Answering the call for quality mainstream TV

Answering the call for quality mainstream TV Time for reflection for one of the seminarians who features in BBC Two’s Priest School.

At the end of every year I look back to see what outstanding religious programmes were broadcast on mainstream media and usually there’s not a huge lot, but last week there was one strong contender.

Priest School (BBC Two, Tuesday) was an endearing insight into the training of priests in the Scottish College in Rome. We got to see an impressive bunch of young men: confident, cheerful, enthusiastic, devout, modest and very human, all at various stages of their seven-year priestly training.

Distinctive in their blue soutanes we saw them getting to meet Pope Francis, along with the eight Scottish bishops on their ad limina visit to Rome in 2018. We got some vocation stories though I’d like to have heard more of those.

These were distinctive but familiar in a way – an invite to Mass from a practising Catholic friend, an experience of service on a trip to the developing world, an interior questioning about the meaning of life, a persistent sense of a calling that wouldn’t go away.

Most had held down other jobs in their adult lives (one had been a disc jockey, one had studied law) and they seemed all the more mature for having that life experience before joining the seminary. We did learn however that there was around a 70% dropout rate, and the one student, Mark, who was in his final year was the only one of his starting group to make it to ordination – quite a moving ceremony at the end in Motherwell, Scotland, when we briefly got to meet his family – actually, I would like to have seen more of the families of the semanarians.


Such strong  people of Faith are rare enough when it comes to TV drama, though so many other groups have to be made ‘visible’ in TV and film dramas these days. One noticeable exception was the film Greyhound, which landed on Apple TV on Friday with very little fanfare. Tom Hanks played a navy captain escorting a merchant fleet across the Atlantic during the Second World War, and in an early scene we saw him praying by his bedside.

Right through the drama he was a man of Faith and honour. He fought against the German submarines attacking the fleet in mid-ocean, too far out for air support, but was conscious of the unfortunate casualties when they sank a sub.

He said grace before several meals that he never got to enjoy because some crisis distracted him. In an emotional scene he conducted a dignified and prayerful service of burial at sea but was also a calm, competent commander.

The violence was not graphic, and while there was one ‘f’-word it was apologised for immediately.

The sea battle scenes were tense and exciting, though the digital effects were rather obvious. As often in war films it was hard to distinguish some of the young navy men from each other but I did like the way camera focused on their worried expressions. Hanks wrote the script himself and it was rather minimalistic, with lots of technical detail about radar, sonar and the like.

The inclusion of Elizabeth Shue as the love interest was also minimalistic – she had little to do, and perhaps a longer lead in to the sea voyage might have been helpful for more effective character development.

So, while some trends see certain groups of people being made more visible, there are other trends that find certain groups of people being made more invisible.

So it is with ‘cancel culture’, a phrase surfacing a lot in the media of late, largely due to the welcome fight back from various writers including J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky.

The issue was discussed on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk) Wednesday of last week, when presenter Ivan Yates discussed the issue with journalist Brenda Power and UCC lecturer Amanullah De Sondy.

Power was strong on the fundamental right of free speech and warned against the new intolerance that could lose people their jobs overnight, while De Sondy stressed the importance of considering the impact on others of how we exercise this right.

I was uneasy about her use of the word “we” (who exactly?) and her vague concept of ‘a moral and ethical reckoning’. Both seemed to agree that free speech was important but that ideas needed to be ‘interrogated’ (De Sondy) and bad ideas defeated by ‘exposure, argument and persuasion’ (Power). An important discussion.


Pick of the Week
EWTN, Sunday, July 19, 9am

Themes of freedom and choice are seen as moral backbones in Shakespeare’s  dramas.

RTÉ One, Sunday, July 19, 11am

Fr Luuk Jansen OP celebrates Mass marking the 30th anniversary of Youth 2000, an evangelical group that promotes faith among young Catholics.

BBC Two, Sunday, July 19, 1.50pm

Rev. Kate Bottley and broadcaster Ashley John-Baptiste reveal the inspiring stories of how people around the country lead spiritually and emotionally fulfilling lives.