration at discovering so very little that could seriously be said to fall into this broad category.

Yes, on Easter Day, an admirable sung eucharist in Leicester Cathedral was broadcast in Easter Worship from Leicester (BBC1), an inclusive liturgy rooted both in its community - Indian dance was woven into the service - and the great tradition of Western Christianity in its exuberant performance of a Mozart mass.

Yet that was created and choreographed by the cathedral's staff. Where are the serious explorations of our faith, the creative retellings of the word's greatest narrative, the accounts of the infinite riches of Christian belief and practice at this most crucial season of the year?

I am not prepared to count last Sunday's Songs of Praise. That happens anyway, and my criticism of that populist compilation of Christianity-lite is well known.

I see this as, above all, a BBC failing. ITV and Channel 4 do no better (apart from Channel 4's daily two-minute Lent Diary, which this year focused on the testimony of Black Pentecostal Christians - admirable, but too short and narrow to satisfy much spiritual hunger), but they do not have the BBC's public remit, or licence revenue, or self-satisfaction of considering themselves the world's finest broadcasting company. Theirs is the lesser fault.

It is the BBC that should lead. Why so blind to the artistic engagements with our faith, in poetry, drama, painting, sculpture? Why does it hold so fervently to an exploded secularist viewpoint? Even the PM has the courage to proclaim the centrality of our religion in Britain's common life (and thanks for the plug, Dave).

I did enjoy Holy Saturday's Messiah at the Foundling Hospital (BBC2). It followed a twin track: Tom Service showed how this fitted into Handel's artistic development, while Amanda Vickery focused on Thomas Coram, so moved by the plight of children left to die in Georgian London that he determined to care for them.

Even for those familiar with the outline, excellent points were made. Many pious people refused to support the idea: surely such a provision would merely encourage promiscuity? Handel's new form of oratorio moved great music away from the aristocratic confines of Italian opera to the far more democratic and Protestant expression of art, participatory, in English - and far more suited to a mercantile nation.

Coram's eventual success, after 17 years of struggle, represented a new engagement with the struggles of the poor. It was not all good: the actual performance of Messiah was not entirely authentic - didn't Handel lead from harpsichord or organ? I sensed directorial compromise: let's not upset people's expectations too much, however wrong they are.

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