Christmas on the Radio

Chris Deacy, University of Kent

20 December 2017

In 1944 Cyril Garbett, the Archbishop of York, wrote in the Radio Times that “the wireless and the English tongue are means by which God’s message of love and peace can spread through the world” (in Connelly 2012: 152). Fast forward more than 70 years and we find that when we gather around the radio at Christmas time such a sense of community is garnered that the season takes on the characteristics of a secular religion. Indeed, there are commitments and rituals – even, forms of devotion – on display that it might require on our part a willingness to reframe the boundaries around what we consider to constitute ‘religion’. It might even be the case that the secular can take on religious properties, in a manner which conforms with how for Mazur and McCarthy religious meaning may increasingly be “found in activities that are often considered meaningless” (2011: 2).

It was with these considerations in mind that I wrote Christmas as Religion, in which I argued that the sense of fandom and community generated each year by Christmas Junior Choice on Radio 2 are as fertile when it comes to exploring matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values as those made within religious broadcasting. If, for example, we might be inclined to see our ultimate spiritual meaning to lie in our relationships with others, then Junior Choice might be a prime example of an alternative way to form a concept of religion, with its devotees who construe the two hours of nostalgia and reconnecting with the past on Christmas morning as a form of transcendent, even sacred, time.

Ed Stewart, Christmas Junior Choice

Crucially, we might want to ask whether the fact that the BBC Charter requires the organization to broadcast at least 110 hours of faith-based content per year, across television and radio, adequately reflects the extent to which religion is being produced or disseminated. It may, rather, be the BBC’s secular output that is shaping the content and format of religion today.

On 29 November 2017 the BBC issued a press release titled ‘Christmas Religious Programming on the BBC’, in which its Commissioning Editor of Religion & Ethics, Fatima Salaria, announced that “The BBC’s religion output at Christmas aims to bring communities together to reflect on the true meaning of this very special time of the year” ( She continued that it was the “fantastic mix of traditional carols, festive music, spiritual contemplation and live worship we are offering” that would give audiences “a variety of opportunities to celebrate the festive season in their own personal way.”

Curiously, though, when one looks beyond substantive approaches to religion, in which traditional institutional dimensions of religion are being emphasized, we find that, as Susan Douglas’s comprehensive study of American radio has shown, “Few inventions invoke such nostalgia, such deeply personal and vivid memories, such a sense of loss and regret” and that “there are few devices with which people from different generations and backgrounds have had such an intimate relationship” (Douglas 2004: 3). As well as shaping our desires, fantasies and images of the outside world – indeed, “our very imaginations” – she sees radio as having helped us to “create internal maps of the world and our place in it, urging us to construct imagined communities to which we do, or do not, belong” (ibid.: 5). For Barnard, also, “For most of us, life without radio is difficult to imagine” and, of “all the major mass communications media, radio is perhaps the most ubiquitous and most easily available…, punctuating, enlivening and infiltrating the lives of its listeners” (Barnard 2000: 2).

If this is the case, then radio can function as a tradition-supplying resource which, in addition to transmitting religious content, is able to mediate and engender religious experience. According to Stewart Hoover, “The realms of ‘religion’ and ‘media’ can no longer be easily separated”, as he sets about trying to “chart the ways that media and religion intermingle and collide in the cultural experience of media audiences” (2006: 1), as they “occupy the same spaces, serve many of the same purposes, and invigorate the same practices in late modernity” (ibid.: 9). With this in mind, radio is not just about broadcasting religion, along the lines of the BBC’s charter, but it is about doing religion. As with so much of what religion purportedly does with its adherents through community, radio “creates a unique intimacy with its listeners who can interact with it through their imagination” and, as a companion, can be “used as a friend to provide company, buck us up when we are feeling down or relax us when we are tired and tense” (Fleming 2002: 1).

