The bunnies are back. So is the mountain of chocolate shaped to look like… er… bunnies. So, it must be Easter again.
This also means that a bit of religion hits the screens for a few days in a nod to the Christian story. But, if you think religion just makes an appearance at the obvious times of the year, you’d be mistaken. Religion isn’t just for Easter; it’s there all year round. Just have a look at what’s on the telly or radio and that pesky religious dimension keeps whispering its presence. From the news from Mosul or Moscow to Michael Buerk’s Moral Maze, from Call the Midwife to Kate Bottley’s recent BBC programme Alone with the In-Laws, religion hangs around the human issues and dramas like a fragrance. You can’t understand the world without having some grasp of religion.
The Radio Times Readers Award is presented each year at the Sandford St Martin Awards, which reward excellence in programmes dealing with religion and ethics. This year’s shortlist tackles the fun, farce, fear and facts of human life in all its variety, complexity and ordinariness.
The range is impressive. Sally Phillips’s one-off documentary A World Without Down’s Syndrome? demonstrated that ethical issues are never abstract as she explored them through her relationship with her son, Olly. Meanwhile, Nicky Campbell manages to survive Sunday after Sunday bringing opinionated guests to argue about The Big Questions. Often heated, sometimes enlightening, the programme can’t be accused of being bland.
A World Without Down’s Syndrome?
Yet, at the other end of the spectrum we’ve gota first – because an advert has been shortlisted. Of course, this is no ordinary advertisement because it’s an Amazon advert that surprised Christmas audiences by showing generosity and friendship between an imam and a vicar – Muslim and Christian.
“Commercials” tend to be commercial for a reason. But advertisers can also use them to convey a particular line. Recently, Budweiser and others caused a stir in America when they used the ad slots during the first Super Bowl of the Trump presidency to promote a pro-immigra- tion message. But to my mind when Amazon aimed at our wallets via our hearts at Christmas they did so even more boldly, offering a positive image of religious friendship when so much of what we see on screen shows Christians and Muslims in opposite corners of the boxing ring.
Of course they were right. In the real world there are hundreds of stories of genuine friendship between vicars and imams. So, the assumption that religious people are always at each other’s throats is seen to be the nonsense that it is. Which is not to deny the reality of tensions within in some communities, but it does show that the norm might lie elsewhere.
This is also what comes through in BBC2’s Muslims like Us and BBC1’s Battle for the Soul of Christianity. Seeing stories that contradict widespread prejudices about both Muslims (that they’re all the same) and the Christian Church (it’s in terminal decline), the open-minded viewer might be surprised by the facts. In relation to the Church, the picture is changing – but, change isn’t the same as decline. There’s an explosion of creativity in churches across denominations as they seek refreshed ways of worshipping.
Muslims Like Us
But, if all this sounds a little too easy, the shortlist also brings us face to face with the tough stuff of our living and dying. Many viewers were surprised to find a vicar being sympathetic to the archetypal traitor, Judas Iscariot, but In the Footsteps of Judas with Rev Kate Bottley examined his case afresh. In the process we learnt that simplistic narratives never tell the whole story. We can’t know what motivated Judas to betray Jesus, but I suspect he was disappointed that messiahship wasn’t turning out as he’d expected – and probably wasn’t happening quickly enough. Did Judas simply want to force his friend’s hand?
Well, that tells a particular story about life and death questions. Even though not a religious discourse in itself, the same questions of hope and meaning, fear and love, living and dying were movingly articulated in the conversations between Eddie Mair and the late Steve Hewlett on Radio 4’s PM. Here was a man hoping to live, but facing a reality over which he had no control. The power of the interviews lay in their raw honesty and humanity – pathos and humour in abundance.
So, surprising programming. Rich fare for audiences open to surprise. Examples of excellent broadcasting by curious programme makers. How to choose?
See the full shortlist and details of how to vote, below…