The God Slot 

1 February 2005 tbs.pm/2060

In the immediate post-war years, television took very much in second place to radio, both as a national forum and in terms of the size of the audience. In addition, there was more intensive quality and quantity guidance by the state as to what was seen and when it could be shown.

It was the Post Office, then a government ministry, that regulated broadcasting from the state point of view, and the Independent Television Authority that oversaw the particular operating concerns of commercial television.

There was, for example, an instruction from the Postmaster General – the then- minister for broadcasting – that the television channels must close down for an hour on weekdays after children’s TV ended at 6pm. This was nicknamed the ‘Toddler’s Truce’ by the newspapers of the time, and was deemed to be a period when mothers would be putting younger children to bed.

Sagely, psychologists had advised the government that this break would make it easier to get toddlers to sleep and prevent what were expected to be inevitable tantrums as they were called away from the new magic of TV. This was deemed to be ‘in the interests of the nation’ and serves as an indication of how different from today was the Britain of the fifties.

There was a further instruction from the Post Office – supposedly originated at cabinet level – that both BBC and ITV services would close down for seventy minutes on a Sunday evening from 6.15 to 7.25.

This was an era when church attendance was much higher than it is today, and regarded as a critical part of the national fabric. It was not felt proper to do anything that might subtract from attendance at the services that all churches ran on Sunday evenings.

Some years later, the closedown for ‘church attendance protection’ ended. This was partly as a result of pressure by Howard Thomas, managing director of ABC Television, who knew that viewing momentum and channel dynamics were lost by an enforced closedown. In association with other ITV moguls, he asked the ITA to request the Post Office to relax the restriction, providing that the programmes newly-created for that slot would be mainly religious in nature and carry no advertising.

The politicians, and thus the ITA, reluctantly agreed, and the ‘God Slot’ was born. A seventy-minute period without any advertising material was itself a novelty on ITV, and gave the channel its biggest conceptual boost into ‘Public Service’ broadcasting – something it is only now trying to shed some 45 years later.

Sixties ITV filled the newly-created timeslot with a ‘religious youth club of the air’ and simply called it Sunday Break. It was produced by ABC.

At the BBC, which followed suit some time later, various producers, sometimes clerics themselves, were drafted in to produce and direct the new shows.

All of the regional ITV companies over the years produced their own religious programmes, the Welsh and Scots making programmes in Gaelic and Welsh as part of their commitment to the provision of specialist national output. Some companies ended their evening transmissions with an ‘Epilogue’. This was a short five- to ten-minute programme that was initially religious in content, often a straight to-camera talk from a local cleric. In later years, these programmes became more imaginative and social affairs orientated.

Examples included Last Programme, devised and screened initially by Rediffusion in London and carried on under its successor Thames. Uniquely, it went out seven days a week, and from 1968 was the only Thames programme to be screened by adjacent ITV contractor London Weekend. Last Programme was made by Thames’s Features and Religious Department, based at the company’s studios in Euston Road.

Margery Baker, a staff producer at Thames Television, organised their network religious output such as Good Friday services, covered by the Thames outside broadcast department and led by their experienced events directors Steve Minchin and Bob Service. Anglia, the Norwich-based ITV station, ran their programme, The Big Question, for many years. This featured a Catholic friar and ministers from the Methodist and Anglican churches debating church issues. The Big Question was given network status in the late 60s and transmitted across ITV on Sundays at 6.35pm.

These Sunday slots were a rare opportunity for smaller companies to gain network showings for their local religious productions. They also often provided a musical dimension, with shows like A Hymn for Britain and A Carol for Easter networked from Southern and fronted by Fred Dinenage. Ulster got slots for films on The Book of Kells or ‘religious light entertainment’ with singer Dana. Anglia (with support from Rediffusion) provided a very good archaeology series, directed by Forbes Taylor and presented by the late Brian Hope-Taylor (Francis Pryor circa 1965!) called Who Were The British?

On behalf of the original ITV network, weekend companies ATV London and ABC, later London Weekend and Yorkshire, were strongly committed to their religious output and products included some expensive drama. This included Adam Smith, a Sunday religious soap, starring Andrew Kerr as a church minister and filmed in Manchester. It featured religious and social themes and issues of family life, and was produced by veteran of Coronation Street, June Howson.