Crucially, as Douglas sees it, “Most modes of listening generate a strong feeling of belonging” (2004: 8) in a manner which accords with the findings of Abby Day’s research that people tend to identify “their human relationships as most important to them in informing their beliefs and morality” (2013: 68) and that, asked what they believed in, many of her informants would answer that they believe in their relationships with other people as the most important values in their lives. This shift in the understanding of transcendence from a theocentric to an “everyday, human, social” (ibid.: 71) context helps us to understand how, through radio, we have ties to a virtual community of people who share our same tastes and predilections – Douglas refers to when “40 million people, for example, tuned into exactly the same thing” and there is an almost sacred dimension to her talk of how in the “act of listening itself” one knows that they “and other listeners are experiencing that very moment of [their] lives in exactly the same way” (2004: 24) – and to presenters who often speak to us “in the most intimate, confidential, and inclusive tones” (ibid.: 22).

At Christmas time, this ‘secular sacred’ way of understanding the festival is especially pronounced. I recently undertook a study of Christmas output across the BBC’s national, regional and local networks on Christmas Day 2015 where the role of family and community was much in evidence. On Radio Solent’s breakfast show Louisa Hannan conveyed to her listeners that Christmas morning “is the best time to be on the radio”. Her mission was one of ensuring that “if you’re on your own for Christmas we’re here to keep you company throughout the day, and all over the festive period”, and there were frequent references to how “money can’t buy that sort of thing”. The pastoral aspect of radio was reinforced by how for Hannan “I think most of us look back and there is somebody that we’re thinking of, at least one person today”, including those who have lost someone close to them and that “It’s not a nice time is it to be on your own, but we’re here to keep you company”. ‘Conventional religion’ played a relatively small role in the programme, taking merely the form of a pre-recorded homily from the Bishop of Winchester, The Right Revd. Tim Dakin, who related the arrival of a new baby in a family to how “Jesus is the gift God wants us to have… in effect inviting us to hold him in our hands and to discover the hope that living with him brings”, though “Like many refugees today the holy family were left far from their own community, dependent on others and unable to return to their own home”.

The community angle was reinforced on the programme that followed when Tristan Pascoe welcomed those listeners who “may well be finding themselves without someone special for the first time this year”, adding that “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you”. There was much reciprocity, with Pascoe thanking the listeners for letting him be a part of their special day – “you know I feel I’m among friends this morning, which is lovely” – which he described as “a very intimate feeling, I feel it’s just us out there”.

If Day is correct, then, that “Christianity functions in [people’s] lives to reinforce familial, ethnic and social conditions”, and in terms of how they stress “responsibility for personal destiny” (2013: 68), then the way in which listeners prioritized family, charity, acts of kindness, and the need to reach out to relatives, friends and those dear to us who might be alone at Christmas (as when for Tristan Pascoe “You’re all part of the family, you’re very welcome along here and we’re glad to have you, and I’m glad to be here as well, thanks for having me”), suggest the pre-eminent role of the sacred in British society. Day, indeed, specifically categorizes ‘love’, ‘family’, ‘fairness’ and ‘kindness’ as manifestations of the sacred, and the fact that they are not explicitly grounded in ‘religious’ vocabulary does not obviate the degree to which they need to be factored into what we consider to be the role that religion plays in Christmas radio. If, in short, Day is right that most people ‘believe’ in their relationships with other people, such that their “orientation” is “to people, not to gods, and thus anthropocentric seems to convey best the idea that human beings are ‘centric’ to their lives and it is with them they locate power and authority” (2013: 73), then we need to ensure that we are looking for such demonstrations and expressions of religious and/or sacred behaviour and values in the right places.

So, when Junior Choice returns to the airwaves this Christmas with Anneka Rice in the hot seat, don’t groan or reach for the off button when you hear ‘The Laughing Gnome’ or ‘Nellie The Elephant’. For, it might just be the most fertile – if unlikely – manifestation of religion that you are going to hear on the radio this year.

