High praise for a programme still on song after 50 years of faithful service

For half a century, Songs of Praise has had a special place in the nation’s heart. Sheena Hastings looks at an enduring TV phenomenon.

IT’S part of fabric of British life, woven into the warp and weft of Sundays for two million faithful viewers. On one level you could call it a relic of a bygone era – from the days before the commercialisation of Sunday, an era when the stillness and somnolence of the Sabbath was broken only by chiming church bells, lawnmowers and perhaps the late afternoon arrival of a tinkling ice-cream van. It came along with What’s My Line? and Sooty and Sweep, but has survived these TV dinosaurs by decades.

Talk of relics is to do an injustice to Songs of Praise, which would have withered away and died long before 2011 had it not somehow continued to make itself relevant to British life. It’s been called “the biggest karaoke in the world” and to that extent it probably performs the role of social worker to many of the elderly and infirm who are unable to attend church but love to sing along to classic hymns aided by the on-screen subtitles. The programme is not an actual church service, but it provides a welcome feeling of belonging to many who may not be exactly godly these days but nonetheless still enjoy the community of singing songs that stir up nostalgia and warm feelings of family and shared experience.

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There may be many fewer of us filling the pews of the nation’s churches than there were 50 years ago, but SoP is based on the idea that we are still a nation whose basic ethos is a Christian one. Many people probably watch the programme – or at least have it humming away comfortingly as the background to other activities – because it almost seems sinful to switch it off once those opening strains of Aled Jones’s Abide With Me or a rousing rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful has begun. In its own way, even to the ungodly, it is some sort of barometer. The economy, the weather, work or family matters might be out of balance, but as long as SoP, The Archers and the Shipping Forecast exist there’s some hope that it’ll all come right in the end.

A series of programmes celebrating the 50 years Songs of Praise will culminate this Sunday in a choral extravaganza, recorded last week at Alexandra Palace (the cradle of the nation’s television heritage), with more than 6,000 viewers in attendance. Dressed in the best of their Sunday best, and with voices in fine fettle, they will mark the milestone with many of the programme’s most popular hymns and inspirational songs. SoP has never been short on stardust, with famous Christians from Cliff Richard to Tony Blair ready to discuss their faith with the stable of wholesome presenters that includes Pam Rhodes, Sally Magnusson, Aled Jones and Diane Louise Jordan. For this special pinnacle programme Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing Amazing Grace in English and Welsh crossover star Katherine Jenkins will add her voluptuous voice to the party. This will be a something more than your regular Sunday Singalong.

When all of the partying has died down and the spangly frocks are back in the wardrobe, SoP and its production team of 25 will return to making 52 programmes a year (two usually recorded at each venue), criss-crossing the British Isles to make every region feel regularly included and finding engaging stories that express spirituality from many ordinary people to fill the gaps between songs.

Songs of Praise is one of several Christian programmes that have been broadcast on radio and TV since the earliest days of British broadcasting – part of the BBC’s public service remit involving a set number of hours given over to “God slots”’ each week. The Daily Service (first broadcast in 1927 and the oldest continuing daily programme of any kind in the world) and Thought for the Day on Radio 4 are part of this undertaking. However much the powers that be in the Church of England have complained about the loss of some religious affairs broadcasting over the years, the BBC has always been able to hold up the hardy perennial Songs of Praise as proof of continuing commitment to the nation’s spiritual health.

The institution that SoP was to become actually started off almost accidentally. The then assistant controller Donald Baverstock – who later came to Yorkshire Television and presided over the birth of Emmerdale Farm (as it was originally called) – forgot to turn off his TV set one night after the screen went to black. These were the days before 24-hour transmission. Surprisingly, his screen came back to life a few minutes later, with the glorious harmonies of a Welsh chapel choir singing hymns. He enjoyed it, and when he investigated found out that BBC Wales was illicitly using empty airtime to broadcast music. Baverstock loved what he’d heard so much that he commissioned Songs of Praise to put those programmes on an official footing.

What fundamentally keeps this show on the road, with an audience that more than wipes its face, in an age when there is more choice of viewing than ever before at the punch of a button?

“I think part of the beauty of it is the simplicity of the format,” says David Taviner, the series producer of SoP who oversees all programmes and is rarely found without his hymn book to hand. He worked at BBC Radio Humberside for 16 years (and married a local minister’s daughter) before leaving for television and the bright lights of parish churches, minsters, the odd cathedral and big-occasion recordings at the Royal Albert Hall and Millennium Stadium, where there were 65,000 in attendance at the turn of 2000.

Songs of Praise does seem to scratch an itch for lots of people. It’s a programme they feel safe with, and one which all ages can watch together. I genuinely think that it’s just appealing to anyone who wants to be inspired by the music and is interested in what Christianity has to say about life today.”

Taviner emphasises that SoP is a TV programme rather than a church service; upcoming programmes might have been recorded, as they have, in Halifax Minster, but there are no readings from the Bible or sermons, and the non-musical offerings get out and about in Calderdale looking at how people in the area live and express their spirituality.

Does he think it’s time the programme did more to reflect the other faiths that co-exist with Christianity in modern Britain?

“It began as a programme of Christian hymn-singing, very much based on the Christian faith, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t continue. Songs of Praise does reflect other faiths sometimes, but from a Christian viewpoint.” SoP cleverly works at renewing its audience by involving young people through some of the films segments and through its school choir of the year competition.

Kim Knott, professor of religious studies at Leeds University who is not a regular viewer of Songs of Praise or much else on television, nevertheless believes that SoP satisfies a deep emotional need in its audience.

“It does what many programmes do – it makes you feel sad, it raises you up and can cheer you. They have been very clever in broadening its appeal by widening out the kind of songs sung from purely classical hymns to gospel and uplifting mainstream songs. The programme also does well at latching onto current events, such as the death of Princess Diana or the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“A lot of people watch Songs of Praise who would never set foot in a church, so it’s not a case of the programme somehow being a substitute for formal religious worship, “ says Prof Knott. “Traditional churches need to keep doing what they’re doing and stay traditional, as there will always be a place for them and SoP sits alongside that. It obviously addresses some sort of need, and is extending rather than taking away from people’s interest in spirituality. I’m a Quaker myself and we don’t do music, although I occasionally watch SOP out of professional interest. I think many people who don’t watch it would be pleasantly surprised if they did, as it is not about religion pushed in your face.”

David Taviner believes the winning formula of Songs of Praise has another 50 years in it. “Everything else may come and go, but the power of a song that really speaks to the human spirit lives on. The best hymns, and the best songs generally, express something very deep about human experience that many people can relate to. That’s the fundamental secret of the programme’s success.”

His personal favourites are When I Survey The Wondrous Cross and Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.

Songs of Praise: BBC1, 5.30pm on Sundays