THE TELLING VOICES by H. R. F. KEATING
TELEVISION, though supposedly the most popular of the ways of telling us things, seems somehow thickly unresponsive to popular pressure. It changes. But the changes seem to occur mysteriously, as the weather changes in obedience to vast general Jaws almost as apt to produce one result or its direct opposite.
The laws that alter television are supposed to be our wishes and needs, but the actual changes often seem as remote from our day-to-day hankerings and hates as a particular spell of sun seems divorced from our garden's need of rain. Yet perhaps television can be radically different if it serves a different nation.
Perhaps television in a Catholic country could be radically different from that in a materialist country (and for that matter television in a
11 Moslem country is also likely to be a thing apart).
Possibly the notion that there can be a wholly different sort of television. in the ideal if not always fully in reality, may be Some encouragement to us under the battering of the simple reflections of "Coronation Street," the yak of the commercials, the synthetic gunshots and sentiments of the Westerns, the solemnities of the current affairs magazines.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I interviewed at some length, in the Catholic country next door, one Bob Quinn. Mr. Quinn was once a producer in the Religious Department of Telefis Eireann and has under his belt a number of highly praised documentaries, both for that department and others.
But a couple of years ago he became a leading figure in one of those splendid barn...ys that have illuminated the history of Irish television like so many rockets along a darkling coast. He walked out of his job. and I talked to him as a private individual living in a cottage in the heart of Irish-speaking Connemara.
So we had better regard the soft-spoken. bearded. midthirties Quinn with all the suspicion owed to a flaming radical. But yet he is a man who has given considerable thought to what television is and what it means, and even to the mightier question of what religion is and what it means.
At the time of the fireworks he believed he was acting purely from a sense that Telefis Eireann was selling out to what he calls "the Coca-Cola world." Now, he says, he sees his revolt as being animated by a sense of religion. Telefis Eireann he sees as lacking the
viewpoint that ought to pervade the man of the postVatican II world.
This puts him. as you might expect. right in among the fiery ones of the Church today and his vision of a Catholic country. I suspect, would not be that of a good many bishops, archbishops and cardinals.
1 imagine him as seeing a truly Catholic Ireland as a land of dizzying moral tensions, where each and every individual was animated by a neversleeping awareness of responsibility and where cold and mighty winds were for ever blowing. I he reality. of course. is not quite like that.
So is Ireland a Catholic country'? Well, its priests and politicians constantly say so, and, more disinterestedly, even the most casual visitor will see evidences by the hundred of the principles and practices of Catholicism inextricably entwined in the warp and woof of national life.
So let us look at the part that television. that monster of influence, plays in Ireland and in that high-floating idealised Catholic country that hovers above her. First, it will be plain that since a nation's television in large part reflects the life of that nation, television in a Catholic country will be much more religion-filled than the deliberately neutral television of a non-Catholic country.
On Telefis Eireann it is so filled, whether in the adventures of that perennial family "The Riordans" or in the frequent references to God and the Church in discussion programmes of all sorts.
Indeed, to see programmes of this kind would enlarge the experience of most viewers over here. And it is the idea that television is essentially a provider of experience that is one of the major insights of Bob Quinn and the two other distinguished producers who resigned with him and afterwards wrote a curious and interesting book.
Complex and deep plunging philosophising on the nature of the medium is one of their fortes, and, though that may seem a pretty airy-fairy activity to most of us, in fact it gives them a•basis that must have enabled them, even when their work happened to be fairly trivial, to know which way they ought to be going.
But. conversely, in a Catholic country it might very well be argued that seeing life as lived in non-Catholic countries must be harmful. Should all such programmes be banned? In one sort of Catholic country they would he. The trap that lies yawning but leafcovered for any nation with a large Catholic majority is to emphasise those aspects of religion that point to the afterlife. It is to say: "My children, here you suffer and are poor. But keep up your religious duties, confession once a month and no thefts above the value of two and sixpence (pre• decimal), and an eternity of bliss awaits you."
I exaggerate. But perhaps not a lot. In the not so long ago something like this was surely often preached in Ireland. And in such an atmosphere any hint that things could be otherwise would naturally be resisted to the utmost.
As might be expected in this imperfect world. there have been moments in Ireland when a Church that has not been loud in discouraging people to cease "to operate on the formalities" (I owe that phrase to Bob Quinn) has appeared to rush in to protect sheep-like minds from not very dangerous experience.
It took Mr. Quinn, for in stance, a good deal of persuading back in 1965-66 to get permission for television Mass to have the celebrant facing the people.
Most interesting of many similar episodes was what happened inside Telefis Eireann in the aftermath of IIiimanae Vitae. A ticklish time, of course —but a subject that a tele vision company in a Catholic country could hardly ignore.
Telefis Eireann decided to tackle it by way of a major documentary on Authority in the Church. It was to be produced, of course. as a public affairs programme. Not unex pectedly. various unquiet noises came down from high places in the Church. but the project went on.
Then, abruptly, a decision came from the DirectorGeneral that the programme was to be transferred to the News Department. To an outsider that may seem not exactly world-shaking. But to anyone with a little knowledge of the way television services work it has considerable significance.
A news department is aimed at finding out what is happening immediately. It uncovers. A current affairs department is oriented to finding out the why of things. It discovers.
Here, then, is seen the danger when the Church is strongly powerful and at the same time not always willing to trust her faithful.
So what of that ideal? I think the concept of television as experience will give it to us most nearly. In an ideal Catholic country the television service would be not only protected from the influence of purely commercial interests, but would be offering its audience. besides a decent whack of relaxation. a series of experiences that would widen and deepen their life of morality. An ideal Catholic television would be a never-ceasing force of awaitness,