Chris Deacy is Reader in Theology and Religious Studies, and has been at Kent since 2004.  Chris’ most recent monograph, Christmas as Religion, published by Oxford University Press in August 2016, takes issue with traditional ways of conceptualizing the relationship between Christmas and religion. Instead of associating ‘religion’ with formal or institutional forms of Christianity or seeing Christmas as a commercial and secular holiday, Deacy argues that it is in a supernaturally-themed Christmas film about Santa or a Christmas radio programme such as BBC Radio 2’s Christmas Junior Choice that matters of faith, identity, beliefs and values – traditionally seen as lying within the domain of ‘religion’ – are played out in the world today.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Trouble at Sea: The perilous journey of The Voyage of Charles Darwin (1978)

Mark Fryers, University of East Anglia

12 September 2017

The seven-part drama series The Voyage of Charles Darwin was the BBC’s flagship production in 1978 (released on DVD 2014), tracing the scientist’s rise from youth to old age and centring on his voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle, during which he formulated his theory of natural selection Produced by Christopher Ralling, written by scientist Robert Reid and directed by Martyn Friend it also featured sequences filmed by Ned Kelly of the natural history unit. It therefore offered the perfect combination of the BBC’s greatest virtues- the costume drama and the wildlife documentary. Indeed, it was universally praised by critics who commended it as a rare example of licence payer’s money being put to good use.  Chris Dunkley of the Financial Times summed up the view of critics suggesting that the series was ‘quite probably the best television production in the world in 1978’ and furthermore one which reflected the BBC charter: ‘it was “disseminating information, education and entertainment” all at once’ (20th December 1978). However, as the production files reveal, it was a long, expensive and onerous journey to find a suitable ship to replicate Darwin’s famous voyage in The Beagle, which despite the series’ critical adulation, perhaps suggests why maritime dramas featuring sailing ships were a scarce commodity on British screens in the following 30 years.

Figure 1: The opening titles offered a Darwinian view of the natural world

In the 1970s, the BBC was no stranger to the age of sail, with the series The Onedin Line, concerning a Victorian shipping Empire, running for nine popular seasons between 1971- 1980. It also produced a series about Cook’s voyages, The  Explorers, in 1975 and coverage of the annual tall ships race was always a popular fixture. Despite this, producers faced real challenges attempting to source authentic ships to replicate 19th Century sea travel. When it came to finding a ship to not only resemble the HMS Beagle but also seaworthy enough to replicate its journey along the coast of South America, it proved so difficult that there were genuine misgivings whether the programme could indeed be made.

Research was conducted at maritime museums and it was suggested to Ralling that Onedin’s flagship, ‘The Charlotte Rhodes’ be borrowed, but it proved too unlike the Beagle (noted as an ‘oddity’ in its construction according to the curator of the maritime museum in Newport, Rhode Island).  Indeed, all potentially available ships proved so unlike the Beagle that a drastic and costly solution was eventually decided upon. A ship, the Brigantine The Marques, was found and it was to be retrofitted in order to resemble The Beagle (a 10 gun Barque) which included converting the mast to a square rig, fitting false rigging, windows and cannon ports and building up the poop deck to include a cabin, to be completed in time for June 1977 (whilst fitting a suitable engine to make time on the voyage). This was a costly solution in that not only would the requisite craftsman be employed to ensure the ship was aesthetically accurate, but also it had to be seaworthy enough to make the sailing schedule, which began in Cornwall in July 1977, moved on to Salvador in Brazil, then onto Punta Arenas & Puerta Williams in Chile and finally the Galapagos Islands, before sailing home. Aligned to this was the necessity of employing experienced crew to pilot the vessel throughout (and suitable insurance costs for such an unusual venture).  In this, the BBC had been fortunate in forging a beneficial working relationship with the Admiralty for the contemporary Royal Naval drama series Warship (1973-77), for which ships, equipment and personnel were loaned on an industrial scale. The Navy certainly lent their assistance, but it came at a cost. A Navigation Officer and ordinary seamen were required and the Chief Sailmaker was employed from the Royal Naval Seamanship School in Portsmouth, yet as he would be away from the school for so long, he had to be suitably remunerated. Indeed, early correspondence in 1977 between the BBC and the Admiralty shows the former expressing surprise that they were being charged for the hire of items such as charts, inflatables and a radio transmitter. This is despite the suggestions of Robin Cecil-Wright (owner of The Marques) that they offer it as a training exercise for the Admiralty and an opportunity for publicity and promotion of its hydrography department- one of its ‘less glamorous branches’. In a letter to Ralling dated as far back 29th September 1976, Wright declared, ‘It has been extremely difficult and the costs involved are to me quite horrifying’.

