The soprano Katherine Jenkins is, to borrow a quote from Raymond Chandler, the kind of blonde who could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. Right now she’s sitting on a pew in St Paul’s Cathedral with its Dean, the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, who looks like he’s feeling blessed by this interlude in his busy schedule.
Above them the cathedral’s Victorian ceiling mosaics – animals of the land, birds of the air and fish of the sea, all the creatures of Creation – flash gold, while at the edge of the quire small knots of fans gather to watch the star filming.
Now Songs Of Praise has had the kind of zeitgeisty reboot that turned Top Gear into a programme for more than just petrolheads and elevated Countryfile to family viewing
It makes a change from an earlier assignment on a dairy farm where Jenkins, 39, tried to present a link in front of a herd of calves getting jiggy in the background. Or the one where she clambered over Pembrokeshire’s limestone cliffs in a couture bridal gown and trainers to sing Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace in between explosions at the Ministry Of Defence’s adjacent tank range. Or even the one when she became friends with a monk who has renounced money. She now sends chocolate to his monastery. (‘He likes dark chocolate so I send him Green & Black’s.’) This is the modern face of Songs Of Praise, the programme that has filled the BBC’s God slot on Sundays since 1961.
When it launched it was ‘a sort of hymn sandwich’, says Pam Rhodes, a veteran presenter of more than three decades. Now it’s had the kind of zeitgeisty reboot that turned Top Gear into a programme for more than just petrolheads and elevated Countryfile from farmers’ favourite to family viewing.
It’s being watched by a pan-generational audience, including millennials and 40-somethings, for whom the show’s magazine format, interspersed with ancient hymns and songs of modern worship, is 35 minutes of headspace in a frantic week.
‘When I was a little girl growing up in Neath I used to watch Songs Of Praise with my nana,’ says Jenkins. ‘Back then it was a church-based programme. Today we do have our congregational moments but we show the different ways people worship. If you do that walking over mountains rather than in a cathedral, it doesn’t make you any less of a Christian. It’s about adapting, making faith personal. Loads of my friends watch, most of them on iPlayer. I have one who enjoys it in the gym.’
The Rev Kate Bottley, 44, the programme’s only ordained presenter, says, ‘I don’t think we have lost our faith as a nation. I just don’t think we are always willing to go and sit in a cold building to do it any more.’
‘If I’m travelling,’ adds JB Gill, the former JLS frontman and a Songs Of Praise presenter since 2017, ‘I might not be able to get to church, but I can jump on the wi-fi and watch.’
Their arguments support the Church of England’s own figures. Traditional Sunday worship might be in decline (only three-quarters of a million people take a pew on a Sunday) but the number of people going to church regularly, worshipping where and when they choose, is rising. It was 1.2 million in 2017. More startling, however, is the fact that the Church’s monthly reach on social media doubled from 1.2 million to 2.44 million between 2017 and 2018. Its flock is definitely getting younger – and starting to tune in.
From left: presenters Laura Wright, Kate Bottley, Claire McCollum, JB Gill, Katherine Jenkins, Aled Jones, Pam Rhodes, Josie d’Arby
They’re watching a programme that covers tough news stories – it was Songs Of Praise that told how mosques in Sri Lanka opened their doors to Christians in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday hotel bombings – but has also sent the Rev Bottley wild swimming. ‘I wondered if I should still wear my dog collar with my cossie,’ she remembers. ‘I decided it would be inappropriate. But it was indeed my honour to present the first swimwear edition of Songs Of Praise. World peace and loving children and animals next.’
Last month, producers even persuaded grime star Stormzy to allow his Glastonbury headline performance of Blinded By Your Grace to be rebroadcast by the show. ‘We are gonna give God all the glory right now,’ the rapper told his live festival audience – a sentiment that sums up the show’s ethos for its viewers.
