The quirks of regional programming

[Another brilliant example of my ability to completely forget to publish something, even though it’s finished. Pretend this was published a week ago, it’ll work much better…]

The UK comprises many parts – as we are increasingly aware as September 17th and the Scottish referendum approaches – but it can be the most mundane things that highlight that it is not simply one, monochrome whole. Travel into Wales and immediately road signs are twice the size and only half as comprehensible. Go north of the border or over the Irish Sea and the currency stays the same, but the notes change colour. Even within the entity that is ‘England’, things are different – try buying the humble bread roll in 5 different counties and you’ll probably need 5 different words in order to manage it. [Bap, barm, cobb, bun, muffin…]

As a child, one of the most obvious differences whenever away from home was on the TV. Regional news bulletins involved unfamiliar accents and places I’d never heard of. Holidays in Llandudno provided The Smurfs and Superted in Welsh, which was rather disconcerting to a 6 year old. When we moved to Gloucester, we discovered that our house (thanks to an aerial on a building over the road) was alone amongst our friends in that it picked up BBC South West and HTV as opposed to Midlands Today and Central. [It might not seem like much of difference, but it did mean that we got classic NZ hospital soap Shortland Street, which wasn’t shown on Central – it’s the little things!]

Fast forward to 2004 and my parents’ move to Belfast. Move to another province within the UK and things change considerably. Many Brits of my generation will remember with fondness the Broom Cupboard of CBBC which was the lynch-pin of weekday evening TV. A daily feature, before that day’s Neighbours was shown (an essential part of 1980’s/90’s TV viewing), was the presenter bidding Northern Irish viewers goodbye several minutes before Neighbours started. I didn’t give it much thought at the time (I was more concerned with what Brad had been up to in Erinsbrough), but once subjected to TV in Northern Ireland on a regular basis, I wondered what they were watching when we were indulging in Ozzie high jinks…

[I’ve just Googled it. According to this interview with Andi Peters, they had Neighbours an hour later than us. At 5.30pm they had local news instead. Who knows why!]

BBC1-2012-XMAS-ID-TREE-2-NI-1

There are a lot of differences in the scheduling of TV in Northern Ireland. It becomes a bit of an issue at Christmas, when the rest of the country is watching something significant – one year it was the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special – and instead, viewers in NI are treated to a local comedy like The Folks on the Hill. (That’s not to say that this satirical cartoon isn’t quality entertainment – it is – it’s just that I’d rather have been watching a keenly awaited show that everyone else was enjoying!) Regularly, Mock the Week is shown over an hour later in the province, a fact that led my mother to inadvertently tweet a celebrity for the first time. [Chris Addison had tweeted something witty about the time of that night’s episode, which I had retweeted. My mother (thinking that the ‘Chris’ in question was my friend Christopher, not an award-winning actor/comedian) tweeted back: “…except in Northern Ireland, when it’s on at 10.40pm – it takes longer for the boat with the tape to get here”.] 

I’ve been over in Belfast for most of the last week and spotted a trailer for some interesting looking drama on BBC1 (it’s got Olivia Colman in it, so it’s got to be good) but noticed that they were being shown at 10.40pm. Lauded new dramas are not broadcast at that time of night – they’re on at 9pm. What was Northern Ireland getting instead? On Monday night, I experienced the schedule shift for myself. While the rest of the country was (potentially) enjoying New Tricks (can’t see the point myself), we settled down to a BBC documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire.

I was rather surprised that such a programme wasn’t on the national schedule. [You can catch up with it on iPlayer – there’s a dedicated Northern Ireland section there.] When I was growing up, and for decades before that, the Troubles were usually the top item on the news. Living in London, I experienced at first hand some of the effects of the IRA’s actions – feeling the tremors of a controlled explosion of a bomb in John Lewis Oxford St during my first term at secondary school; being prevented from taking my usual route to school because of overnight bombs; the secret service protection of a neighbour who worked in the NI Office; not to mention the shock and horror everyone felt at the atrocities carried out by both sides over the years. Without the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and everything else that has paved the road to peace, I wouldn’t now be travelling to Belfast on a semi-regular basis.

