Review: The Politics of Broadcast Religion

Review: The Politics of Broadcast Religion

Catford October meeting, Thursday 20 October

Dr Kenneth Wolfe, author of “The Churches and the BBC 1922-1956”, spoke on the way the relationship between the Christian denominations and the BBC developed and shaped religious broadcasting in the UK.

The churches, whose congregations were on the decline, saw an opportunity to ‘re-Christianise’ the country via broadcasting. BBC radio was established as a public corporation in 1927, and started with a complete monopoly. TV was introduced in 1936. The churches had an ally in founding Director General John Reith, who wanted to help the Christian cause but reduce the impact of denominational differences. His idea was ‘one channel and one message delivered to one nation’.

That idea was eroded however as producers and spokespeople considered how to reach different audiences, and choose the best time and format to reach them. The idea that ‘The Nation is listening’ was clearly inadequate and audience research took root.

To begin with, clerics ran the BBC’s religion desk, though later the post was taken back in-house. The BBC offered to wire up the country’s main cathedrals and churches so they could broadcast services, and choirs and organists had to up their game!

A second challenge to the Reithian idea was the move to dramatise the life of Jesus. Radio and TV were obvious media for story-telling and the detective fiction writer Dorothy Sayers was recruited to write ‘The Man Born to be King’ as a radio serial. But which story, which gospel, should be chosen? And was it right to bring to life a string of stories which were at least in part didactic, written at least 100 years after Jesus lived? The story-tellers won out, but not without a fight.

Dr Wolfe shared many more anecdotes revealing the ongoing battle for the ‘soul’ of the nation and the ebb and flow of censorship, in a thoroughly entertaining talk.