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Freaks, geeks and antiques

Bryony Taylor

Is the laughable portrayal of Christians on TV finally changing for the better? Bryony Taylor surveys the stereotypes and finds growing evidence of nuance and understanding.

At a Church and Media Conference in 2011 the then controller of BBC One, Danny Cohen, was challenged to come up with an example of a Christian character in the BBC's output that wasn't a 'freak, geek or antique'. His response? Dot Branning (née Cotton) from Eastenders. As the actress June Brown was then aged 84 this was a bit of a stretch of the 'antique' category! What is it about portrayals of Christians on the small screen that produce such a bizarre range of characters? There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the writers of television programmes are looking to entertain us. Straight-laced or 'normal' people don't make particularly thrilling television. An ordinary Christian character quietly living out their faith is not going to make it into the latest exciting drama. Secondly, if you're going for comedy, then religion is one of the best places to turn. As Steve Punt said in a documentary: 'unfortunately for the devout, religion is funny'1. Each week as I put on my vestments and prepare to take a baptism or preach I'm reminded of the comedic potential of my job. We wear funny clothes, intone funny words and have to remember people's names and how to pronounce them.


We read bible passages about groups of people like the Shittim, try and switch on radio mics through our pockets (and remember to switch them off when nipping to the loo) and that's before a child pipes up with a classic such as 'who is Jesus' tortoise?' after introducing the Lord's Prayer: comedy gold. Thirdly, not only are church services a potential source of comedy, they genuinely are full of freaks, geeks and antiques. It was ever thus. Even in the Roman Empire in the earliest days of the faith, the religion was known for attracting the undesirables: the poor, the slaves, heavens, women even! If I looked around the church and everyone was the same, a homogenous group of like-minded people of the same race, class and background I would be seriously suspicious - that's not church in my view: that's a club. A closer look, however, at some of these Christian portrayals on British television over the last quarter century does highlight some shifts in perceptions of religion and Christianity in particular. There are three key areas that I have discovered in my research on Christian characters on TV.


Like it or not, television still exerts a big influence over our opinions. People might watch television a bit differently these days what with box sets and online streaming - but they're still watching it - and now also commenting on it via social media in their thousands. One big area of influence is in stand-up comedy. There are lots of stand-up shows on television and their accompanying panel shows where comedians get to spout their views and witty comments on the big issues of the day. These are perhaps more opinion-forming than newscasters in popular culture. I suspect it was some of the more atheist comedians' sets that influenced a taxi driver to say to me after I told him when I was at college that I was training to be a priest 'isn't that all debunked now, what with science and evolution and everything?' I was quite flabbergasted at his total dismissal of the idea that religion might be something worthwhile. This kind of viewpoint is likely to have been influenced by comics such as Ricky Gervais: 'The thing about rumour is, if someone's written it down everyone will believe it. You can have the most far-fetched, made-up, impossible, illogical bollocks, and if it's in print, someone will believe it. Just look at the Bible.'2


Or here's Tim Minchin: 'I think the trouble with being a critical thinker or an atheist, or a humanist is that you're right. And it's quite hard being right in the face of people who are wrong without sounding like a fuckwit. People go "do you think the vast majority of the world is wrong", well yes. I don't know how to say that nicely, but yes.' Such breath-taking arrogance but if repeated enough times phrases such as 'illogical bollocks' end up making people think naively that all religious people are nutters. Other portrayals of Christians such as in 90s classic sitcom (one of my all-time favourites I hasten to add) Father Ted present the church and the faith as frankly a bit ridiculous, and therefore, irrelevant. One of the show's writers, Graham Linehan described an article that stated: 'Ted basically lanced a boil for Irish people. Also, another guy told me that hardliners on both sides of the Northern Ireland problem loved it… it brought a lot of people together, and I think that was only possible because we didn't take the hard-edged satirical approach. We were just silly.'3 The sheer cartoony feel of the show with Mrs Doyle regularly falling out of the window, Father Jack drinking all manner of poisonous substances and Father Dougal burning down graveyards and them all bouncing back the next week for a shiny new episode simply made the church look like it was on another planet, totally separate from the real world and so basically irrelevant.


