I HAVE woken up to the Today programme every weekday for more than 50 years. First the news, and then the usual mix: evasive politicians, pushy presenters, and know-it-all correspondents, plus the weather, sport, quirky features . . . and, of course, Thought for the Day.
Like millions of others, I’m a Today addict. It is probably unique in world broadcasting, and it is not surprising that its large and influential audience jealously guards its standards and criticises its perceived shortcomings.
The latest such criticism centred on Thought for the Day, a three-and-a-half minute reflection on a topical issue from a religious or faith viewpoint. The veteran Today presenter John Humphrys dubbed it “deeply boring” (Comment, 3 November), and The Times, of all papers, questioned in a leading article whether its days were numbered.
Clergy leapt to its defence, but the great Today public had little to say, it seemed. I suspect that most of us like the programme as it is, thoughts and all.
I WAS editor of Thought for the Day for eight years, and, after I left the BBC, contributed to it for another 20 years. From that, I can, I think, make three assertions.
The first is that Thought is not in its context conspicuously boring. Lord Harries, Mona Siddiqui, James Jones, and Angela Tilby, for instance, are not boring, and Indarjit Singh, a regular contributor, was once voted Today Personality of the Year by the listeners.
Second, Thought for the Day does not, and never has, lost the programme audience. Some of us like it, and some of us loathe it, but it is part of the mix.
Third, if, as is alleged, half the population is not very interested in religion, I should have thought that even fewer were interested in the racing tips (which seldom win), or the winner of the Booker Prize (a book that only a tiny proportion of them will read). Yet they, too, are part of the precious mix. So, what’s the problem?
STAYING with broadcasting, there was a significant anniversary on 2 January. The BBC radio Daily Service completed 90 continuous years on the air (Comment, 5 January). For more than 30 years, it was broadcast from All Souls’, Langham Place; and, when that was not available, St Peter’s, Vere Street, both conveniently near Broadcasting House. It is now usually broadcast from a church near the new BBC Media Centre in Salford.
Holding a live broadcast in a church open to the public, which those London ones were, was always a bit risky, and most of us who led the Daily Service regularly had the occasional surprise. John Lang, then Head of Religious Broadcasting, was taking the service when a man in the gallery of All Souls’ started shouting out that he was Jesus Christ.
John remonstrated with him afterwards, and the man proved that he wasn’t by punching him on the nose.
My own memorable moment was in St Peter’s, and was totally unexpected rather than violent. The BBC Singers’ tasteful introit evoked a sudden explosion of newsprint in the back pew. A rough-sleeper emerged from the pages to complain forcefully that they had woken him up. My wife, listening at home, thought it was a choir member complaining about the music, but I assured her that no BBC Singer would use that kind of language — not in church, anyway.
The Daily Service played its part in keeping the BBC switchboard busy. Sometimes, it was the “wrong” tune to a hymn, or an alleged politically nuanced prayer. On one occasion, however, it was the Bible reading.
A young producer read a particularly juicy passage from the Song of Solomon. The order for the service said “Wisdom of Solomon” (from the Apocrypha), 5.1-8. He could not find “Wisdom of Solomon” in his Bible, but there was “Song of Solomon”; so he decided that it must be a typing error in the production office.
Song of Solomon 5.1-8 is quite explicitly erotic, especially in contemporary English. The switchboard supervisor told me that half the complaints were about such sexual material in a religious service; the other half wanted to know where they could get the book.
Hark, the robin sings
I WENT into our local greetings-card shop at the end of November to buy my Christmas cards. There seemed to be plenty of them, right up to the ceiling — anything you could wish for: red robins, snowmen, reindeers, holly, and mistletoe. Everything, really, except what I was looking for.
I approached the shopkeeper. She knows me mostly for buying mildly rude birthday cards for family and friends. “I’m looking for Christmas cards,” I explained. She looked at me as though the poor old soul had finally lost his marbles.
“Yes,’ she said, “we’ve got thousands.”
I agreed, but said (trying not to sound too pious): “I mean ones that are actually about Christmas — you know, the birth of Jesus.”
“Oh, you mean religious cards. They’re over there”, she said, pointing to an isolated corner. And so they were, and I secured a few boxes for my modest needs.
I’m delighted to receive the jolly cards with robins on, but I really don’t want to send them. I know where to get evangelistic Christmas cards, shouting the message in headlines. I just want gentle, tasteful reminders of what is, for me, the most significant event of human history. I hope somebody will go on producing them.
Somebody else’s house
AT A church that shares its post code with the vicarage, a pre-Christmas service was interrupted by the sudden entry of an Amazon delivery driver.
“Anyone expecting a parcel from Amazon?” he called out.
No one responded, and so he left, frustrated. It could have been an acted Gospel parable: “I bring you good tidings, but you don’t seem to want them. I’ll take them to somebody else.”
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.