I KNEW that The Sunday Break had “arrived” the moment I saw the cartoon in a big circulation daily newspaper. It showed a TV repair man looking at a set while the lady of the house said: “There must be something wrong. I keep getting The Sunday Break on Mondays.”
Religious programmes have been going for a long time — About Religion for nearly nine years and The Sunday Break for nearly seven — and this is quite an achievement. Yet you wouldn’t at first sight call them popular programmes — after all they are neither horse operas nor soap operas.
They have included some first-rate — and deservedly popular — items. I shall always remember “Christ In Jeans” and “Image of Majesty” produced by Michael Redington for the About Religion series.
Then there was the award-winning film about the preparation of a nun called “Love’s Calling”.
My own work has been mainly with editions of Sunday Break and Living Your Life, and exciting work it has been.
You may recall earlier The Sunday Break with traditional jazz and discussions. I shall certainly never forget the long arguments before each programme with the crowds of teenagers, or the series on the various churches with Dr. Heenan, the Archbishop of Westminster, and the Bishop of Woolwich standing up to tough questions from young agnostics.
Or the superbly moving passion play “A Man Dies” performed by Bristol teenagers.
It is remarkable that as the number of possible viewers has increased, year after year these religious programmes have maintained a sizeable audience. I couldn’t pretend to tell you why.
In one sense I couldn’t care less about the “ratings”. You see, we have never devised religious programmes with the sole object of getting good ratings.
We have never said “Let’s put a little sex in The Sunday Break or a little sadism in About Religion just to get the viewers.” Anyway I hope that by now viewers can distinguish between the honest programme and the programme that is just a botch-up of spicy ingredients designed to entice viewers.
This doesn’t mean that religious TV should be dull. We have tried to be lively and interesting without sacrificing our basic concern with Christianity. In another sense I would be mad to say I didn’t care about the ratings. I’m delighted that more people are watching them. I’d like everyone to watch them — provided we didn’t have to drop the serious purposes.
Religion ought not to be a hole in the corner affair. Some people, including some church people, make it seem like that — as if it were some Sabbattarian segment cut off from the rest of life.
Religion may be like that, but Christianity is about the whole of living. That is why our programmes try to relate to everything in life.
Any man (most children, too) worthy of the name asks himself certain important questions:
“Is there a being or a mind behind things?” “Why and how am I different from an animal?” “Why do I worry about justice (or at least injustice against me)?” “Why is the world a bit of a muck-up?” “Is it worth doing the right thing?” “What is the right thing anyway?” “Do I live on after death?”
Basic questions — the kind the Book of Genesis asks and the Bible sets out to answer. Basic that is, not just to churchgoers but to all men. That is why I am interested in the ratings — if high ratings mean that religious programmes are not just hole-in-the-corner affairs for churchgoers only. I’d be interested to know whether this increase means that many people are helped by the way we discuss these basic questions.
But television does not stand still. It is always in ferment and neither producers nor viewers should get settled down, hardened or congealed into a permanent groove.
The TV producer — religious or otherwise — who does not see the sands of time running out on his favourite format is a dull, safe, unimaginative man indeed. The ratings may be good, but there must be new ways of doing things, of touching men’s minds and hearts.
Religious television must try to do several kinds of jobs. One is to provide quite literally, a service for people who would normally go to church. The regular morning services are not intended as a substitute for going to church, since clearly nothing can replace actually joining in worship with other people.
But there are many people ill in hospital, too old to go out regularly or looking after young children who are prevented from going out. For them the televised church service is a great value.
One of the by-products of church services on television is that people can see Anglican, Free Church and Roman Catholic services, and I believe that this has contributed to a greater tolerance and a more genuine understanding of our different ways of worshipping God.
Other religious programmes should try to state as clearly and lucidly as possible what Christians believe — give a Christian viewpoint on our common life and above all provide for the great debate about the meaning of things.
I would expect some changes therefore — experiments in style — in About Religion and The Sunday Break. I hope they will provide an opportunity for new young writers. It would be good to have a children’s programme on Sundays which adults could also enjoy.
Whatever we do in the future, I hope the rise in ratings means that people have realised that these programmes are not just a kind of religious propaganda — but honest programmes on things that really matter to everyone.
About the author
Penry Jones (1922-2004) was a producer and religious advisor at ABC, head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, then Religious Programmes Officer at the ITA. Upon retirement, he became chairman of the Iona Heritage Trust