It is difficult to extricate ideas of the church and particularly the Church of England from nostalgia when looking at certain portrayals. Many of the cosy and cuddly Christian characters from popular culture are seen in the context of the countryside - something about which people have been nostalgic since time immemorial (from the Greek poet Hesiod, through to Virgil and later Shakespeare and Dickens). Research into nostalgia has shown that it can be 'good for us' in that it can counteract loneliness and anxiety. An experiment at Southampton University showed that on cold days or in cold rooms people are able to use nostalgic thoughts to make themselves literally feel warm.4 This is all at play when considering scenes of Old England - particularly country scenes. Comedians Mitchell and Webb illustrate this in a hilarious spoof advertisement for 'The ultimate Sunday afternoon chill out DVD': 'Toast the crumpet of your soul on these images, let out a puddingy burp and enjoy…over the next 14 hours we will be lulling you into sofa-ry oblivion, with, among other things, all the establishing shots of ITV's Kingdom (but without anything as jolting as the plot), vicars walking across lawns, some pretty objects from the Antiques Roadshow…a crossword being filled in with the names of characters from Dad's Army and then smeared with delicious jam…'5


The cosy images being conjured up for this 'relaxation DVD' include vicars walking across lawns! It's funny and a bit preposterous but this highlights how much the church and vicars are a part of this rural fantasy. There's something heart-warming about the idea of a vicar sitting by a fireside discussing family news in a genial manner over a glass of sherry. It fits the fantasy. The Vicar of Dibley plays on this nostalgia - the Dibley of the programme is a fantasy of a country village, with recognisable stereotypes but still a fantasy (with even a soft focus lens to make it feel dreamy). The new BBC series of Chesterton's Father Brown with Mark Williams playing the lead moves the period setting from the slums of Edwardian London to the rural 1950s Cotswolds. These portrayals, although positive, do contribute somewhat to the idea that the church is a relic of the past, something with which we no longer really have anything to do. It's just a vague memory, that's all, and the churches are relegated to the role of making a village look pretty.


This might feel a little depressing for those of us who are Christians, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. All the recent portrayals of Christian characters that we have seen on television such as Padre Mary in army sitcom Bluestone 42 and Revd Adam Smallbone in the Bafta-winning Rev have been well-drawn, well-rounded and, actually, popular with viewers (both believers and non-believers alike). The scene at the end of crime drama Broadchurch in which the curate (who is a suspect in the murder case at one point) organises a powerful act of remembrance on the beach is the climax of the series. It illustrates Rowan Williams' observation of a point made by a former student: 'The church is still a place where people put the emotions that won't go anywhere else.'6 Williams goes on to say, in the same speech: 'I believe we are living in a society which is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn't quite know what to do with it, and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused but not therefore necessarily hostile.'7 The memory of religion lingers in British society. Occasionally the remembered faith re-enters the public sphere - notably on Remembrance Sunday but also events such as the Queen's Jubilee and the Royal Wedding or whenever a crisis hits a town. Slowly the church seems to be regaining its permission to be there, legitimately to have something to say.


This idea of religion (for that, read Church of England in this instance) 'haunting' comes across in a curious comment in a recent report on the religious output of the BBC: 'Though both Songs of Praise on BBC One and Sunday Worship on Radio 4 have been a feature of the schedules for quite literally a lifetime, it always seems slightly surprising when the pattern of family viewing on TV, and news and magazine programmes on radio, are interrupted by a religious service. It feels at the same time to be slightly anachronistic, and yet strangely reassuring.' - Stuart Prebble (my emphasis)8 It is not altogether different from the way people feel about the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4: 'The Shipping Forecast remained on air for no reason other than it is still wanted by many thousands of people who had no logical purpose in listening to it - other than the most basic purpose of all, of course, which was to make life a little bit richer in some intangible way.'9


The same could perhaps be said of the church - and especially the Church of England. People still want it, they still want to see it on their televisions, they just don't quite know why. Christendom has lost its place and the church (especially the Established Church) is losing its footing but this could be an opportunity for creativity. Pope Benedict said that in our current times Christians need to be living as a 'creative minority'. Green and Robinson develop this idea in their book Metavista: 'In times of liminality, such as the one that the West is presently passing through, it is more important to live as creative minorities than to live either as coercive minorities or as ineffective majorities.' 10 Perhaps that is why we are still seeing Christian characters on our televisions - and why the more recent of these have been well-rounded and realistic rather than stereotypes or caricatures. People are curious again about what drives people of faith. That can only be a good thing.

Bryony Taylor is a curate in the Diocese of Durham and the author of More TV Vicar? available now from DLT.


1 BBC One Are you having a laugh? Comedy and Christianity Directed by Emily Davis, broadcast on Wednesday 27 March, 2013 2 Ricky Gervais, Fame, 2007 3 Gerard Gilbert, 'Graham Linehan: I've come to hate the church', The Independent, 22 June 2013 4 Tim Wildshut et al, 'Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006, Vol. 91, No. 5, 975-993 5 That Mitchell and Webb Look, Series 3, BBC DVD, 2009. 6 Rowan Williams, 'Faith in the public square', Lecture at Leicester Cathedral, 22 March 2009 7 Ibid. 8 Stuart Prebble, 'A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC's Output', BBC Trust, July 2013 9 David Hendy, Life on Air: A history of Radio Four (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 10 Greene, C. & Robinson, M., Metavista: Bible, church and mission in an age of imagination (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2008), p214.