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TV review: The Prime Minister, The Queen, and Isolation Stories

15 May 2020


The Prime Minister, hands clenched into fists, addresses the nation on Sunday evening

The Prime Minister, hands clenched into fists, addresses the nation on Sunday evening

ARE you getting the hang of it? For many clergy, the pandemic has opened entirely new territory: the home production of worship videos broadcast to the faithful (”home” because our kindly bishops have been consumed by anxiety about our exposure to the bugs that they just know are waiting to pounce from the reredos).

This unfamiliar exercise has awakened many of us to issues of TV technique never previously con­sidered: above all, the unnatural awkwardness of addressing not a live congregation, but the dead and unresponsive eye of a video camera.

Not all priests are flamboyant show(wo)men, but even the most aus­tere of us are aware (or should be) that at the altar or pulpit we are leading a body of people in a living mutual act of communication. How­ever muted and contained, there is always a response not just to what we say and do, but to how we say and do it. So, we now watch the TV with the attention of fellow pro­­fessionals: what is successful, and what less so? What can we emulate, and what avoid?

Last week brought us two ex­­amples to compare and contrast; I confine myself to considering their technique, not subject matter. On Sun­­day, the Prime Minister addressed the nation about the future phases of response to Covid-19. He seeks to convince us of the impor­tance of his message, and how much we must take it to heart, with an emphatic, staccato manner of speech (exactly like the way many clergy preach).

The words are given added em­­phasis by punchy hand gestures, with the hands frequently clenched into fists. While in not aggres­sive, the subliminal suggestion was clear: this was war, and we must gird up our loins to wage it together. The problem is that it sounded to me — as do the vicars who employ similar emphasis — as though the person whom they are really trying to persuade is themselves. The bluster hides the uncertainty within.

In contrast, the Queen, addres­sing the nation and the Common­wealth on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, could not be less showy, and was entirely untheatrical: steady, calm, unhesitating, and undemons­trative. The sheer practical technique required to sustain this over four minutes is something that we can only now appreciate. But the sen­timents clearly come from deep within. She utterly believes them herself; so we believe them, too.

ITV’s Isolation Stories (Thursday of last week) revealed how they had produced the four splendid short dramas broadcast on Monday, Tues­day, Wednesday, and Thursday. Ab­­­solutely following lockdown stric­tures, the actors took (via Zoom) crash courses in positioning cam­eras, lights, and microphones, and press-ganged their household mem­bers into duty as cast members — exactly like live-streaming Sunday mass from the kitchen table.

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