Simon Schama: TV should tell passionate, bloody histories of faiths

Simon Schama, the historian, says religious television programmes should tell the passionate, bloody histories of faith and stop focusing on “sanctimonious sweetness”
Simon Schama speaking at last month’s Hay Festival
Simon Schama speaking at last month’s Hay Festival Photo: JAY WILLIAMS FOR THE TELEGRAPH
Hannah Furness By Hannah Furness, Arts correspondent1:00PM BST 14 Jun 2014
Television programmes about religion should stop focusing on “preachiness” and “sanctimonious sweetness” about loving one another, but tell the true story of the passionate, bloody histories of each faith, Simon Schama has said.
Schama, the award-winning historian, said religious broadcasting was threatened by programmes with “too much touchy-feely and happy clappy” which “sucked the juices” out of fascinating subjects.
Instead, he said, programmes should include the true excitement and human colour of world religions, owning up to the “conflict and bloodshed”.
Last week, he won the Sandford St Martin Trust award for his BBC series The Story of the Jews, in which he investigated the history, culture and art of the religion.
Speaking after he accepted the prize, he told the Sunday Telegraph religious broadcasting could be a useful tool in tackling intolerance in British society, if approached properly.
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“What you don’t want to do is the kind of religious broadcasting which all about understanding and a spoonful of sugar,” he said.
“I think the threat to really exciting and meaningful religious broadcasting is too much touchy feeling and happy clappy… the determination to make everybody love each other.
“But there is a great series to be made about kinds of toleration: distinctive, different and opposite views. You could make a wonderful series about intolerance and tolerance.”
He added the best type of shows were approached “without a kind of fake tokenism”, being “honest and forthright, but never deliberately provocative”.
Using the example of carol services in Christian religious television, he said it was a “kind of ornamental look at British life”, with “maybe a suspicion of preachiness or sanctiminoious sweetness” about the programmes.
Instead, he argued, broadcasters should aim to make “really exciting meaty TV series”, in which they would “own up to the conflict and bloodshed and hatred” while examining the history of religions.
“I do think it’s part of television’s brief,” he said. “I think if you’re invested in television, you would think there are two problems: one, the problem of causing a dust storm; the other problem of causing boredom or a switch off.
“Somewhere the answer to defeating either is in just unbelievable gripping stories.
“The story about the rise of Islam is an extraordinarily gripping story. It’s not full of madmen.
“I’m not volunteering to do it, but it potentially has incredibly rich capacity to pull people who would have stereotyped views about what Muslims are like into viewing.
“If I was in the seat, I would be brave about it. What are you going to use if not the popular media to make people see we’re all part of the same human family ultimately.”
On the issue of tackling intolerance about religions, he said: “My way of doing things is always to take a particular moment or a particular case, a specific gripping story, dramatise it and out of that you let the moral, ethical and religious issues arise.
“Instead of having sort of abstract wrestling match between theologies.”
When asked whether television channels would be wary of commissioning a potentially controversial programme, he conceded: “They’re wary about anything at all.”
He added: “I’m an old geezer, I never believe in playing it safe. But then if a fundamentalist madman from any religion shoots me, I’ve no complaint, I’ve had a jolly life.”
Schama’s The Story of the Jews won the television and Radio Times readers’ awards from the 2014 Sandford St Martin Trust, while Radio 4’s I Have A Dream, based on the speech of Martin Luther King, took home the radio prize.

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