These were not the only challenges the production faced, with the instability of the political climate also a consideration (Argentina in particular, for which northern Norway was considered as an alternative filming location). As Ralling concedes in a memo dated February 28th 1977. ‘It should be stressed that the dates [for schedule] are approximate, and may be subject to considerable alteration for unforeseen political, climatic or financial reasons’, also conceding that the venture may yet ‘prove impossible’. Technical Delays indeed did hit the expedition, with The Marques arriving late at both South American locations,  pushing the cost of conversion and extras for filming to a dangerous level, leading Rallings to concede that the production had ‘severely overspent’. There were continuing telegrams and letters flying back between South America and Television Centre contesting costing and budgetary issues. Indeed, the knock on-effect was felt on other productions such as Poldark losing money on lost filming as a result. This delayed the expedition by days at a time, which meant spending more money on the production, which increased the already generous budget.

In the end, as with any successful sea voyage, the challenges were overcome, and although the budget increased, it was still not extortionate for a flagship costume drama (no pun intended).  As we have seen, the critical reception confirmed this. Indeed, the ship itself became the central metaphor for the series. It is present in the very beginning as the prow of the boat dissolves into the punt young Charles is sailing on in Cambridge, as he drifts throughout his aimless younger years. In episode three, when Darwin is formulating his theory of evolution, he uses the Beagle as a metaphor for the natural order:

An activity as complex as sailing the Beagle clearly requires skill and coordination on the part of her crew. Yet I was observing activities in the natural world requiring an equal measure of skill, some indeed of infinitely greater complexity. Unless some other species were of equal intelligence to man [sic], then the only way they could perform such tasks must be through inherited instinct

When Darwin first encounters the Beagle in person he declares, “The vessel looked so beautiful, even a landsman would have had to admire her…the Beagle seemed to me to represent the very essence of excitement and adventure”. This attitude was also not lost on the critics, with Christopher Nicholson summing up the attitude, ‘The voyage was the magnificent centre- piece of the whole production. We got to know that little ship as none other that has sailed across the TV screen’ (Daily Mail, 13th December 1978).


Figures 2 and 3: In episode 1, the prow of the Beagle segues into an image of young Charles punting in Cambridge, enmeshing their respective destiny’s

The Voyage of Charles Darwin represented a bold and calculated risk on behalf of the BBC and one which not only thrilled audiences of the time, continues to stand up as an example of imaginative broadcasting. Others were not so fortunate. In 1980, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe, Westward Television put together a drama series, Drake’s Venture, which similarly retraced his voyage. For this production, a costly replica of Drake’s ship, ‘The Golden Hind’, was built from scratch. Although well-received, it was shown only once in the UK and on PBS in the United States and the drama remains unreleased, stuck in licensing disputes, whilst Westward lost their ITV licence the same year and folded. It was not until 1998, and ITV’s ambitious resurrection of Hornblower that a similar feat was attempted. This production also required a boat to be re-constructed, but by this time, CGI had begun to eliminate some of the general rigours associated with filming at sea. Thus, almost twenty years later, nautical TV dramas abound, undoubtedly buoyed by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films series, from The Last Ship (2014- ), through Black Sails (2014- ) to the recent BBC series Taboo (2017- ). However, one wonders whether current producers are faced with the same obstacles as Ralling & Friend faced whilst tracing Darwin’s steps, on their literal and metaphorical voyage of discovery.

Figure 4: The closing credits attested to the romance of the age of sail and the importance of The Beagle to both the production and in the genesis of Darwin’s iconoclastic theories

The trailer for The Voyage of Charles Darwin:

Newspaper sources courtesy of the BFI (page numbers unspecified). All other sources courtesy of the BBC Written Archives, Caversham: The Voyage of Charles Darwin production files, T64/472, with thanks to archivist Louise North for her expertise and assistance.

Dr Mark Fryers completed his AHRC-funded PhD in 2015 on British National Identity and maritime film and television and has since published articles and book chapters on, amongst others, The Onedin Line, Howards’ Way, To the Ends of the Earth, global maritime animation and the nautical spaces of gothic and horror film and television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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