Bottley tells a story about meeting one of them up Glastonbury Tor celebrating the summer solstice. ‘I plonked myself down next to this gentleman, who had a Jack Daniel’s and coke on the go at 4am, and who’d probably been on it most of the night. He said, “Aren’t you on Songs Of Praise?” And I said, “You don’t look like a viewer.” But he told me he watched it every week with his mum, who was in full-time care. “She can’t remember my name but she can remember all the words to every single hymn,” he said, and then he started to cry. When he stopped he asked if we could sing Morning Has Broken together, so we sat on the side of the Tor and we did. This programme is the worship soundtrack for generations: his, mine, his mum’s – and long may that continue.’
Songs Of Praise is a BBC show but the corporation lost the right to make it when it went out to tender under the corporation’s new charter agreement in 2016. The winning bid, £12 million for three years, was by a partnership between two Bafta and Royal Television Society award-winning production companies, Nine Lives Media and Avanti Media.
Their opening show in July 2017 put JB Gill on a crag in the Peak District singing You Raise Me Up – his first time performing since being part of JLS, the X Factor runners-up who sold ten million records before breaking up in 2013. ‘A pale suit and lots of mud,’ Gill remembers. His performance was captured by hidden cameras and a pair of drones, the slick aesthetics more in keeping with his glossy pop career than a programme once seen as church on telly for the elderly and the housebound.
Gill, it transpires, actually has a degree in theology. ‘I had my heart set on music but I am a man of contingencies and I think you should always have a back-up,’ he says with an irreverent grin. When he talks, however, it’s with academic force and biblical detail. It was a match made in, well, heaven.
He has joined Jenkins on the roster of new presenters along with Sean Fletcher, better known as the sports presenter of Good Morning Britain, and the soprano Laura Wright, 29, familiar to millions from her performances at Twickenham and as a member of crossover group All Angels. It’s a stretch to imagine that theirs is the baton handed on by Dame Thora Hird, who hosted Praise Be!, the Songs Of Praise all-request spin-off, from the comfort of her velour armchair.
Katherine Jenkins as a choir girl. ‘When I was a little girl growing up in Neath I used to watch Songs Of Praise with my nana,’ says Jenkins
Aled Jones aged 14 (right); Thora Hird (left);
Aled Jones with D-Day veteran Harry Billinge. The programme has survived with its two central tenets intact. First, its coverage is always from a Christian perspective and, second, its presenters are devout
Aled Jones, once Britain’s best-known choirboy, now 48, has been a presenter for almost two decades. He is still singing traditional hymns, but now he’s doing it on top of a mountain in Israel backed by a choir clad in white. That was for an Easter Sunday special. Later, I watch out-take footage: a sound man blasts Walking In The Air, the theme tune from The Snowman, which Jones famously sang as a boy, into the Judean desert at sunrise. The presenter stretches out his arms to mimic the cartoon character’s famous flight, before collapsing with laughter. ‘I took it well,’ sighs Jones. ‘I’d be rocking in a corner if I couldn’t.’
The Archbishop of Canterbury is a fan, confirms Lambeth Palace and, as head of the Church of England, it’s no surprise to hear the Queen is thought to be one too. But some people haven’t enjoyed the programme’s modernisation, which began in 2014. That was the year Songs Of Praise dropped its original format of filming a single Anglican service in favour of a magazine style.
‘It’s like The One Show with hymns,’ a disgruntled viewer complained memorably at the time. In that same year the show widened its remit to cover the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army and the Pentecostal churches to represent better the make-up of modern Christian Britain.
‘We cannot be the informed preaching to the converted,’ says Pam Rhodes who, after 32 years, has the best overview of all. ‘We have to be far more than that.’ Laura Wright, who has faced similar arguments in relation to her singing career, is also forceful. ‘With classical music I have only ever wanted to show people how beautiful it is. Everyone from The Beatles to Lady Gaga uses classical structures. Making devotional music and the faith stories we tell more accessible doesn’t mean dumbing down.’
THE HYMNS WE LOVE TO SING
Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind
How Great Thou Art (He’s ended every concert with this hymn since 2001.)
