ONCE a year, there is a slap-up jolly at Lambeth Palace where I fill my face (on your behalf, of course) with delicious comestibles and fine wines at the Sandford St Martin Awards for excellence in religious broadcasting (Comment, 8 June). It offers a chance to see, first, what the profession itself considers to be its best religious programmes; and, second, to find out the degree to which a panel of judges diverges from, or endorses, my own assessment.
Lambeth’s Great Hall is, each year, transformed into a kind of upmarket night club: the windows are blacked out, dramatic lighting colours the vast roof, and our senses are lulled with wall-to-wall mood music, the effect undercut only by the serried ranks of old books.
The awards ceremony is a terrific blending of ancient and modern, the thoroughness of the presentation showing how seriously the Trust takes its work, the draw of Lambeth Palace ensuring a remarkable gathering of top actors, directors, and production teams in an annual celebration of the importance of religion on our screens.
It might be an unpopular and unfashionable sector, but its practitioners could not be more passionate and committed, and the event serves brilliantly to encourage them. It is good to see how wide is the range of faiths and cultures represented.
This year’s winners prove once again my annual, basic gripe: that there are virtually no truly religious programmes on TV any more, in the sense of a programme that directly commends religion. They are all more or less oblique: documentaries about religion or religious practice, expositions of morality or ethics.
Having said that, it was an encouraging, excellent crop this year. The shortlists in all the categories were impressive and inspiring — and, in some cases, surprising. A special award was given, on its 60th year, to Blue Peter, whose seriousness in devoting significant time to matters religious admirably demonstrates its conviction that this is a really important element in the lives of millions of British children.
In the main TV section, the runner-up was Isis: The origins of violence, where Tom Holland gave a historian’s perspective on the enormities perpetrated in the name of religion in our own day, tracing an unexpected line of descent from the Terror of the French Revolution to Wahabi intolerance to Islamic extremism.
The overall winner was Broken (BBC1), the drama series featuring Sean Bean as an exhausted RC priest, worn down by demons from the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of the Church he serves, and by the miserable indignities visited on the lives of his parishioners.
This was harsh and bitter TV, and yet it was shot through by the sense that, for all its failures truly to embody a loving and forgiving God, the Church’s faith and prayer and sacraments are real, and perhaps essential.