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Last month, Graham Nicholls launched a scathing attack on Songs of Praise, arguing the programme is "bland", contains "very little real cultural engagement" and fails to "defend the faith". Here, one of the producer directors of the show, Mark Warburton responds to these criticisms
I’ve been making Songs of Praise for 20 years. Alongside our team of two dozen in Salford, we work with scores of freelancers and top musicians to create the best programme we can.
In Graham Nicholls’ recent blog where he criticised the show, he admitted that he’s not a regular viewer. Well, Graham, I invite you to watch! You may be pleasantly surprised!
Songs of Praise is the world’s longest-running, continuous religious TV programme. And we are unashamedly a feel-good show - we aim to inspire, entertain, and leave our viewers smiling.
It's a common misconception that we show church services with sermons. Graham is right – sermons aren’t what we do: at our heart, we’re a worship music programme.
In the 58 years that Songs of Praise has existed, its primary purpose has never been apologetics or biblical exposition. Instead we aim to celebrate life in all its fullness, raising our eyes - and hopefully those of our viewers - to the heavens.
Contrary to what Graham claimed, all of our presenters are in fact Christians, representing different denominations. He also suggested we fail to make known the “unique and demanding claims of Christ”. In reality, we do aim to reflect this and many of our features demonstrate an outrageously loving, redemptive God shown through the life and sacrifice of Jesus and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We might not always say that as explicitly as Graham might like, but you can’t keep good news down!
Songs of Praise began in October 1961 as a pragmatic plan to make use of the TV trucks which filmed sport on Saturdays. Starting in South Wales, the programme travelled around the UK, celebrating the faith in song. In the 1970s, to appeal to a wider audience - not just churchgoers - the producers introduced short interviews. Since then, given some tweaks to keep with the times, that’s still the format, and we celebrate lives being transformed by Christianity.
Take our episode about people whose faith sustained them through experience of cancer. TV presenter Simon Thomas, in the midst of grief after his wife’s sudden death from leukaemia, told us: “The story of what Jesus did on the cross is what my faith is based on. And yet sometimes that’s impossible to get your head round and draw comfort from, because you think ‘how does that help me in the here and now?’ ...At times I’ve literally been holding on by one finger to my faith. Because that gives the direction for everything else.”
I’ve met people, who don’t call themselves Christians, who say they love the fact that in a world of negativity, Songs of Praise reflects the world of joy, optimism, kindness and goodness. I’m reminded of the old Aesop fable of the North Wind and the Sun, vying to make a traveller take off their coat. The wind blows and blows to no avail. The sun shines and shines, and the traveller’s coat comes off.
We’re given a privileged place in the BBC’s schedules; we’re commissioned to broadcast to the millions who watch BBC One; and we’re grateful for that. Episodes take around four weeks to make with a friendly team devoted to the cause. We apply rigour, attention to detail, and a great deal of love. We always keep in mind our diverse range of viewers, older and younger, who love all kinds of music and different expressions of faith. We’re also totally open to ideas they send us.
Graham Nicholls’ organisation Affinity strives “towards Christian unity and partnership across the UK”, and while on Songs of Praise we know we’ll never unite all Christians all of the time, we hope our show will bring together people from across the UK around the joy of worship music every Sunday.
Mark Warburton is a Christian, professional musician and one of the producer directors of Songs of Praise
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