After seeing reviews in The Times, The Church Times, The Sunderland Echo, various radio shows, others blogs, and the Daily Mail, finally time for me to get around to my review of Bryony’s book. I am privileged to have known Bryony for several years, to have supervised her recent BA dissertation, and to have heard ideas and early drafts from this book! Once again, this book made it onto my pile for my recent #staycation … and I read it on part of the train journey from Manchester to Winchester! It’s a ‘seriously’ tongue-in-cheek book, in which each story is given as much space as it deserves, rather than forced into a fixed length.
With similar interests in culture and communication, I will freely admit that I don’t have as much TV knowledge as Bryony… having not had a TV til I was 18, although that’s no excuse for the fact that I’ve never seen Broadchurch and Bluestone 42 – both recent TV shows! After three years at Cranmer Hall, however, I have seen how insipirationally human vicars are, and many of the themes pulled out are very recognisable from the books I have read! Bryony combines her academic research and thinking in a text that is designed to be accessible to the everyday reader (yes, I do know people who have it as one of their toilet books!). She looks at how the TV is both a mirror and an influencer of our lives.
Over the past five years I have enjoyed teaching on MediaLit, and in the earlier years we often asked who came to mind when we thought of Christians on TV. Dot Cotton was frequently the first name to come to light, with a noticeable sigh of relief when Rev was released, as demonstrating the very humanity of clergy! These kind of conversations are taken to a different level within Bryony’s book, using a simple framework of ‘the good, the bad and the quirky’ – whilst acknowledging that these are not perfect, they give an enjoyable shape. Bryony asks how believable such TV characters are, and why they still have a place? Within my PhD, I have a particular interest in nostalgia – why do we still remember the posters from the Second World War, and why was the village church so central in images of the Britain to be protected, and the vicar invited to be the moral voice in VD posters? How powerful is satire and comedy within the British context – and which subjects are suitable for this?
Nostalgia is powerful (we can see this with Keep Calm and Carry On) – it makes us feel warm, to deal with the difficult (economic?) times, and the diet of bad news on the TV – and therefore it can’t be too real! Bryony originally started playing with some of these ideas on ‘Tea and Cake… or Death’ (from Eddie Izard), which then emerged as the popular Anglican Memes. Bryony draws upon Kate Fox’s Watching the English – a book I also love (and read last year on holiday, reading bits out to my slightly bemused Irish friend!) – as with that kind of book – it takes someone “within” to poke gentle fun at what is going on … something that is highlighted in many of Bryony’s comments about TV series.
I did love The Vicar of Dibley, and we gain a sense of the importance of this programme in relation to our thinking about women’s ordination (and why it wouldn’t be made now). It demonstrates how influential popular culture is, including offering openings for conversations. Dawn French had been uncertain about playing the character until she visited a female vicar who had a mug with the quote ‘Lead me not into temptation, I can find the way myself’!
We see stories of how contemporary clergy (including our friend Robb) are featured in the media, and how contemporary drama such as Broadchurch highlights the centrality of the church in times of tragedy, whilst Bluestone 42 confuses with an attractive, female, vicar (surely not possible!). Rev attracted lots of public comment, but Bryony emphasises that although it is recognisable, it is not reality (reality makes for boring comedy!) – and the church in particular often expects too much from this kind of programme.
Padre Mary in Bluestone 42 is questioned as to why she would choose this job. As Bryony, a vicar herself, would say, it makes no sense to most people to be a vicar (especially if giving up other lucrative, status-imbued, careers), but most vicars I’ve met would speak of how this is not about them, but about a calling which they may have resisted for some time.
The ‘bad’ vicars had me wincing and uncomfortable, but it was comforting to hear how their sheer unbelievability is essential to the humour. Atheist comedians, however, often speak/write from a place filled with poorly made assumptions which are essentially fundamentalist in nature – they are not neutral, and their lack of religious literacy means that they often cause even more offence than they may expect – losing humour in the process. Offence, as Paul Kerensa would say, should be the sign of a good moral compass – it gets you to think.
As we get onto the ‘quirky’ collection, we understand how Father Ted was so much a product of its time – drawing upon affectionate satire – before so many child abuse revelations. Loved a little mention of Imposter Syndrome on p101! We also see The Simpsons, although American, incredibly influential in the UK! We get to see the importance of Dot in Eastenders – her faith is integral to her everyday life, rather than a ‘character trait’ as in so many other representations. Her character gets the opportunity to deal with the big moral questions – but we need to recognise that she cannot represent the diversity of faith … but also many of us would find it boring to see characters ‘just like us’. In looking at Rowan Atkinson, Bryony identifies how he moved from gently poking fun to much more offensive and irrelevant representations – although what we might find offensive may not be the elements of comedy that he would expect – but he does recognise the comedic potential that such a long established institution such as a the church offers.
As we head into questioning ‘What would Jesus watch?’, Bryony sees a positive challenge to be more creative as the church – rather than as a ‘coercive’ minority who feels owed a living. Jesus would probably fit more in the ‘quirky’ section of the book – he was a master of challenging communication. I sniggered at the final sentence of the book … consider writing a strongly worded letter to Points of View!
The book highlights so much whether we focus upon our differences versus our common interests … why I love social networking so much … there are so many possible connections to be made!
This book was provided to me courtesy of Darton, Longman and Todd in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.