When a television show runs for 56 years and is still going strong, that’s a remarkable achievement.
The BBC’s Songs of Praise, seen in Australia on ABC TV, is such a beast.
It made its debut in Britain in 1961 and since then has run weekly, showcasing the best of Christian hymns and enthusiastic choirs and congregations in cathedrals and parishes across Britain.
Part of its importance lies in the service it provides for housebound believers who find it difficult to get to a place of worship on Sunday—a weekly dose of Songs of Praise helps fulfil that social and spiritual need.
In a different life, I was an ABC Religious Programs producer, with responsibility for producing some of the Australian answer to Songs of Praise, ABC TV’s weekly Divine Service and Sunday Service and Community Hymn Singing for ABC Radio. I saw first-hand the joy these programs brought the featured church each week, and they were much loved by their target audiences.
Times and broadcasting fashions change, and sadly, the ABC no longer produces our own home-grown worship programs, but other channels have emerged to fill the gap.
However, there is still a significant viewer market in Australia for Britain’s Songs of Praise, so what lies behind its survival in the cut-throat world of television?
It’s because it has evolved from its simple days of one location and a congregation singing much-loved traditional hymns, to a program with impressive production values and high-profile hosts from a variety of backgrounds.
Former star choirboy and now adult singer, Welshman Aled Jones, is one regular Songs of Praise presenter, along with acclaimed Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. Then there is priest Kate Bottley, music theatre star Connie Fisher and media specialists Pam Rhodes and Sally Magnusson, among others. There is a pleasing diversity of ethnicity, with Sean Fletcher, Josie d’Arby, David Grant and JB Gill reflecting the diversity of 21st century society.
Some hosts, including Jones, d’Arby, Gill and Fletcher, are practising Christians, while others are gospel singers and media people or musicians with an interest in the Christian world.
While many Songs of Praise programs follow the original format, other programs respond to what is happening in the world. One episode celebrated the Queen’s and Prince Phillip’s 70th wedding anniversary, while another series of programs were a competition for gospel singers, and Alexandra Palace was the setting for a huge celebratory 50th birthday edition, featuring multiple choirs and soloists Katherine Jenkins, American country music star LeAnn Rimes, and blind tenor Andrea Bocelli.
The longevity and success of a religious music program like Songs of Praise surely reflects the view of The Salvation Army founder William Booth.
“Every note, and every strain, and every harmony is divine, and belongs to us.”