The Troubles were not solely a Northern Ireland issue, they were a national issue – an international one in fact. This documentary was an important reminder of how far things have progressed in a comparatively short space of time and thoroughly deserved a national airing. But as I watched, I realised that it was far more detailed than most of the programmes I’ve ever previously seen on the conflict. It was made with those who had lived in and with it year after year after year in mind. For a population where everyone knows someone who has been directly affected by it. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much sense to the typical 9pm BBC1 audience?

As a result, I’ve been somewhat reconciled to the peculiarities of regional scheduling. Clearly, Northern Ireland deserves programmes that cater to their knowledge and experiences, that would probably go over the heads of many people in England, Scotland and Wales. They deserve to watch them at a sensible hour and on a ‘normal’ channel. But, we need to be careful not to exclude the rest of the nation. What happens in one province doesn’t leave the others unaffected. We are – for now – a United Kingdom.

In praise of Karen

There was more than a tinge of sadness this evening as I caught up on last week’s episode of Outnumbered. As the final episode of series 5, it’s almost certainly the last ever episode and all in all [no spoilers] I think it rounded off the series well. The fabulously awful Aunty Angela returned; Grandad was involved (although not seen); past incidents were referred to; and ultimately, things seemed to be working out ok in the Brockman household.

I wasn’t just mourning the end of a TV series that I’ve always enjoyed (despite those who criticised it for being the epitome of middle class England – I loved it for the fabulous children and their use of improvisation), I was mourning the growing up of children I’ve known for seven years – when the youngest was just 6. Unsurprisingly, given that these are real children, not Simpsons characters, they had to grow up.

OutnumberedOutnumbered, 2014

When this last series began last month (which is also when I began writing this post, albeit on a slightly different angle) there was much consternation amongst fans regarding just how much this youngest child – Karen – had aged. Quite why we were all surprised is a mystery. It had been nearly 2 years since the last series, and was now at secondary school. She wasn’t going to stay 6 forever…

Outnumbered 2007Outnumbered, 2007

Everyone in my family has had a soft spot for Karen. Her ability to say just the wrong thing at exactly the right time was in evidence right from the off. When the last episode ended this evening, I went straight back to episode 1 of series 1. [Thank you iTunes freebie several years ago, which slightly makes up for the fact that I have no idea where my DVD of series 1 currently is.] In it, Karen regales her bemused father with words she learned the night before, when over-hearing her parents argue. It’s fabulously real and utterly hilarious. Throughout the early series, all the best moments were Karen’s. Two of the best also happen to involve the church…

First up, series 2 episode 2, ‘The Dead Mouse’. Hands-down the best example of how liturgy meeting a modern context, and an excellent use of a cheese sandwich. Karen conducts a mouse’s funeral:

“Dust to dust. For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. May the force be with you. Because you’re worth it. Amen and out.” Genius.

Secondly, why you should be careful in getting involved in theological discussions with children. This is more a Ben moment, but Karen’s interjections are fabulous:

But do you know why my family particularly liked Karen? Because in many ways she embodied some of the things that me or my sister did while growing up. The guilt-tripping of a mother after the mouse death? Totally my sister. The grilling of a vicar? Me. My Dad even brought it up in the letter he sent me on the eve of my selection conference for ordination! His tip was to treat everyone with respect, even idiots – a reference to ongoing list of idiots that Karen kept in early series, which was reminiscent of something I had done at the same age. (I think I may have had an idiots’ notebook…)

However, series 5 Karen was different. I did not have as much in common with a 12 year old Karen. A Karen who intimidated her swimming competitors in an effort to win, because she was that competitive. [Well, I’m competitive, but not psychologically intimidatingly so…] She didn’t use punctuation correctly. [As if I would stoop to that level!] She was struggling with school. She was convinced her lost hamster was alive and living in their home’s crevices. Life was not going brilliantly for Karen.

