George Austin and the soaps

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as others see us’

Burns’ plea came to mind when I fed ‘George Austin’ into the web site. Now googlism has been described as ‘a zany madcap humour generator’, but it is much more than that. Some of the results in it were pretty straightforward and clearly googlism had been reading New Directions by-lines.

George Austin, it said, ‘is a journalist and broadcaster’, ‘a writer and broadcaster’, ‘a former Archdeacon of York’. But, news to me, he is also ‘an industrial minerals geologist emeritus’, ‘a senior associate consultant specializing in delivering increased profit to enhancing purchasing performance’, and ‘is working on a farm south of Downers Grove’, wherever that might be. Could this possibly be someone else?

Then there was the other kind, where I might see myself as others see me. George Austin is for example ‘not to commit fornication nor contract marriage during his service.’ As if! George Austin is also ‘just too good to be true’, which may have been a compliment (or maybe not). He is ‘a sort of Russian doll’ – my size? Or am I thought of as many-layered? My favourite was ‘George Austin is just cool.’ No one has ever called me ‘cool’ before, and I’m really thrilled that anyone should think this of me. I must ask someone what it means.

But where are these ego-centred ramblings leading. Well, someone suggested to the editor that I might be persuaded to write an article on how clergy are depicted in soaps. I said I would think about it, and it did seem quite a light-hearted subject to work on. However, when I realized how absent the clergy are from soaps, I asked that I might expand the brief a little.

Soapy Sams

I’m only addicted to two soaps, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. The first has a real vicar, Ashley Thomas, who is much respected in the village. He takes services people actually attend, he counsels those in difficulties, and he became a real friend to Zoë in her mental illness. He stood up to his bishop when his Lordship disapproved of him wishing to marry the barmaid at The Woolpack. After a short time she had an affair, the two separated, and Ashley is now a single father bringing up a small daughter. But he is real and a good role model for the pastoral ministry. If that is how others see us, then we have no problem.

My wife tells me that Eastenders once had a similar parish priest who also ran a hostel for the homeless – that is, for those fortunate enough not to be part of any of the dysfunctional, angst-ridden families who live in Walford and drink at Queen Vic. And recently, while I was hiding upstairs to avoid watching it, she called me to say a new one had now appeared, actually visiting after a bereavement and promising to be on hand at any time day or night if needed. If that is the perception of clergy in the Diocese of London it is little wonder that the trend there is being bucked and that congregations are increasing.

Wetherfield is not so lucky, for Coronation Street seems to have little time for the clergy. There was the storyline some years ago about the gentle love affair between Roy and Hayley. When she went off alone for a weekend in Amsterdam, he thought she might be seeing someone else and followed her. He found that in fact she was not Hayley at all but Harold and was having a sex-change operation. Those who watch Coronation Street know that it is not issue-orientated in the way that Eastenders is, and the subject was treated with that marvellous Corrie combination of great sensitivity and more than a little humour.

Some time afterwards Hayley and Roy decided get married and this was the only time in at least the past ten years I can recall that anyone resembling a minister of religion has ever appeared. Perhaps needless to say, it was a woman minister who performed the ceremony – and I should add that this was not meant to be humorous.

In the very early days of Corrie, it was much centred on the Mission of which Ena Sharples was custodian. But then that was in the 1950s. Since then church life of every kind has been transformed and with it the perception by the general public of the clergy and of the Church has altered beyond all recognition – usually not to the good. If this is reflected in soaps, who can complain?

Absent friends

The only person now who ever goes to church in Coronation Street is Emily Nugent, and she is regular and committed. But when the serial killer, Richard Hillman, tried to murder her – an attack she barely survived – she was apparently totally neglected by her vicar. He did not seem to visit her in hospital nor when she came home. Whatever the Church was for her (or rather the script-writers), it was perceived to be about no more than Sunday worship and flower arranging.

