In 2010, with Pope Benedict XVI coming to the UK, I interviewed award-winning film-maker Mark Dowd, whose Benedict: Trials of a Pope was being shown on BBC1 and BBC2 in advance of the visit. I wanted to know what he learned from his research in making the film. The interview was originally printed in The Church of England Newspaper and I’m posting a version to mark the Pope’s death today.
If Mark Dowd did not already have respected films behind him, critics in the press may have been gunning for him before they watched his BBC2 film, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, because Dowd is a Catholic.
He recognises the danger, especially given the Pope’s controversial reputation and British Catholics running at under ten per cent of the population, “A lot of people watching this film are not going to want to see a Catholic giving the Church an easy time,” he told me, “but on the other hand, I don’t want to do a hatchet job. So it’s quite tricky finding the right level of questioning and probing that stays on the line of respect, but still gives the audience a sense of, ‘This is an interesting programme’.”
He added, “We don’t want a love-in. If Alex Ferguson had to do a film about Manchester United Football Club, you’d be a bit worried, wouldn’t you? So where do you get the tension in the story?”
I know that plot is important, but sometimes art’s atmosphere or style draws me in and leaves a bigger impression.
I vividly remember the day in my teens when I discovered the Titus Groan / Gormenghast novels and was hooked from the first few minutes, simply because the author was also an artist and conveyed such a visually striking world through his words. The plot was irrelevant, not least because the eponymous Titus Groan was only seven by the end of the first book in the trilogy.
Film can similarly succeed through style, but also doing the show-not-tell. The excellent The Banshees of Inisherin does both. You could pretty much cover the plot in two lines, but it is thoroughly Irish (a pitch for this would never be considered in Hollywood) and makes a bold statement about relationships, stubborn pride and loneliness that burns in the soul long after the credits roll.
Cliff begins his new Christmas album with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – something he should know about, as it’s been peak sales time for him since the ‘80s.
The superb “Little Town” scratched at the door of the top ten; “Mistletoe and Wine”, “Saviour’s Day” and “Millennium Prayer” all topped the chart; “21st Century Christmas” missed that spot by only one place; and “Whenever God Shines his Light” – a duet with Van Morrison – made the top 20.
Seconds Out: You could probably guess the sound and quality of this album with some 95% accuracy, even if you haven’t heard it. Hackett has spent a quarter century specialising in recreating the best of his former band Genesis’ songs, and doing so with unerring accuracy, as if they are perfect museum specimens looked after by specialists. And as this is a recreation of Genesis’ own best live album Seconds Out, stuffed full of classics, Hackett has already covered them many times. So little will surprise anyone here.
Over my life, I’ve witnessed the evolution of how people reproduce other’s music. When young, it was either orchestras playing classical pieces or choirs singing popular songs, often from musicals. As I began to buy records, the cheap copies came in – session musicians attempting chart songs to make pre-‘NOW’ compilations, but with none of that innate drive that made the originals so popular. Soon after that came tribute bands, as cheap entertainment for Abba fans and the like. Again, it was always going to be second best.
But that changed as the original bands split or stopped touring. Like a modern-day version of classical music, rock acts are now copied for the fans that love the music and want to experience it being performed. Sometimes – like the Australian Pink Floyd – they will have the blessing of the original artists and might even own some genuine band equipment.
Now Held by Trees have come along with yet another variation, taking the inspiration of original artists – in this case, largely Talk Talk, including original collaborators – but adding the freshness of original compositions and improvisations. It works.
It’s a very ordinary name for an extraordinary man. Rev Dr John Smith, Founder-in-Chief of God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club, was a one-off. Likened to John Wesley on a bike, he was a minister to the marginalised – but he still got a message from Bono at this funeral service in 2019, which was attended by well over a thousand, including some rival biker gangs.
Although Smith has sadly left us, his words about the prosperity gospel – born of his first-hand experience of the early days of the Hillsong phenomenon – are (also sadly) still very much needed.
This piece is a re-working of my still-relevant interview with Smith from 2004.
Hillsong is a global mega-church for celebrities (Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Chris Pratt and Vanessa Hudgens are among those have attended) and their vibrant image is a huge attraction. But Aussie Smith knew the leadership and the tactics they have employed to court the wealthy. So when he likened the brand to cancer, it was a serious and informed accusation.
In Part 1, I looked at Hillsong Church’s love of money. Here – at a time when the organisation is ‘rocked by scandals’ – I cover Smith’s insider-view of Hillsong’s approach to sex and power (adding a smattering of Delirious?) from my 2004 interview. Yes, the warning signs were there over a decade ago.
This is the way to do traditional Irish music. The 28-minute EP Thar Toinn/ Seaborne shows a wonderful sense of restraint, and its simplicity means that there are no distractions from its key features: Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice, the strongly Celtic setting and the tremendous focus on melody throughout.
Releasing a 37-disc box set is a brave affair: the fans will already have a lot of the best albums, while those who do not know the band are unlikely to splash out several hundred pounds to buy it. But Caravan’s Who Do You Think We Are? has some very tasty contents that should tempt any prog-lover.
Can a song change lives or communities? Three songwriters hope that We Seek Your Kingdom will do just that. So does the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), who have commissioned it, along with the Thy Kingdom Come movement.
Revd. Graham Hunter (who co-wrote the song with Noel Robinson and Andy Flannagan) believes that the songs we sing in church shape the content of our faith. He explains, “We need songs that help us see that following Christ is an everyday-life thing. Maybe we’re a builder, a nurse, a teacher, but we need to know that our faith is active and meaningful, and that God is on our front line, wherever that might be.”
That is where this song is different. Sung to the tune of Abide with Me, the lyrics of We Seek Your Kingdom open with the plea, “We seek your kingdom throughout every sphere / We long for heaven’s demonstration here” and go on to mention specific areas like culture, media, trade and the economy.
Last year I was completely bowled over by Tuttle’s début album When You’re Ready. I noted that, “There are no fireworks here, just beautifully, beautifully judged songs that you want to put on repeat.”
Nominating the best UK Christian band of the last 40 years is clearly a subjective matter. U2 almost qualify, but are mainly Irish, so don’t quite count. Delirious? also had chart success, but largely on the back of keen churchgoing fans. So did After the Fire – just. I would nominate Iona for that honour.
Iona had so much going for them: musically, they could perform remarkably complex pieces that are beyond the ability of many others; their music could reach spiritually stirring heights; they combined genres in a tremendously creative manner; and they took brazenly Christian music into secular venues, like musical missionaries.
Although the band has now finished, this summer the co-founder, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dave Bainbridge masterminded a celebratory box set of all their studio material to mark their 30th anniversary.