Critical Widdy-watchers didn’t get much of what they look for in Are You Having a Laugh? Comedy and Christianity (Wednesday BBC1; iPlayer) – nothing about the death penalty, abortion or gay rights, and only a glimpse of atrocious ballroom dancing. Here, Ann Widdecombe was narrowly focused on what she sees as a worrying cultural shift: jokes about Christianity have gone beyond the pale. They “seem to have become more personal, rather nasty, aimed at the belief itself rather than just the institutions.”
Widdecombe spoke to comedians, writers and academics, some Christian, some not. She promised her beliefs would be challenged. The surprise was the extent to which she allowed this. Repeatedly her well-worn arguments were so thoroughly mown down, it was as if the whole enterprise was a ruse by an atheist who had tired of Christians’ complaints about comedy, and had decided to sneak a compendium of the best answers onto the air under the guise of a religious programme.
Sunday Telegraph journalist Cole Moreton, a Christian, set the tone by observing that where once British culture made people opt out of Christianity, now they opt in. Religion’s dominance has waned. With that come stronger jokes: people are “making up for 500 years of Christians telling them what to think and how to feel”.
This was what seemed fundamentally to surprise Widdecombe. The transition from the goofing vicars of her safe 1960s favourite, All Gas and Gaiters, to direct mockery might be upsetting for the faithful, but is inevitable when belief stops being a default and society generally is less reverent. The can’s open and the lid won’t go back on. That doesn’t equate to malicious persecution.
Widdecombe tried to draw lines in the sand. Is mocking the concept of prayer ever acceptable? Marcus Brigstocke replied that, when he sees religious figures suggesting victims of natural disasters are being punished for not being devout enough, he thinks it is. Widdecombe didn’t argue: the lack of rancour between the pair throughout the programme was a credit to them both.
How about the Goodness Gracious Me sketch in which a British-Asian family, trying idiotically hard to embrace Western culture, spread mango chutney on a communion wafer and try to order two bottles of the wine? Not a great example of a rising tide of nastiness, since it aired in 2000 and repeats were swiftly banned by the BBC. Nevertheless, producer Anil Gupta was on to make the obvious point that the ritual isn’t the target of the gag.
OK, so… Monty Python’s Life of Brian? Of all people it was George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, standing up for Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: “There’s something in that about fun and life and humour that I think is authentically Christian.”
Widdecombe tried the popular line about jokes being made about Christianity that wouldn’t be directed at other faiths. Steve Punt explained that Christianity is all he knows – belief in it might not be universal, but familiarity with it is. A university professor said gags about the Bhagavad Gita might fail for lack of recognition. Anil Gupta returned, this time as the producer of Citizen Khan, a BBC1 sitcom that does indeed have jokes involving Muslim prayer. Citizen Khan only debuted in 2012, but the boundaries are moving.
The only break from this rhythmic slapping down of canards was Widdecombe’s debate with Brigstocke about the Goodness Gracious Me sketch. Brigstocke startlingly admitted it gave him pause that Widdecombe was “wounded” by it, on the grounds that ruminating on Christ’s sacrifice is akin to a bereavement, and the pain is felt anew whenever communion is taken. Brigstocke graciously didn’t question how sound the comparison to personal bereavement was, and didn’t raise the possibility that those whose lifestyles Widdecombe has publicly abhorred might have been wounded also. Her feelings were real and are not so rare.
Brigstocke recognised the risk of telling people they are wrong to feel upset, or stupid to believe what they believe. If comedy did blithely dismiss as idiots the vast majority of Christians who are kind, intelligent people, that would be a problem. Even if all her specific examples were erroneous, there was something in Widdecombe’s distinction between attacking the institutions and the wrongs committed in Christianity’s name, and mocking the belief itself.
But the crisis Widdecombe perceives hasn’t arrived, as once again demonstrated rather magnanimously by her own programme. At the end was an appreciation of Rev, which depicts the faith of an inner-city priest with intelligence and sensitivity. It also recognises him to be personally flawed and weak but, for most Christian viewers, this lack of blind deference is a positive thing. Marcus Brigstocke observed that nothing he’d said was stopping Widdecombe believing. Modern Christians who recognise that might have wondered if there are more important things than comedy to worry about.
On Monday, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 comes into force, bringing with it the biggest ever changes to the National Health Service. It was passed in the face of huge opposition from medical professionals who, to cut a long story short, say that the new law will enable an unprecedented influx of private providers and a major erosion of the principle that care is provided based on need rather than ability to pay. It’s hard to know whether Keeping Britain Alive: the NHS in a Day (Tuesdays BBC2; iPlayer) will have made those people laugh or cry.
Here was a documentary with an explicitly political dimension on top of the familiar sight of hospital staff performing heroics. We felt desperate sympathy for the patients, following their ups and downs almost as if they were our own families’ troubles. We marvelled at the fortitude and kindness of doctors and nurses working in various places across the country, all on the same day in October last year. But we were also warned directly that replacing one of the world’s fairest and most efficient healthcare systems would put these things at risk.
Women waiting for gastric band surgery discussed the cost to the taxpayer of the procedure, but were genned up on the savings in the long term of, for example, preventing diabetes. One of them had her procedure on camera – or she would have, if not for a devastating moment where the surgeon found what appeared to be a large tumour in her pelvis. Now she had a different set of needs which, the surgeon unabashedly explained, would seamlessly be taken on by the NHS. He’d previously trashed the idea that obese people don’t deserve to receive care in the first place.
A consultant at a children’s hospital described how she’d spent 25 years in her job trying not to be emotionally devastated by her patients’ plight. She mentioned “the number of times you miss your child’s first nativity play or parents’ evening or sports day or that dinner date you’ve had in the diary for ages… these other events are competing with a sick child. You will never win. You will always stay with a sick child before you would go home.” That profit-driven private healthcare companies tend not to display this sort of selfless dedication didn’t even need to be said.
The problem with all this was that a programme along these lines would have been jolly effective just over a year ago, when the bill was being debated, and when campaigners felt strongly that the BBC was failing adequately to report their concerns. Now, a celebration of the NHS as an awesome expression of collective compassion felt less like a protest and more like an elegy.