Priest Idol: The Last Rites
Last time on Priest Idol (C4): the marketing campaign for new Church Lite was just being launched in an attempt to raise the congregation of a Barnsley parish into double figures.....
Like so many documentary series today, this one suffered from the curse of the endless recap. Not just at the beginning of each episode but after every ad break, as though we had the attention span of a goldfish. Some footage was recycled endlessly throughout the three episodes. If all the recaps had been removed the entire series would have fitted into two episodes. This is TV Lite: the same footage is spread like margarine across several episodes, a highly profitable modern version of that stunt that JC pulled with the loaves and fishes.
The new 'reflection room' in the church was completed and the Archdeacon thought it looked 'fab'. The Archdeacon finds many things 'fab', particularly soft furnishings and embroidered silk vestments. It's a word we all used in the sixties but in my experience is now mostly used by those manifesting a characteristic that is said to be exemplified by a row of pink tents.
Actually, the reflection room did look rather good although I've never understood why some people are unable to engage in reflection, meditation, or possibly masturbation, without lots of drapes and lighted candles. I find that lying down and closing my eyes is quite sufficient, certainly for the less than numinous reflections that precede these blog postings.
The Archdeacon had previously been concerned that the reflection room would look like a brothel. One couldn't help wondering how he would have known if it looked like a brothel.
The arrival of spray bottles of 'Magdalene Calming Spirits' was greeted with hilarity. The young vicar James who, whilst other young Americans had been sent to Iraq to save people from tyranny had been sent by God to Barnsley to save people from Bingo, went round the church spraying parish workers with this bottled tap water like a schoolboy with a water pistol. Nobody appeared to see the the shameful tackiness of this marketing gimmick.
The Archdeacon had set himself the task of finding a major celebrity to perform at the inaugural service of Church Lite. His first choice, not surprisingly, was Sir Cliff Richard but he pleaded a prior engagement. "There's only one Cliff Richard", sighed the Archdeacon. To which even atheists would respond 'and the Lord be thanked for that'.
One doubted the Archdeacon's skills with search engines when he announced that he had found a list of famous Jews on Google. And one wondered if Jesus Christ was on that list. Not that that would help very much since he ascended into Heaven two thousand years ago and would be unavailable for a low fee gig in Barnsley. On the other hand, his reappearance is long overdue and would have made Julian and Steve the most famous marketing men on the planet. But I'm not sure how the timid Rev. James, who confessed to a 'warm, tingling feeling' at the church firework display would have coped with a Second Coming.
Pondering the list of famous Jews - and oi vey, that must have been one hell of a long list - the Archdeacon rolled the words 'Barbra Streisand' round his tongue before announcing 'I suppose it should really be a Christian'. I suppose it's that kind of incisive insight that gets you to the rank of Archdeacon.
Even so, the Archdeacon had difficulty putting on one side his own female, musical icons. Shirley Bassey would be fab. 'I Who Have Nothing' he murmured wistfully as he sat in his well-appointed Achdeaconery. What about Gloria Gaynor? Even fabber. Perhaps the Archdeacon is famous for his karaoke 'I Will Survive' on the clergys' annual lads' night out in Blackpool?
Anyway, after he had spent an enjoyable few hours on the internet combing through the A and B lists of celebrity, the person who graced the inaugural service was - promise you won't laugh - Jimmy Cricket.
It's actually a very long time since anyone laughed at Jimmy Cricket because he hasn't been on television for many years. A clue to one possible reason for this was in the one joke that the producers left in the final edit: Jimmy takes a hammer to a Brillo Pad and sings 'Show me the way to hammer a Brillo.' Jimmy, we were told, is a 'committed Christian'. Perhaps not committed enough: he clearly hasn't yet found out who is the patron saint of comedians and spent long, prayerful hours on his knees to them.
That said, the presence of a well-known person was enough to fill the small church. The presence of a Channel 5 newsreader or one of those women in Coronation Street's knicker factory with a non-speaking role would have had a similar effect. James seemed unable to see this and reacted as though the people of Barnsley had finally seen the light, or the 'lite'.
Within two months the congregation had settled at around fifty. This was still considered a huge success since it was four times as many people as attended before the intensive and expensive marketing campaign. But fifty people out of a village population of six thousand is not exactly spectacular and would certainly not sustain any other kind of enterprise.
The elephant in the room throughout this series that nobody mentioned was the television camera. The same could be said of every documentary or reality series. But it is one of the great con tricks of the age that we all pretend that television cameras don't affect people's behaviour. In the context of this programme, I remember that when 'Songs of Praise' was broadcast from my own village church, the church was overflowing with people, many of whom had never previously crossed the threshold. It was also as though the Reformation had never happened since some of the local Catholics could be clearly seen at the Church of England service singing Protestant hymns with great conviction, determined not to miss their few seconds on television.
Why are we so ready to believe that we are magically eavesdropping on reality even when hidden cameras are not being used? One reason is that you will rarely see people look at the camera. As anyone who has ever done a TV interview knows, this is because you are specifically ordered not to. If you do glance at the camera, the piece will usually be re-shot. Only television reporters are allowed to look into the camera lens for they are the priesthood and only they are allowed to commune directly with the viewers.
So, entertaining though this series was, it was a confected piece of nonsense and in no sense a genuine experiment in the marketing of religion.
I should also have liked to know how much of the narrative constructed around the marketing campaign and its outcome, was dreamed up by the production company and to what extent, if any, they contributed to the cost.
It's arguable that the only winner in Priest Idol was Jimmy Cricket who, however briefly, was able to get back on television without having to go into the Australian rainforest and eat Kangaroo testicles.