TELEVISION Mary Craig The "God spot" on television has always been something of an Aunt Sally — a target for believers and unbelievers alike. The idea that religious television is a mixture of "Songs of Praise" and parsonicaf vicars intoning an epilogue lives on.
Not that one dare say anything against "S. of P." However its critics may revile it, it has its devotees and the BBC's efforts to jettison it last year in favour of something a hit classier merely sent the audience ratings for "Stars on Sunday" shooting skywards. The "Beeb" soon came to heel. "S. of P." is assured of its place in the sun: the formula may be soothing syrup, but it works.
Many of the television companies (not all) have beim trying to improve the quality of their religious output. Thames and ATV put out some excellent late-night series, but these are strictly for insomniacs, and are generally lumped together by the undiscerning viewer as epilogues. What's in a word? Just tr'y the word "epilogue" on yourself and feel the chill set in.
But changes are in the air. Over at the BBC they have a fairly new Head of Religious Programmes — James Dey, a restless, energetic Scot. As he talks of plans for the future, one catches something of his enthusiasm and hope. He is quite clear about the dimensions of his task and about the road he wants to take.
"There's always been a feeling that a lot of what the Churches do can't and shouldn't he probed by the camera. It's the idea that as the camera zooms in, grace disappears. So religious broadcasting has taken the easy option and settled for endless bouts of talk sometimes exciting talk, dangerous talk, radical talk. But talk can he just an excuse for inaction. That's the pattern we've got to get away from." Religion must be made more popular, he says. (I can just hear the chorus of protest — another one selling the Church down river, watering down the Gospel, etc.) By "Popular," James Dey means "of the people" in the good old Latin sense, and he is merely expressing the angst of so many radio and television producers that their output is inescapably middle-class.
"We want," says Mr. Dey firmly, "to make religious programmes more religious -that is to say more celebrative and less cerebral." It's a good phrase and he emphasises the point with another good one: "We must seek the affirmative rather than the argumentative."
There's no question of adopting the freakish or the trendy, but of looking forward to a more authentically religious television in which the intuitive is not neglected. ,"We have so often made the mistake of imagining that God can be presented as a logical argument."
The Viewpoint documentary series will continue to cater for the intellectuals. The Sunday 6.15 spot is the area marked out for the new celebrative and intuitive approach.
Because we live in a magazine-minded age, the magazine format will be used to attract a wider audience. The new magazine programmes will deal with specifically religious insights in a non-debativc way "and with a degree of excitement in the presentation."
See You Sunday, the magazine aimed at young people, has been highly successful and shortly after Easter will be transferred from the presumed wilderness of BBC-2 to BBC-1. Same mix of news, views, art, books, song and dance as before, but more attention will he given to the question: "What does all this have to do with the wider Church?" Time will he given for depth-discussion of the issues raised.
Middle-aged squares over 25 will have their magazine programme too. As their interests are a hit cloudier, the form of this magazine is still to be decided.
When See You Sunday finishes its run, an as-yetunnamed celebrity will star in a new series based on the idea that there are some things in life so serious that they can't and daren't be taken seriously. The programmes will range over some powerful subjects, one of them death. A blend of humour and gravitas, says Mr. Dey.
So, has the knell sounded for the serious talk? Already there are many who complain that television's most grievous sin is that it trivialises what it touches.
Is there to he more trivialisation? On the contrary. In the new series there will be high-quality talk, lots of it. What there will not be is formal debate and the cutano-tnrust of discussion. Those were the professional games which tended to exclude the viewers. As I quoted Leslie Crowther as saying in my article of December 21: "The pundits talk to each other, but there's no one talking to us."
James Dey is blessed with his staff: there is a wealth of young talent in the BBC Religious Department David Kennard, Peter. Armstrong, Malcolm Stewart, Bill Nicholson, to mention but a few.