Using the Vicar of Dibley Backfires

I’m sure someone at the Make Poverty History campaign thought it would be a really great idea to give a visible launch to the campaign through the Vicar of Dibley, the BBC were probably also keen, as alongside the launch show that went out on New Years Day, they also got a Christmas special into the bargain, which is of course where the problem comes from.

Firstly it is worth noting that, in common with a lot of representations of the Church of England on TV, the Vicar of Dibley is stunningly inaccurate. (As a side note, on one of the occasions that EastEnders used my parents church a couple of years ago, the scripted service bore no relation to a real service and the vicar ended up providing the text of a service on the day. Revd Richard has also ended up on screen as part of an ITV drama that used our churchyard through a similar mess that left Richard as the person who knew what was supposed to happen at a military funeral.) Turning back to the Vicar of Dibley, the problem is that although most people closely involved with churches could easily list off a number of the inaccuracies, the majority of the audience won’t notice any problem at all. Essentially, Vicar of Dibley is a Richard Curtis comedy series that just happens to involve a vicar, however by it’s subject matter it is much more likely to attract a Church audience than any other similar comedy.

Had the BBC just gone with the Make Poverty History episode, there probably wouldn’t be too much of a problem, however the episode that went out on Christmas day has kicked up quite a stir. A number of the secular discussions I’ve read on the episode have said that it was probably the worst episode they’ve done, and that a number of the jokes were pushing the bounds somewhat. In church terms, another big problem area was that Richard Curtis chose the Christmas episode to pretty strongly bang home his opinion on the whole Jeffrey John/Gene Robinson affair, which not suprisingly was, like most of the population at large, he didn’t see what the problem with a gay bishop was. Whilst I and a large part of the Church of England may well agree with much of what he was trying to say, in light of the ongoing debate and calls for restraint, it was delivered at the wrong time, and I can very much appreciate that the way it was delivered, wrapped up as it was in a series of jokes that a number of people would regard as offensive, and delivered as it was on the day of a major Christian festival, went down spectacularly badly. As I said to Beth at the time, I thought that the episode would spectacularly upset at least 50% of the church. The whole issue needs to be sensitively handled when dealing with groups of church people, both groups need to respect each others opinion and recognise that in both groups the beliefs are deeply held. However in the case of the Christmas episode, sensitivity went out of the window.

After that, it was with no great suprise when one of the notices on our pew sheet this week gave the address of the BBC Complaints/Information department, and suggested that we might like to express our opinions on the Christmas Day episode.

So then, into that situation, on New Years Day we got the second special. As I have said, this was an altogether more serious show. One of the key strands of the plot was to launch the Make Poverty History campaign, and how in general, we are much more concerned by trival matters such as the new traffic lights outside Sainsbury’s, rather than the fact that 30,000 people a day die in the world as a result of poverty. There have been a number of similar campaigns over recent years to do with fair trade, writing of third-world debt, but this campaign is tied to the fact that during 2005 the UK is going to host the G8 summit and hold the EU presidency, as a result an incredible array of organisations, including the major UK Churches, and well know charities that St James supports have brought together the campaign. Before Christmas I’d recieved several flyers from a number of different places, aimed at church people, and trailing the campaign, and the special episode.

The episode of the Vicar of Dibley finished by using one of the Make Poverty History videos (video 3 on the web site if you didn’t see the programme), and then a simple closing credits sequence, powerful enough that the BBC put up the number for their action line for people affected by the programme to call. Whilst on it’s own it probably would have gone down fine, and to the audience at large it probably did significantly raise the profile of the campaign, in the context of the Christmas episode it is a real problem.

From my point of view on the Communications group at St James it poses a big problem. The campaign is a major series of events backed by charities that our Church supports, indeed backed by the Church of England itself. The topics are continuations of subjects we’ve covered with the Youth Group, and within the wider church community. However the main way that much of the public will now know about the campaign is through a TV show that has offended a proportion of the church, but in a way that the general public would probably not appreciate. Such is the lack of subtlety with the press that the fact that as a church we are supporting the Make Poverty History campaign but quite separately members are offended by the programme that launched it will get lost, and if reported is more than likely to come out as St James being against the whole Make Poverty History campaign. Having said that it needs to be handled in such a way that those who have been offended by the Christmas episode do not feel that their opinions have been ignored, nor that their right to be offended has denied. Whilst I’m not quite sure the best way to steer things through at St James, from my point of view I can certainly feel a stiff letter to the BBC may be a place to start. Whilst thier opinion is pretty obvious from this episode, and their choice of location for Sunday Worship on Boxing Day, I would hope that they regard the Make Poverty History campaign as more important than continuing to stir up the ongoing debates within the Church!

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