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Review of the year 2023: TV

22 December 2023


A young girl watches BBC television coverage of the Coronation

A young girl watches BBC television coverage of the Coronation

IS CHRISTIAN UK finally over? The 1953 Coronation — greatly abetted by its sensational televising — sparked a national revival of faith and commitment. Poor deluded fool, I had always hoped that the next crowning would similarly reawaken ancient religious feeling, unlock the essential significance of the sacral and symbolic in both our personal and public life, and speak recognisably of deeper, older, and more visceral truths than the quotidian attention played to political ebb and flow.

TV coverage of The Coronation of HM Charles III , and presentation in St Giles’s Cathedral of The Honours of Scotland — all channels, but above all BBC1 — was, indeed, thorough, with many programmes setting the scene in advance of the event. And yet, and yet . . . although the essentially religious nature of these national events received respectful attention, and homework had, on the whole, been properly done, that core sense of recognition from presenters and commentators was lacking.

Both King and Archbishop emphasised how the ancient rites were properly adaptable to contemporary — especially Anglican — Christianity, and could speak to and embrace all people of good will. Recall: the focus on burdensome service rather than personal glorification; the widest possible inclusion of cultures and racial backgrounds; the honouring of other faiths and religions. But all was observed with fascination: a gorgeous spectacle that we do better than any other nation, from outside.

It ignited wonder and emotion, in those who like that sort of thing, and yet the coverage implied that the religious elements actually engaged only a small and diminishing percentage of the new King’s subjects. Should TV — especially our national broadcasting network — merely record as accurately as possible the opinions and concerns of the majority? Or should it encourage minority truths that bring us to deeper realities?

Of course, the BBC must not, absolutely, evangelise; but 2023 has provided steady evidence of its deep-seated reluctance to commission programmes that take religion, especially Christianity, seriously. Christmas and Easter services, Songs of Praise, the lightweight Pilgrimage franchise — this is not remotely adequate coverage of an aspect of life that still engages many, many people. Today’s UK actually includes huge amounts of religion, if not mainly classic C of E.

Programmes have been much happier recounting some of the far too many examples of faith’s providing a cover and smokescreen for the vilest and most abusive, especially the Jimmy Saville docudrama.

Amid the encircling gloom, there were a few pinpricks of light: in EastEnders, Lola’s deathbed baptism was treated as deeply serious and meaningful; a few more dramas and even comedies treat characters’ religious allegiance and practice respectfully, even admiringly.

But 2023 TV, overall, presents a nation in which religious faith is (apart from condemnatory or murderous fanatics) more and more marginalised: a quaint heritage survival that is central to the tourist industry, but that now speaks a largely incomprehensible language and sees its general resonance with people’s deepest aspirations and allegiance disappearing fast.

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