The Heart Of Worship
Brother, Sister, Let Me Serve You
Here Is Love, Vast As The Ocean
The Lord Is My Shepherd
My Song Is Love Unknown
Claire Mc Collum
In Christ Alone
Presenter Josie d’Arby, 46, who has fronted the show since 2014, says the 2017 changes were drastic but the outcome has justified them. ‘We knew the makeover meant changes for the show but no one really knew how radical they would be. The core of the show has to be the theology in the music, but I do think it’s great that it’s got some TLC. It feels very different and looks much better, and I think the performances are way more admirable. I love to see a soloist with a stunning voice, placed in some sublime landscape, beautifully shot, with epic aerial photography whirling around them while they sing a song of praise.’
Besides, the show had already evolved hugely from its launch at the Tabernacle Baptist Chapel, Cardiff, in October 1961. For the on-demand TV communities of 2019 it’s almost unimaginable to think that until the second half of the 20th century nothing was broadcast at all on Sundays between 6.15pm and 7.25pm. The Church and the Government wanted to ensure the devout weren’t discouraged from attending evensong. In 1958 the law was relaxed to allow religious programming only, paving the way for Songs Of Praise. Oddly, for a show about higher things, it was inspired by sport. Outside-broadcast units were being flung to the corners of the UK by Saturday sports coverage, and the BBC needed to find something on a Sunday that would make use of them. Filming congregations singing in churches was the obvious answer.
The programme has survived with its two central tenets intact. First, its coverage is always from a Christian perspective and, second, its presenters are devout. Belfast-based Claire McCollum, 45, says she is happier to talk about her faith in 2019 than she’s ever been. ‘Mind you,’ she muses, ‘that could be coming from Northern Ireland, where we are a godly bunch!’
The nearest thing anyone can remember to a scandal was in 2007, when it emerged that the TV crew had taken down Christmas decorations, brought in daffodils and filmed Easter hymns at the same time as carols. (The BBC described this as ‘the best use of resources’.)
THE FANS WHO FOLLOW THE SHOW ALL OVER THE UK
If you look carefully at multiple episodes of Song Of Praise you’ll see superfans Trevor and Christine Ransome. The couple, in their 70s, have travelled as far afield as Glasgow and St David’s in Wales from their home in Cambridgeshire to appear in 35 different congregations.
If you look carefully at multiple episodes of Song Of Praise you’ll see superfans Trevor and Christine Ransome
‘I wasn’t particularly impressed when Trevor said ten years ago that he wanted to career around the country after Songs Of Praise,’ says Christine, who has just become a great-grandmother. ‘But we love doing it.’
‘The new magazine format has put a spark in the programme,’ says Trevor, a retired sales and marketing director. ‘It’s lively, with a wider range of interests, and it offers hope and help to people who, unlike us, are stuck at home.’
The current custodians of Songs Of Praise are Cat Lewis, a committed Christian who is the CEO of Nine Lives, and Emyr Afan, the CEO of Avanti, who made his name filming with bands such as Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers. He’s the man who introduced drone footage to make the visuals more uplifting, literally. ‘A God’s-eye view!’ he laughs. But his mission is serious. ‘Faith has to be central to everything we do on Songs Of Praise. Countryfile is not going to do it, and Strictly Come Dancing is not going to do it either. If faith is watered down then we lose the essence of our purpose.’
The programme is committed to covering difficult subjects – homelessness, addiction, cancer, the Grenfell disaster – and won’t duck issues within the Church either. An episode about faith and marriage to be broadcast tonight will show a same-sex marriage (currently banned by the Church of England) taking place in a United Reformed Church. But it’s also making great music and showing a new sense of fun – if you want to see a vicar going down a helter-skelter then the Rev Bottley will be doing that in Norwich Cathedral soon.
‘I don’t expect people to fall on their knees in front of Songs Of Praise,’ says the vicar, now broadcasting to a parish of people in their living rooms or on BBC iPlayer, ‘but we do do the big stuff – life, love, death and trauma – and we are definitely not afraid of controversy.’
‘Songs Of Praise’ is on Sundays at 1.15pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.