Irrelevant, antiquated and ultimately, unpalatable - that has been the prevailing view of religious programming on television for years. Not any more: it seems that the genre is experiencing something of a renaissance. Viewers are realis-ing that there might be more to it than a greying congregation croaking out hymns on a snoozy Sunday slot sandwiched between Antiques Roadshow and another rerun of Last of the Summer Wine.
"Religion is back," says BBC head of department Adam Kemp. "A few years ago it was this Cinderella genre that to some extent had slipped behind subjects like science and history. But what we have seen recently is a really dynamic recovery that has still got a long way to play out."
Really? This seems a bit like hyperbole, but the recent controversy over the Songs of Praise Easter special from Lichfield Cathedral (which was screened yesterday but was actually recorded straight after the Christmas edition) at least indicated that the nation cared.
Kemp points out that religion on TV's revival has come against a backdrop of global upheaval. "World events put the whole area back on the news agenda, and with that came this demand for information - on Christianity, on Islam, on God, on religion. Around that time Big Brother and reality were taking off; people became fascinated with minutiae of the personal. From that came new ideas and new formats that felt fresh and exploratory."
There is, of course, a boundary between what current affairs tackles and what the BBC's religious programming is. "Current affairs is the hard edge," Kemp explains. "So Panorama might investigate the darker aspects of faith. What we do is more rooted in culture - even spiritualism." Kemp admits that the threat of terrorism has made viewers sit up and take notice of some shows, whereas in the past they may have flicked past them. But he also stresses that it is also a result of an information-hungry society interested in a wider range of things - from genealogy to 19th- century art. "The more imaginative we are the more audiences we will bring in. You just need one or two shows to make people stand up and take notice. For us The Monastery was probably the first. It just made people feel good."
The Monastery had five men - ranging from an atheist in the porn business to a former Protestant paramilitary - undergo a spiritual makeover by spending 40 days living with Roman Catholic monks. "It provided some amazing moments of television. There was something transcendental about it. The best shows are emotive - for those involved and the viewer. I don't think you could have walked away from that without feeling that you had seen something special. It is not just the viewers - the reaction among programme-makers was remarkable. A lot of them said to me, 'I've always thought of doing something like that. I should have pushed more." Then along came the female version The Convent, and then, this year, The Retreat, in which three men and three women - both Muslims and non-Muslims - were filmed spending a month at a remote Islamic retreat. Arguably this is the perfect example of a reality show tapping into a topical issue, but Kemp says it is not about jumping on a bandwagon. …