Neil McNicholas: The mysterious affair of the TV writers’ view of religion

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IF you watch any British police drama, when the investigating officers show up at someone’s house or place of work to question them about the crime that has been committed, almost without exception the person doesn’t even have the courtesy to sit down and talk to them.

Invariably, they continue with whatever they were doing and often cut short the conversation, saying they have to be somewhere else and off they go – which is very bad-mannered. Does this reflect the experience of the police? If it doesn’t then writers are doing the police no favours by portraying that as reality and perhaps encouraging people to be disrespectful towards their local constabulary.

Writers seem to do the same with religion and their portrayal of the clergy.

The worst offenders seem to be the writers of Lewis and Midsomer Murders, though the problem isn’t limited to those series only. They seem to have an abiding fascination with religious cults. There’s always some secretive sect, wearing quasi-monastic robes, doing mysterious things in the woods in the dead of night, often with more than a hint of the satanic. Are the writers seriously suggesting that this is what the residents of our rural idylls typically get up to at the weekend?

At other times the plots involve identifiable denominations – usually Church of England or Roman Catholic.

Vicars are always “wet” individuals, a cross between Frank Williams’ character in Dad’s Army and Derek Nimmo’s in All Gas and Gaiters. Why do they so consistently portray vicars as excessively pious ditherers that you wouldn’t entrust with running a tea party much less a church and a parish?

Surely, in real life, that can’t be as typical as amongst the dreamy spires of Lewis or the country lanes of Midsomer? And because it makes for a good story, 
they are often also portrayed 
as, at best, mentally unstable 
or, at worst, outright psychopaths – a condition blatantly obvious to the viewer but not, so it would seem, to their congregations or the church authorities.

Catholic priests in these stories will be shown celebrating Mass in a liturgical style or in vestments that went out with the Ark. Do they not have priest consultants to advise them? Or they’ll be found in church, prostrate before the altar, every available candle lit for effect, and usually in the midst of some great crisis of faith.

Inevitably, as in a recent episode of A Touch of Frost, the subject of the confessional will come up. Again it doesn’t make for as interesting a storyline to actually take advice from a priest as to how the sacrament is celebrated and what the rules are that govern the seal of confession.

And so we had the priest dashing out of church in an attempt to discover the identity of whoever had just confessed that he was going to kill someone. A priest wouldn’t do that because anyone who has chosen to confess behind a screen must continue to enjoy that anonymity.

Frost then set up a situation in which he hid in church so he could overhear everything that was said while the priest – knowing he was listening – accused the suspected murderer, using information he had gained from him in the confessional. He can’t do that, it’s not allowed – under penalty of excommunication.

Of course writing the plot line by the book wouldn’t make for as interesting a story, but it is wrong to depict the confessional process inaccurately like that because it gives people the wrong impression.

They assume the writers have done their research and have therefore got it right, or that they wouldn’t be allowed to show it if it was wrong.

I do not know why religion and church have to be subjected to ridicule and misinformation in this way.

That particular episode of Frost was followed by Inspector Morse and a ridiculous storyline about a group of female divinity students who supported the ordination of women, one of whom was murdered by a psychotic member of the university’s high church 
clergy, aided and abetted by two of his fellow priests, in order to prevent her passing the examination required for ordination. A typical day at university then!

One can only assume that these writers must have a 
fairly negative attitude toward church and religion given how regularly they visit the subject, and how consistently they paint such a poor – even bizarre – picture of it.

If that wasn’t the case then they would surely, and more obviously, consult a religious adviser, but they clearly don’t.

And so we come back to the point I raised earlier: do the writers of these police dramas write from real life, or do they make it up in the name of entertainment? Either one should be a cause of some concern.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.