A forum for faith

Paul Keenan goes behind the scenes at RTÉ’s Beyond Belief

Standing on a gantry high above the studio floor, the true working nature of an RTÉ studio programme becomes immediately clear.

The Irish Catholic is perched beyond the glare of the multiple lighting rigs which illuminate the clear demarcation below, between what the everyday viewer gets to see – something akin to a colourful oasis of calm for programme participants – and the ‘nuts and bolts’ human effort and hardware in constant motion behind the capturing lenses of no fewer than six cameras.

At the centre of all – in the final few hectic minutes before the demands for ‘go’ from the control booth – sits presenter Mick Peelo, the ‘hub’ for all in melding the two realms into what will become the final episode for this year of Beyond Belief.

In all, Mick explains after a successful and stimulating discussion between guests including Marty Whelan, Mary O’Rourke and singer Mary Byrne, there is a regular team of nine people compiling any given Beyond Belief episode. He name-checks team-mates Sean O Mealoid and Padraig O’Driscoll as two figures never seen by camera but who move quickly and efficiently across that invisible demarcation line in serving the needs of presenter and producers.


Mick views such support and teamwork as invaluable, not so much from the perspective of the man most in the glare of the RTÉ viewer, but as a man who readily admits as the current season of Beyond Belief comes to an end that he is “still learning” his studio craft.

“I’m 21 years with RTÉ and my bread and butter during that time has been Would You Believe,” he explains of that other staple of RTÉ’s religious affairs broadcasting, but which is, in format, a documentary-style programme.

In fact, Mick continues, it was that very format which led to the development of Beyond Belief.

“Documentaries are great, but we always felt that the religion department could do so much more with religion ‘of the day’,” Mick says, “developing on current stuff, something that is hard to do in putting together a documentary.”

By way of example, he points to Ireland’s current issues post-Celtic Tiger, saying that “theologians have been writing about the recession”.

It was this reality which led to plans for Beyond Belief, and an initial run of four episodes (now extended to six), dipping into issues both interesting and current. Thus, the first season looked at the economy, school patronage, gay marriage and blasphemy.


While the Beyond Belief remit in terms of current concerns and issues was clear from the outset, so too was the format of a non-confrontational encounter between guests participating in the studio discussion, what Mick refers to as “a respectful forum”.

What RTÉ viewers finally see during any given episode, Mick, points out, is the end of a sometimes difficult process on the part of all the team to form an interesting panel and then to capture them in the midst of what should be a natural discussion, albeit it one surrounded by cameras and chaired by Mick.

“It’s TV,” Mick says, “so it requires the right mix to engage the audience. There has to be an interaction between people who have different views, and while they are passionate about those views, they also have to be able to listen to the others. And they have to be interesting.”

Mick talks of a “natural environment” but also explains how he, as presenter, must be alert at all times as the show unfolds. “I have to listen to what people want to say, but at the same time, I have to know when to cut them off.”

Such a necessity for the show’s timeframe can be tricky, Mick admits, not least when guests offer intriguing insights. Referring to the most recent episode, where guests discussed ‘Life and Death’, he recalls being struck by Mary O’Rourke speaking of “bursting with love” for her late husband and allowing that conversation to flow.

“You have to let the discussion evolve but also bring it somewhere at the same time,” he explains.

Now finished the 2013 run and looking hopefully towards a further six episodes for next year, what would the Beyond Belief team like to do which has not, perhaps been done at this point?


“We would love to explore more,” Mick concedes. “And there is still so much room for exploration on faith matters.”

Mick points to Ireland’s current demographic make-up by way of proof.

“Beyond Belief has to reflect all faiths now present in Ireland,” he says. “We have to think ‘bigger’.” At the same time, he acknowledges that people also want to hold onto the ‘faith of their origins’ and the programme has a responsibility to reflect that too.

Common thread

There is one common thread, however, which lies at the heart of Beyond Belief for viewers, whatever their particular take on faith.

“It’s the pursuit of the other,” Mick says. “That transcendental pursuit still occupies people.”

Judging by eager feedback on the Beyond Belief website, Mick is spot on in that assessment.

“Because we pre-record, we have a comment line now for feedback from viewers so as to continue the conversation outside, beyond the studio,” he explains of that facility, something he is particularly pleased to have linked to the show. This, he says, demonstrates not only the show’s continuing popularity, but a tapping into an enduring truth in its hosting of “simple conversations on complex subjects”.

“Far from being a passé subject,” Mick points out, “people are more than willing to discuss faith.”