IT IS a conviction firmly
held by those in power and in the know that no one watches television during the month of August when everyone is away, or lying in the garden or getting shickered in country pubs. It is a conviction I find hard to share. Think of the crowded television lounges of seaside hotels where, while the rain streams decoratively down the windows, the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.
Last Saturday night's offering was so deadly, for example, that it seemed the very corpse of entertainment. And it was a corpse that would turn to soft dust at the touch of a critic's scalpel — particularly of a blunt one.
So. taking advantage of this ritual pause for the pas::ing of the most sacred and deceitful of the British months, consider the treatment given to the Roman Church. In volume, at least. it is certainly generous. Presumably the High Masters of the Medium know what they are doing and have consulted their audience. Their Gods have clearly spoken and told them that someone, apart from ourselves, must be interested. God is not dead, He is news and entertainment and controversy and provides a lot of laughs and a few warm and luxurious tears. To me it seems that this interest is shown in four different ways.
There is first the dying art of the discussion. Perhaps because Catholics disagree so much among themselves. because they feel a firm statement of traditional doctrine would damn them at least on earth as clerical fuddy-duddies, their voices are now muddled and uncertain. Nor are there many who can sit under the broiling lights and look at ease under the confident, patronising attacks of their opponents for whom the battle is clearly won and over.
Again, and this is a subform of the strictly religious programme, the hymn singing programmes are not suitable for the breathy and almost voiceless Catholics of this country.
Then there is the careful documentary feature on a religious and usually Cathchlie subject. (Make no mistake, we are news.) These are usually written and presented in terms of agonised objectivity, even when the writer or producer is a Catholic. He seems to lean over backwards to demonstrate that he is not afraid of the Holy Office. And usually in the commentary you can detect, if you listen carefully, the faint crowing of cocks.
Of course, if the writer is a non-Catholic you must fasten your seat belt. in preparation for the sort of bumpy ride that the Jesuits got the other day from Macdonald Hast ings. Of course, it is a truism that if you really know about a subject, when you see it treated in the Press or on the Screen it is never right.
And then there is the fashionable approach which is used mostly in drama. These are fearless attacks on the Church which demonstrate the emancipation of the writer. Priests are dirtyminded (without knowing it) and dominating. Converts arc hotheads. Married Catholic women are passive and superstit ious.
It is astonishing that they continue to flog the horse that they all, with a slightly tedious unanimity, insist is dead. This particular genre is fairly frequent just now since Ireland, the archetype of uncritical faith, is culturally
Finally, there is the affectionate, chuckling approach. Here again Ireland is almost the essential ingredient. Here be jolly goings on in monasteries where the porter takes the betting slips. Here are belly laughs about goode hearted Catholic priests and the sweetest nuns.
They have found a rich vein of;funniness in faith and, in a way, it is a sort of back-handed or unintentional. compliment. It is a sort of fumbling recognition that people who believe are a bit absurd but curiously touching to the sophisticated.
There was a splendid example of this last week. This was another episode of Me Mammy and this programme has become one of the nation's rollicking favourites. Perhaps it is so in
offensive because it is so divorced from reality. To object to it, would be like a trades union leader objecting to Andy Capp. It is an idealised version of what did not quite happen a generation ago. It can offend only the most neurotic Irish economic exile.
In the last episode, a relic is introduced into the parish of St. Scurilla. (Get it?) It is put for safe keeping into that marvellous kitchen cupboard where "Mammy" keeps her serried ranks of tame plaster saints to be used or rejected like dried herbs in her complicated spiritual cookery. Inevitably the holy patella (kneecap) ends up in the soup. And the substitute of a trotter is discovered at the last moment.
No cliché is left unturned. There are the usual sexual frustrations of the son at the hands of his pious mother. There are lordly priests in birettas and one of them is— wait for it—a Jesuit! This revelation makes everyone roll their eyes in 17th century awe.
There is whisky galore for the clergy and there is, mercifully, no hint that the whole thing is about something serious which. if it is true, is the only thing that matters in the world.
It is so far from reality as to be inoffensive. It is very funny. It is not cruel. But it seems less funny now than when this particular jape started. I confess I felt uneasy towards the end. But then we cannot, and no one can, command the sort of publicity we would like.
H. R. F. Keating is on holiday.