Emma Peel? by KERRY STEPHENSON TELLY has given us brash Alf Garnett, smoothtalking Inspector Lockhart, judo-tossing Emma Peel and unscrupulous business tycoon, Sir John Wilder.
Its next national figure, I have a feeling, will be a NUN. Her name is Sister Benedict and she'll be one of the four main characters in Rediffusion's 13-week series of Sanctuary due to go out on the I.T.V. network the last week in June.
Sister Benedict is in her 20s. She's bright, vivacious, switched-on, Vatican Twoised and trying desperately to come to terms with a religious life in the irreligious sixties.
The hour-long series, which has a budget comparable to The Avengers (black and white version, that is) and The Informers will revolve around the life of Sister Benedict, her Mother Superior and two other nuns, Sister Bursar and Sister Juliana.
The story opens with Sister Benedict being recalled to her London convent from a missionary post in Africa.
Rediffusion's Philip Levene, the man behind "Sanctuary," says it was not conceived as a religious series creaking with good intentions, perverted by do-gooders or one designed to drown the audience in the milk of human kindness. Nor will it be concerned with religious ritual, dogma, conversions, propaganda or conflicts in the Church.
"It was, rather, conceived in the broadest sense as 'entertainment,' offering a format
and characters appealing to a wide audience of all denominations, written and produced without offence, ridicule or bias."
Producer, John Harrison, explains that the series has been a "challenge above the ordinary." This sense of challenge has been spread to scriptwriters, the actors and most of the 100 or so people concerned with its production.
Rediffusion, I understand, were a little sceptical at first about using nuns as the storypeg. How to portray them without roller skates, matriarchal Mother Superiors or coyness seemed to be an obstacle to daunt even the bravest.
Levene, however, pointed out that the Sound of Music nuns were as fictitious as James Bond. One Mother Superior told him: "Convents are not the place for saints and martyrs."
Another objection was that nuns were a dying race. They might be seen as an anachronism in Wilsonian Britain. Not so. Mr. Levene says there are three times as many nuns as dentists in Britain. Thirty per cent more nuns than G.P.s. In fact, the numbers of nuns exceed—probation officers, dentist nurses, policewomen, veterinary surgeons and women in the Armed Services in total.
There are 31,000 women serving in open orders in Britain and well over 2,000 separate convents.
"Sanctuary" is setting out to show the lives of nuns in their workaday world of teaching, nursing, visiting the sick, giving youth leadership and looking after orphans. It will go further than this, and present them with their human problems, dilemmas and conflicts, sternming from both the convent community and their contact with the outside world.
According to John Harrison, some of the episodes will run to broad comedy. Others will be tragic. Whatever the tenor, the series will be authentic.
Rediffusion want to create the real nuns, the way Z-Cars created real policemen. The success of Coronation Street boils down to its authen ticity. • Before the writers went into action Rediffusion researcher, Sue Dalgleish spent two months interviewing nuns about their way of life. Then came the writers and producers who further immersed themselves in what a religious life is all about.
Fr. Michael Hollings, the Oxford Chaplain, has enthused about the scripts. Four episodes have already been taped. The first was shown to a group of nuns and one of them confirmed: "That's us all right."
The producers have set out to show that the convent may be a sanctuary but not an escape from life. It will be :nteresting to See how successful they are.
The cast includes actresses of the calibre of Fay Compton and Peggy Thorpe-Bates. Although most of the episodes will be taped at the Wembley studios, actual convents are being used to give the series added realism.
Strictly commercial, I have a feeling Rediffusion are on a winning bet. Think of two of the greatest box-office hits in cinema and you come up with Bells of Si. Mary's and The Sound of Music. Name ,two best-sellers and you come up with "The Nun's Story" and "I leapt over the wall."
In June Tam ratings will show us how many Britons are jumping over the wall from this side.