There was a marked difference between the way BBC and ITV producers worked. The BBC had an established Religious Programmes Department, at Kensington House in London, and their production teams, including some clerics, worked on religious TV around the calendar. At ITV, there were religious programme advisors for each ITV company, but the staff for religious TV was drawn from the general staff. This meant that one day an Anglia TV director like Len Caynes would be directing Racing from Newmarket into ABC’s networked World of Sport on Saturday and the next he could be directing Morning Worship from Norwich to the network on the Sunday morning. As a result it was often the case that the town of origin of Sunday’s religious service would depend on the local ITV company covering a particular football or wrestling match nearby on the preceding Saturday afternoon. The location had to be the same, as the outside broadcast fleet could not be in two places at once!

ATV joined in with children’s series on multi-languages and religions, made under Philip Grosset, Head of Education, including networked puppet series such as the Wibbledy Wobbledy Way, with Koala Bears Tingha and Tucker and ‘Auntie’ Jean Morton. In the 70s Yorkshire TV chipped in with Jess Yates in Stars on Sunday – sugary fare indeed, by the standards of today.

In the 1980s, ITV handed responsibility for co-coordinating coverage of all religious services to just one of the programme companies (much in the same way that Central in Birmingham later took charge of Children’s ITV presentation).This was initially Tyne-Tees Television. Their head of religious television, Rev. Maxwell Deas, had provided commentary for many Tyne-Tees religious programmes. Many regional companies then contributed to Morning Worship in much the same way they did for About Britain, an afternoon documentary series, showing the network the cream of short regional TV features.

ITV returned to entertainment-led religious programmes for its 7pm Sunday slot in the eighties and nineties. The backbone of this was Highway, a programme of song and music presented by Sir Harry Secombe. Each week a different regional ITV broadcaster made the programme as Sir Harry travelled the country. As with Morning Worship, it initially fell to Tyne-Tees to manage the show, but in the nineties responsibility for co-ordinating both Morning Worship and Highway switched from Tyne-Tees to Anglia. By the late nineties, the regulators of independent broadcasting were adopting a much lighter level of intervention for programme content.

ITV has reduced its commitment to religious programmes, and Morning Worship ended a few years ago. ITV now puts out My Favourite Hymns – an interview-style show featuring a guest, as the name suggests, choosing their own best-loved hymns. However, once a month there is a service element to the programme fronted by John Stapleton and presented to ITV from Granada in Manchester, produced by Sarah Murch and directed by Debra Prinsellar.

On Christmas Eve, ITV1 still shows a live service at around 11.15pm – but no longer runs a live church service on Christmas morning.

Melvyn Bragg, who has produced and presented arts and religious programmes for the network from London Weekend Television throughout the year, still continues to present various late-night religious debates or documentaries on ITV. This remains a graveyard slot for all the TV channels as viewers turn away to bed.

ITV has asked Ofcom in its review of the channel’s public service obligations, to allow ITV1 either to produce much less religious TV or to drop it entirely. It has less relevance to viewers than it used to, and those really keen for televised worship may choose to view The God Channel or other digital outlets.

ITV has, over the years, relayed services from Mosques, Hindu or Sikh Temples and Jewish Synagogues but Christian denominations have always been in the majority.

On the BBC side, it would seem that Songs of Praise would not be the viewing choice of many today, but the BBC is likely to continue with it, and its other religious programmes, including the wider based-Sunday BBC1 social affairs live discussion show, The Heaven and Earth Show, for the foreseeable future as the main provider of public service broadcasting.

BBC television services are currently being reviewed, but funds for religious programmes of some kind remain assured, though there will be more account taken of the UK’s changing and growing multi-faith environment. Part of the debate is whether or not another new public service-orientated channel will emerge, funded by all the key broadcasters, to take over responsibility for non-BBC programming of this sort.

Channel 4 wishes to retain a public service element and to make some social and religious TV, but claims it needs financial support to produce public service programming in a multi-channel market. Five broadcasts more than 52 hours of commissioned or co-produced religious programming each year with a range that reflects the multi-faith Britain in which we live. Recent examples of arts/religious series include Divine Designs, Easter in Art, Madonna and Child, and Painting the Christmas Story, and coming up, a series that looks at Islam through art and architecture.

While traditional and protected religious slots have gone, and Sunday closures of television to enable worshippers to go to church are purely for the history books, there will still remain programmes of a religious nature in the schedules. Interested viewers will have to spend a bit more time scanning the TV programme magazines and electronic programme guides to find them, but they will doubtless be there.

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