4 min read

Why we watch dark drama

Reviewing The Reckoning, and the reviewing cycle, leads George Pitcher to change his mind on whether to watch such darker dramas and documentaries.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A man in a tracksuit sits in an arm chair smoking a cigar while looking towards a curtained window.

The BBC’s four-part drama-documentary about the life and crimes of Jimmy Savile, The Reckoning, concluded. And the media caravan moves on. 

Its reviews have been mixed, to say the least. You may have got the gist of them: Steve Coogan was brilliant as Savile. But why would he do it? Other actors around him were equally good, if not better. The BBC was either brutally honest or self-exculpatory about its enablement of the monster. I particularly noticed a review line that emerged which hoped the BBC would concentrate on its safeguarding, rather than gather material for its drama department

There’s a case for taking a breath after the television reviewers have completed their work, of asking what we are left with after all this and whether there is a bigger picture than the one our television screens contained. 

The first window I want to look through is the church one forever stained by the hideous image of child sexual abuse. Those priests who over recent years have been exposed for these heinous crimes were not, unlike Savile, celebrities. They weren’t as often, like him, committing them in plain sight. But all child abusers, as adults, occupy a position of trust, either as family members, teachers, people of power or as priests, and they abuse that trust as they abuse their victims. 

I have had direct experience, as a parish priest, of two instances of child sexual abuse. In both instances, the clergy who abused are long dead. It may go without saying, but in both cases I have witnessed how the victims, now in late middle-age, have had their lives ruined as a consequence, how nothing can really be healed as such, but how we can only help them to manage. 

As for the perpetrators, they’re dead. As with Savile, the knowledge of this leaves a feeling that they got away with it and that justice has not been done, nor importantly seen to be done. 

The BBC’s depiction of him had him being tortured, to some degree at least, by his Roman Catholic faith, that he faced consignment to hell for his crimes and that his charitable works were an effort to compensate for his moral turpitude and get him to heaven. This was portrayed partly in a tentative fumbling for absolution in the confessional box.  

There’s no way to know whether that’s an accurate telling, but it’s not consistent with my memory of the conduct of his final years, nor with that of the period after his death in 2011, as evidence of his crimes emerged. That time was characterised more by intimidation of journalists with lawyers and calling in favours from police. Being in denial seems to have been more likely than being in the confessional space. 

That may have been true of abusive priests too. But it’s axiomatic also of a means to evade justice. One can only hope that they have faced divine judgement. But, then, who throws the first stone? 

I refused to watch it on the grounds that I feared it fell into a TV category that could bear the file name “true-crime titillation” 

I want to turn to another aspect of the reviewing cycle of The Reckoning: Should it have been made at all? This is not the question of whether it should have been made by the BBC, which harboured Savile’s career, but whether drama should be made out of the most atrocious of crimes. 

A very little over a year ago, Channel 5 screened Maxine, a three-part drama miniseries based on the murders of 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham at the hands of Ian Huntley, ostensibly from the viewpoint of his girlfriend Maxine Carr, unwittingly coerced into his attempted cover-up.  

I refused to watch it on the grounds that I feared it fell into a TV category that could bear the file name “true-crime titillation”. I also felt that the twentieth anniversary of the murders was too soon for these events to be revisited for dramatic purposes. 

I want to re-visit those opinions now, in light of The Reckoning. Savile was not a murderer, but he destroyed children's lives. It’s important, ultimately, that we know about him and of what he was capable. I have written recently, with regard to a documentary screened on Channel 4 about the Holocaust in Ukraine, that we don’t have the moral option nor the luxury of looking away. 

So this: Hats off to broadcast journalists and dramatists who face up to the darkest of crimes and human nature. Journalists show us (or should try to) that it’s really there. And it’s valid territory for drama producers, because it makes us think about it, if not understand it. That’s what drama does, or is supposed to. 

Finally, we acknowledge from dramatised events, perhaps, that no one is defined by a single aspect of the lives they lead. From this, we might pray that they (and we) may be forgiven somehow, by someone, simply because we can’t.  

1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.