It wasn’t until the penultimate episode when a chink of light appeared in this darker world. Karen had a brief return to classic form, having written a detailed letter of improvements her school could make, and sent it to the school governors. The Headmistress (played fabulously by Rebecca Front) wasn’t impressed and called her in to talk, giving her a talking to that seemed to do what nothing in the preceding 7 years had done – repressed the irrepressible.

Maybe, just maybe, Karen will turn out to be as well adjusted as those who preceded her. She too could be an eccentric, but well loved, secondary school drama teacher or a vicar-to-be ready to answer a new generation’s precocious questions.

Here’s to all the Karens of the world – may they not tolerate fools gladly for as long as they live!

Comic Women

Last week, news broke that the BBC is cracking down on the gender imbalance of comedy panel shows – from now on, according to Danny Cohen (head of the BBC’s TV output), there will be no more all-male panel shows. All new episodes of series like QI, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You will have to include at least one woman.

This is something of a victory, but an interesting situation for funny women to find themselves in. Will they want to be a ‘token’ woman, at risk of mockery from some of comedy’s most cutting men? Will they be able to find enough women willing to step up and take a seat on such shows?

The first is a question that is up to individuals to answer. (Jo Brand has already publicly said she won’t accept invitations to appear on Mock the Week because of its culture of having to “bite off someone’s foot in order to say something”.) The second though, surely shouldn’t be an issue. The world is full of funny women – the producers of such shows may just have to put some work into finding them.

It’s strikingly similar to the situation in the church regarding women speakers at Christian events. So often the excuse for all-male line ups is “we didn’t know of any women who could do it”. Just like the church, on the comedy circuit, there are far more men than women. Women get stereotyped as only being relevant to other women (although, even if this were the case, that’s still 50% of the population). There is a bizarre, yet widely held view, that women just aren’t funny.

In my humble opinion, this is ridiculous. I was once part of a conversation involving two (respected) male friends, one of whom – very sweetly – insisted that I was a funny woman. But, he also insisted that I was a very rare instance of such a creature. The other friend, while accepting that I was amusing, could not name any women he genuinely found funny on TV. We were en route to a pub and once we got inside, the debate continued, involving more people. I know that some of the guys were deliberately playing Devil’s Advocate, but it goes to show that the belief is a widespread one.

But, to get back to the BBC. It’s a good decision. In the whole intentional versus token debate, while some might argue it smacks of tokenism, I’d argue it’s actually a great example of intentionality. People have been complaining about the lack of women on theses shows for ages, but little has changed. Now that they have to have a woman (or more!), they will be forced to get out there and find them. In the process, hopefully lots more opportunities will open up for female comics.

Female QII think, but am not certain, that this is the only majority-female line up QI’s seen. 

Personally, I think some of the funniest QI’s have been when Stephen Fry and Alan Davies have been outnumbered by women. (Such as Kaleidoscope, featuring Toksvig; Calman & Tarbuk.) In fact, one of my all-time favourite QI’s saw a balance of genders amongst the panel  (Alan Davies, Revd Richard Coles, Sue Perkins and Victoria Coren-Mitchell in Knights & Knaves) which was only marred by Coles’ regular use of the term “clergyman” when a non-gender specific term could have been used just as appropriately.

HIGNFY could do better, but at least does a good line in having some excellent female hosts and regularly utilising Coren-Mitchell to great effect. As for the radio, I think the News Quiz does a pretty good job of being representative as far as gender goes, but there’s always room for improvement. The biggest improvement of all would be getting beyond the usual female suspects and discovering some new talent – as I’m sure they themselves would agree. I’d be happy to volunteer my services…

Camilla Long HIGNFYOne lovely Twitter friend suggested last week, when this episode of HIGNFY was shown, that I was Ian Hislop’s desk-mate. Apparently, Camilla Long is my doppelgänger…

When passions collide

WARNING: CONTAINS SHERLOCK SPOILERS

Few things have been so cemented into my diary in these early days of 2014 than the three episodes of Sherlock, beginning on the very first day of the year. Never has New Year’s Day been so eagerly anticipated by seemingly the entire country.

