BACK when the Sixties started to swing, the BBC launched a new religious programme: Songs of Praise. It was first broadcast in October 1961, giving viewers some variety between Juke Box Jury (1959) and Coronation Street (1960).
So it was that a crowd of us gathered in Westminster Abbey to record the 60th-anniversary programme. The ancient interior, which has hosted everything from coronations to prayer meetings, was artfully floodlit with soft colours, its famous chandeliers dimmed like old jewels. Specially commissioned “60th Anniversary” banners adorned the pillars. A platform in front of the Lantern’s ornate gates featured the choir Vocal Creation, and the conductor, Ken Burton, in a sparkly black shirt.
The organist, Matthew Jorysz, was offstage at the console. Celebrities in serried ranks (socially distanced, of course) graced the first few rows of seats. Aled Jones bounded on to begin the evening schedule, no sign of fatigue from having been at it all afternoon — and the day before, too, for the Christmas show. He calls to mind one of his predecessors, the late Sir Harry Secombe, complete with one announcement in Welsh and that very long place name (Llanfairpwl . . .).
The format may have undergone some changes over the decades, but Songs of Praise is strong on continuity. Its heart is still the telling of everyday faith stories and the singing of hymns, both congregational and solo. It is devotional and accessible without the formal structure of a service, and truly ecumenical.
How helpful this was during lockdowns, and for the housebound; it is no surprise that it is so popular and is the world’s longest-running religious music TV show. Here were many of the presenters from down the years, including a snippet with Pam Rhodes (nearly 400 shows), and Sally Magnusson. Laura Wright performed “Make me a channel of your peace” with a robed chorister. YolanDa Brown accompanied Monique McKen for “Blessed Assurance”.
Then a doting couple were introduced, Trevor and Christine Ransome, who have travelled all around the country to attend recordings and, by extension, are part of the family. Not only that, but they married 60 years ago, and they met through hymn-singing. Jones chatted with them, asking whether Songs of Praise was the secret to a happy marriage. They were sent on their way with flowers and a BBC hymn book.
Jones and Katherine Jenkins made an equally nice couple later, when they duetted on “Be Still” — she all star power and sequinned microphone to his showbiz baritone.
Between takes, there was a round of applause “to heaven” for the late Robert Prizeman ARSCM, who had died the week before. He was the show’s musical director from the mid-1980s, composed the catchy and recognisable theme tune, and founded the boys’ choir Libera. “He would have approved of that,” Jones remarked in a reflective moment over the final clapping, people being central to the whole Songs of Praise idea. Then on with the show.
We were mainly there for the hymns — four in total — and the joy of unmasked, communal singing once more. “Lord, for the years” is enjoyable enough, but the enjoyment can wane slightly on the fourth time of asking.
Jones had a great intro for the Old Hundredth, though — a congratulatory message from the Queen, which was also printed in the booklet. And so to “All people that on earth do dwell”.
The last hymn was “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer”. It had to be, ending: “Songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”
The Songs of Praise 60th-anniversary programme will be broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday 3 October at 1.15 p.m. A special episode looking back at moments from the past 60 years, Where “Songs of Praise” Began, is on BBC1 this Sunday (26 September) at 1.15 p.m.