When I first saw the headline “Christians Complain about EastEnders” I thought perhaps some group of culturally savvy Christians had had enough, made a stand and demanded this poor excuse for a TV drama be taken off our TV screens. But no, this country’s taste for low end, badly-written, poorly acted and depressingly repetitive kitchen sink drama is nowhere near being satiated.
I remember when these programmes were interesting portrayals of lives lived out on the gritty streets of Northern towns, or farming communities in the Dales. But I haven’t watched one since Ena Sharples got buried under the railway viaduct and everyone in the snug of the Rover’s Return commiserated with Ena’s best friend, Minnie Caldwell, buying her milk stouts and lending a shoulder to cry on.
These days, soaps are a grotesque parody of themselves as they present increasingly implausible plots in a breakneck race to top the previous week’s plot with ever-more improbably complicated relationships and more incredible cliff-hangers to keep an increasingly credulous public on the edge their seats awaiting the next excruciating episode. Anyone who followed Jimmy McGovern’s groundbreaking drama, The Street, in recent times will surely have been spoiled for this sort of pap served up three times a week, the opiate of the people.
No, the complaint is about the portrayal of a Pentecostal pastor who turns out to be your typical neighbourhood wacky Christian wife murderer. It is a negative portrayal, they insist, and wonder if the BBC would have portrayed a Muslim cleric in such a bad light. I see what they mean, of course, but it isn’t as if this is a departure from the norm when it comes to portraying Christians in TV dramas. And isn’t this “you wouldn’t do it to Muslims” lark wearing a bit thin. It’s true enough but it is a tired old argument that everyone knows is true but it falls on deaf ears.
The aforementioned Ena Sharples, if I recall, was the caretaker of the local mission hall back in the ‘60s, and she was a right busybody, criticising the lifestyles of other inhabitants of Coronation Street and telling them to “think on.” A popular ploy for drama writers is to make the vicar gay (I think that was EastEnders too), or a woman in a comedy role – the vicar of Dibley, a limp and overwhelmed by it all liberal, as in the latest TV comedy “Rev”, or a hellfire and damnation, Pope-hating, Presbyterian with a Northern Irish accent (you couldn’t make it up)
What concerns me, however, is not how Christians are portrayed on television. After all, dramas revolve around conflict, that is built on character flaws and the bible is chock full of those, and comedy is founded on an oblique look at the ridiculous, and how can that happen if the vicar isn’t somehow funny, intentionally or otherwise. No, what bothers me is that Christians watch EastEnders. I think people who watch these things can distinguish between a dramatised portrayal of the clergy and the local pastor in their street. But what will they think of the faith when Christians show themselves so unimaginative in their choice of entertainment? Like sin, poor taste is something you expect from the world but, surely Christians need to aim much higher.