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Behind the scenes

17 June 2016

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AS FAR as producing this column is concerned, the climax of my year is the annual Sandford St Martin Awards for Religious Broadcasting. Not merely for the pleasure I derive from munching the delicious supper and imbibing fine wine at Lambeth Palace’s state rooms, but, more professionally, from learning which programmes the judges have decided are the best of the entries, and comparing that with my own assessment.

Each year, I delight in devoting an entire week’s column to praising the essential work they do to protect and promote that sadly endangered species: the religious broadcast. I describe for your benefit the glittering event, and explain why I consider them to have given the prizes to the wrong people. This year, however, they did not bother to invite me; so I’ll say no more about it.

This leaves me space to undertake an important exercise in compare and contrast. Having recently been elevated to prebendal dignity at St Paul’s Cathedral, I had the honour, by prescriptive right, of being present at last Friday’s National Service of Thanksgiving for the Queen’s 90th birthday, and I found it fascinating to relate the experienced to BBC1’s live coverage (Friday) of the event.

Which of the two states was the more complete? This is, of course, essentially a theological issue, and anyone with a decent doctrine of the incarnation would say that there is no debate: being corporeally present must trump any more mediated condition. But being a member of the Great Chapter means that, while you enjoy a privileged place in the procession, and occupy your own stall in the choir, nowadays all the action takes place under the dome, and you cannot see anything. The TV coverage approximates far more closely to that other divine state of the All Seeing Eye — indeed, in its aerial shots, almost literally so.

As we waited in the south aisle, we could only guess, from the distant response of the crowd outside, which member of the royal family was arriving and being welcomed; TV viewers could see everything, becoming, via technological mystery, far more closely present. In particular, I looked forward to finding out from iPlayer why the Queen was more than ten minutes late; but the presenter, Huw Edwards, did not seem to know either, and, not benefiting from our professional experience of having to hold things together while the congregation waits for the bride, offered us, in lieu of information, a rather uninspiring example of vamp-till-ready.

Many aspects of the broadcast were excellent: the sound engineers’ splendid account of the music; watching David Attenborough’s delight at reading Michael Bond’s inconsequential reminiscences; the Duke of Edinburgh’s fascination at the teenager Martin Bartlett’s astonishing piano playing; and the Chancellor, George Osborne’s, bemused incomprehension at the Prime Minister’s exhortation to take no thought for what ye shall eat, or what ye shall put on.

But there is no substitute, at the end of the day, for being able to tell your grandchildren that, whether you could see anything or not, I Was There.

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