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Passion for Churches, A (1974)


Main image of Passion for Churches, A (1974)
BBC, tx. 7/12/1974, colour, 50 mins
DirectorEdward Mirzoeff
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerEdward Mirzoeff
Written byJohn Betjeman
PhotographyJohn McGlashan

Presenter: John Betjeman

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John Betjeman celebrates the art and architecture of the churches in the Diocese of Norwich.

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Made the year after his television masterpiece Metro-Land (BBC, tx. 26/2/1973) by the same production team, A Passion for Churches sees John Betjeman turning his attention to other enduring interests: ecclesiastical architecture and the place of the Church of England in an increasingly secular world.

Rather than range haphazardly around the entire country, Betjeman concentrates on the diocese of Norwich, which covers most of Norfolk and part of Suffolk. Though this might seem unduly restrictive, it's an unusually rich area for church-lovers (the city alone contains more medieval churches than London, York and Bristol put together), and a good couple of dozen are itemised in the course of the programme.

Betjeman highlights architectural oddities - the triple-decker pulpit of St Mary Bylaugh, the outsize porch at the now-misnamed Cley-Next-The-Sea, and the equally disproportionate pinnacles of Booton's. He names and praises individuals, notably Gothic revivalist Sir Ninian Comper (1866-1960), and although there's some gentle joshing in Betjeman's likening him physically to Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, he clearly approves of Comper's "unity by inclusion", mixing and matching multiple styles. As Betjeman has already observed, when a procession of pilgrims through Walsingham owes more visually to the southern Mediterranean than Norfolk, the great thing about the Church of England is its inclusivity: "it's very tolerant, and that's a part of its strength".

Living people are also featured: bellringer Billy West, who can't imagine life without them; Canon Blackburn, taking to the Fenland waters to invite his flock to Easter service; the all-female communities of, respectively, All Hallow's Ditchingham and the Almshouses of Castle Rising (the latter in memorably distinctive Jacobean dress) - but Betjeman takes centre stage throughout, as befits an unashamedly personal piece like this.

Sometimes his narration slips into verse ("What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky, without church towers to recognise you by?"), at others he slips in a barbed comment, such as his dismissal of Fellbrigg's memorial brasses by saying that their calm placidity tells us next to nothing about the people they represent. The passion of the title comes to the fore when he broaches the subject of what happens to churches when they fall into disuse and disrepair, and thoroughly approves of buildings being repurposed (a groanworthy pun sees St Edmund Fishergate being used to store shoe soles, as distinct from saving human souls) if it means that they remain intact.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The past cries out (2:13)
2. Triple-decker pulpit (2:03)
3. England's Nazareth (4:10)
4. Unity by inclusion (3:37)
Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)