In the same incident, Maxine Elliott was murdered, and again her distraught husband, Ashley (another Ashley), was given no pastoral support whatsoever from the Church. In fact it could fairly be said that Coronation Street is a priest-free zone. Whatever else soaps may be, they are meant to be in some sense a reflection of real life. And the real-life perception here is that for many people the Church and its ministry are totally and absolutely irrelevant. We seem to be hardly worth a caricature. Which is a pity because caricature is a reminder of the truth about ourselves.

Close to the Cathedral

When that hilarious series All Gas and Gaiters was broadcast – many years ago now – it featured the bishop, dean, archdeacon and bishop’s chaplain in a cathedral city. The first episode was filmed in Fishpool Street just by St Albans Abbey, and forever after the opening shots were of the quartet playing croquet, with the Abbey as backdrop.

Robertson Hare played the archdeacon and was body-double of the then archdeacon of St Albans, Basil Snell (the best archdeacon I have known). But many a clergyman at that time, particularly if he was somehow attached to a cathedral, would tell you that he was convinced that someone in their Close was feeding stories to the script writers because it was so true to life at his cathedral. ‘It has to be us,’ they would say, ‘because the story lines really happened here.’ In every cathedral close, that is.

And for that matter, who does not know someone like the Vicar in Dad’s Army? Frank Williams played the part of the Vicar, and once came to lead a preaching workshop for the York clergy – on how not to take services, how not to give out notices and how not to preach. It was uproariously funny twice over. We laughed first at the wonderful entertainment and then we laughed again because we knew we all left undone those things we ought to have done, and had done those things we ought not to have done, exactly as Frank depicted.

French and Trollope

Of course there are nastier caricatures, and when the series Vicar of Dibley began I found myself surprisingly angry that the first appearance of a woman priest in a television series was so unfair to the women clergy. At least that was so until I discovered that the vicar portrayed had become an icon among women priests, and I can’t think why.

There is of course a long tradition of clerical literature and perhaps the best of these were Trollope’s Barchester novels. When they were made into a television series we kept it all on video, and whenever I watch it I can only be amazed that the Church of England today echoes so much of Victorian times. Who has not met a Mr Harding or a Mr Quiverful? I once knew a bishop’s chaplain (not in York) on whom Mr Slope himself might have been modelled, and I tried desperately not to pattern myself on Archdeacon Grantly (though I did suggest, without success, that in bed my wife might address me as ‘Mr Archdeacon’). And as for Mrs Proudie’s, ‘The bishop thinks – and I agree with him’ – well, need I say more?


Clergy appear too in other series. In Casualty there was a Roman Catholic chaplain who at first was in the Emmerdale tradition, caring for patients and staff as every good hospital chaplain does. But viewers were soon to realize that he was there to provide a storyline in which a neurotic sister fell in love with him, he with her, and they had an affair. Still I suppose no-one can say that this never happens.

We can perhaps be thankful that so often scriptwriters reflect a public perception that clergy are irrelevant to life in the real world. Social workers and counsellors fare much worse. We clergy know that we do flounder sometimes when faced with a difficult pastoral situation, and it is only later, when those whom we thought we were not helping as we ought tell us they couldn’t have come through without us, that we realize then God was using our incompetence to bring them his comfort and healing.

Social workers must rely more on their training, which the soaps display with an intensely irritating ‘let-me-share-your-pain-and-guide-you-to-your-inner-self’ voice. Recently, Viv Hope, shopkeeper-cum-postmistress and one of the funniest characters in Emmerdale, had a one-night stand with a limo-driver while on a girls’ night out. Her husband, Bob, found out and walked out on her. Viv decided she needed to be a ‘better person’ and that joining a group might help. The beaming group leader was always deeply understanding of her charges and ready to allow members of the group to find the answer to their problems – so much so that I think if I had been Viv I would have murdered her halfway through the first session.

I suppose we clergy can be thankful that to be thought irrelevant is at least one stage better than that.

Next month – clergy in fly-on-the-wall documentaries.

Pull Quotes:

The church has altered beyond all recognition – usually not to the good. If this is reflected in soaps, who can complain?

When the Vicar of Dibley began I found myself surprisingly angry that the first appearance of a woman priest in a television series was so unfair to the women clergy.