Come 9pm, I was settled on the sofa, all set (bar a drink which I had to dash off for in the opening credits – sometimes I actually wish the BBC had adverts!) for 90 minutes of televisual delight. I think that almost unanimously, Sherlock fans were not disappointed. Twitter was ablaze with activity and my phone beeped perpetually all the way through [it’s a good job I was alone in the flat] with tweets and texts that said edifying things like “Cheekbones!” and “LONGER CURLIER HAIR!”.

St Barts HospitalOne of the most famous rooftops in London…

I may have been a late convert to the church of Sherlock – after all, I’d only watched his momentous fall from Barts on Christmas Eve, having watched most of series 2 on the ferry to Dublin. (Where I had one lovely moment and one awkward one. Lovely: the old lady sitting next to me said, as we began to prepare for disembarkation, “What was that you were watching? It looked very exciting!” Awkward: Realising that episode 1 contained a naked lady for a long period of time, plus Sherlock clad in a sheet that then gets pulled away. Why awkward? See aforementioned lovely moment.) But my comparatively short-term commitment was richly rewarded by an episode that managed to combine two of my favourite things: Cumberbatch and disused tubes stations.

More than one person tweeted/texted me words to the effect of: “I think they wrote this episode of Sherlock just for you! Benedict Cumberbatch and the tube – perfect match!” I mean honestly! There really aren’t enough TV dramas based in and around the world of London’s ghost stations – a plot device I sensed might be on its way as soon as the tube cropped up. Brilliant.

What was not brilliant was the amount of bashing the episode received for its London Transport inaccuracies. Listen up tube geeks, if you were real tube geeks you would know two very important pieces of information:

1. There are only three places where filming can take place easily – the closed since 1994 Aldwych station; the abandoned Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross; and the Waterloo & City Line which is closed for longer periods than other lines. (There’s also the bit of track beyond Aldgate where Metropolitan Line trains could swap with East London Line trains. They no longer do that, so it’s closed.)

2. Londoners would NOT  be happy if their regular station was closed for a day just so the BBC could use it. Think of the lost revenue, inconvenience and general inadequacy of an excuse that would be!

Thus, Buzzfeed was probably quite right in this instance:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 21.57.37

Yes, Watson’s journeying across London via tube was perhaps inaccurate. Yes, Sherlock’s mad motorbike dash to St James’ the Less (probably Pimlico) went unnecessarily over the river. But do I care? No. Because when it comes to creative, gripping and downright clever TV, I am perfectly happy to lay my geekery aside and just enjoy it – and I really wish some other nitpickers would do the same.

Returning to passions colliding. Hooray for opening so many TV viewers’ eyes to the world of disused tube stations. Now we can all be geeks together! (There’s been a fascinating increase in people sharing links to sites about them – lots more Friday Fun fodder.) Plus, anyone else notice that musicals even had their own role in the episode? Right towards the end, Les Mis – specifically Do You Hear the People Sing – playing at the start of the engagement drinks (at 1hr21 mins, if you want to go back and check).

Cumberbatch. Disused tube stations. Musicals.

Need I say more?

Well, just one more thing, and I’ll leave that to the lovely Laura who watched it at home with her family in Texas:

Lauren on InstagramWhat was she commenting on? This photo, of course:

Speedy's Sometimes, I like to take my runs along culturally interesting routes. (This is all of 15 mins walk from my flat.)

Young vicars??

“Do you ever feel as though doctors and police officers are getting younger all the time? Well, soon, your local vicar could be a young person too, thanks to a new Church of England initiative…” 

So began most of the 9 interviews I gave to local BBC radio stations yesterday morning. The first time I heard it, I had to restrain a giggle. Seriously? Were young vicars something to be feared? Were they seen to be a new thing? Where did BBC listeners think all the Bishops who’d been ordained in their 20’s some 30 years ago had been for the first part of their ministry?

Last week, the media team at Church House Westminster sent out a press release about a new internship programme for those aged 18-30 who are thinking about whether God is calling them into ministry. The BBC got interested in this – particular the ‘young’ element of it (and the fact that it was ‘unpaid’). They thought it would be a good idea to speak to someone training for ordination who had explored their calling while in their 20’s. This is where I fitted in – despite being the grand old age of 32, I was in my 20’s while I went through the selection process – and thus I found myself in a tiny studio at 6.30am on a Sunday morning, waiting to speak to 9 different radio presenters across the country.

It was fascinating. There really does seem to be a public perception that youth is a barrier to being an effective church leader. How can you be a vicar without plenty of life experience? Well, quite frankly, no two people of the same age have had the same amount of life experience. It’s much more important that those contemplating ordination are seen to have a level of maturity that enables them to understand where their life experience is lacking; seek opportunities to widen their experience; and to empathise with those they meet facing situations that they have no experience of. As a caveat though, that maturity is essential. If a 21 year old doesn’t seem to have it, they need to!

They wanted to know how congregations reacted to the sight of me, a ‘young’ person, at the front of the church leading a service or preaching a sermon. No one’s ever made a negative comment about my age, or suggested that I can’t possibly teach them anything in my sermon because they are 40 years older than me. Yes, my current church has a lot of young people in it, but it has plenty of older members too and I know they would say something if they felt there was an issue! In fact, the best thing about being young and being actively involved in services is that it inspires other people my age and younger to go and do likewise. To ask me about my own journey to ordination and seek advice about their own vocations. I did some calculations and realised that at my church, only three of our regular preachers are over the age of 40 (we have a group of around 11 or 12 that preach).

Are there even enough of this age group in the church to choose new vicars from? Despite what a former Archbishop said recently, yes!! [This is when my Missing Generation research becomes useful again.] Admittedly, the vast majority of 20s & 30s worship in the capital, but across the country, there are a lot of young people worshipping in Anglican churches and possibly contemplating ministry. Just last June, 80 young women exploring their call gathered in London for a vocations day – there is plenty of hope!

Young women gather at St Jude'sYoung women at St Jude’s in June, all exploring ordination.

Ultimately, having spent some time talking to those involved in the creation of the internship scheme and reading about it, I think it’s a good idea. Many people who feel called into ministry don’t have an opportunity to test it out in a really practical way. Yes, some will work as lay people for churches, but few churches can afford to have such employees. Some might have grown up in clergy families and have a very good idea about the practicalities of life as a vicar. (That was my own experience.) Perhaps they will have the chance to preach the occasional sermon, but will they have time alongside a full-time job?

So the scheme enables people who want to, to take a year out from secular employment and spend a year engaged in practical ministry. They don’t receive a salary, but they are provided with accommodation, food, travel and a small allowance. Plus, they receive some theological education and mentoring, ensuring that their personal development is monitored and that they have people with whom to discuss their vocational thoughts. Currently, the scheme (officially known as the Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme – CEMES)  is being piloted in four dioceses, with another 14 looking to take it up next year.

For the next week, if you’re so inclined, you can listen to me being questioned by a few of the BBC’s finest Sunday morning radio presenters. I’ve not provided links to all nine (partly because it would be tedious and repetitive; partly because some were very short), but it’ll give you a flavour…

BBC Cambridgeshire (2hrs 10mins) – I liked Cambridgeshire!

BBC Wiltshire (2hrs 54mins) – Wiltshire was also lovely. They also interviewed someone local after me, which thankfully backed up what I’d talked about & even mentioned pioneering things.

BBC Lancashire (2hrs 47mins) The toughest interview of the lot!

BBC Newcastle (1hr 40mins) – Where they seemed to think I was actually on the scheme, which was awkward – as was being disconnected right at the start of the interview! I was also asked if I was a good singer (!) and in typical British fashion, stumbled over my response in fear of sounding big-headed if I simply answered ‘yes’!

BBC Sussex & Surrey (2hrs 16mins) – where they surprised me an in-studio priest who disagreed the scheme. How nice of them!