Monday, July 17, 2006

The media circus comes to church

Getting all dressed up

Thursday morning I was at St John's by nine, and soon after the BBC film crew vehicles started to arrive, plus the team dedicated to 'dressing' the church for the purpose of filming. The mis en scène, for the opening scenes of this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special edition, was to be in a church adorned for the festive season. The elegant fifteenth century pillars were draped from top to toe in spirals of shiny red satin cloth, and kitchy plastic vines (?). The young man tasked with this took his life into his hands eight times at least, mounting a 15 foot ladder to cast his drapes and vines out and around the pillars. A Health and Safety nightmare, but not for us, since the Beeb had charge of its own employees. But as the guy was old enough to be my son, my heart was in my mouth anyway.
Antique style lanterns on poles were added to a selection of pew ends of the main aisle for a bridal walk - a mighty fire and safety hazard in the real world, and more plastic flowers and vines installed, not to mention a couple of super iron standing candelabra I wished they'd forget to take away.
By evening the building looked the epitome of bad Italian ecclesiastical taste
. In TV-land the church where the drama is set was meant to be somewhere in Chiswick, London, not Parma or Palermo. TV producers are omnipotent it seems. They can violate the norms of taste and culture with impunity. Then the punters watch it on TV and start demanding the church be dressed up like that for their nuptials. It's a bit like 'You may kiss the bride', which features in no known traditional or modern Christian liturgical text but has insinuated itself into the action as people see it in Hollywood movies.
All our church notice boards were taken down and stashed away out of sight. All evidence of context erased. No Christmas tree, however, and no alternative noticeboard was erected. These were to be digitally added later in a cyber studio. If I'm to suspend disbelief for a bit of sci-fi entertainment, I'd prefer everything else was as authentic as possible ... I wonder if Chriswick turned down this unique video opportunity?

Tea and sympathy
The church Tea Room stayed open for business. Customers were meant to come in only through the churchyard instead of having the usual choice of two entrances to get there. As it was a nice day, and a University Graduation ceremony day at St David's Hall just down Working street from the church, there was a steady flow of business, though very little of it from the theatre technicians beavering away all around the building. One proud 'nice' family of a graduate hi-jacked a table meant for customers in the churchyard, and downed two bottles of Champagne there, leaving the bottles for us to throw away. I wonder if they saw that in a TV programme too?
The set dressers seemed to get through the day on paper cupfuls from Café Nero over the way, and pasties from the shop opposite the West end tower. Some folk just aren't spiritually ready for decent bone china cups (bought at auction), home made soups and those cakes-to-die-for that make our little enterprise so valued by Cardiffians and people from around the world.
Several church members turned up to act as 'welcomers' ( also known as ' church minders'). I printed them nice little official badges, which they wore with pride as they chatted up crew members and fielded visitors. Some walked straight past the rather dopey Beeb security hirelings, unaware of the goings on in church, the variety of trip hazards, not to mention the guy tottering atop the ladder. Some were disconcerted and annoyed as they'd come seeking peace and quiet. Most took it in good part, appreciating being greeted and informed by a church member, shown a little of the building and sharing a little of the excitment of the occasion. The usual handful of 'regulars' showed for the 11h00 Eucharist, which took place, a little tensely amidst the hustle and bustle of the moment.

All systems 'go'
Thurday evening and early Friday morning, all the cameras and recording equipment arrived, and the cameras were rolling by 8h00 recording Phil Thomas, our Organist's hands playing .... oh no!!! Not the traditional incoming Bridal March from Löhengrin, but the traditional outgoing Wedding March from Mendelssohn, to accompany the entry of the Bride. The producer decided it was 'brighter'. I'm glad the film is set in fictional Chiswick. We don't do such 'vain things fondly invented' in Central Cardiff wedding services.
Chris, my new Voluntary Deacon came Thursday afternoon, and again on Friday her day off, to share in the meeting and greeting. As a Doctor Who fan this was a treat for her. She was in her element watching the 'takes', chatting with people. The scenes shot didn't include the Doctor, but rather a key story character played by a comedienne I'd not heard of before called Catherine Tate. I consider my ignorance of media personalities to be a pastoral gift. It means one can deal with every human being equally. No more, no less. What else can anyone ask for?

Confession time
Well, the truth will out, I gave up watching TV, apart from news and current affairs some years ago. Game shows and reality stuff are insulting to viewers and participants.
Most drama I find too brutal or sordid and leaves me feeling more depressed about life than actual reality does. Speech and music, and a bit too much surfing suffices to keep me up to speed these days. Radio Drama has much better pictures. I hate the contrived illusions of video world and pity the generations growing up who know little better. Thus, I haven't watched any of the 21st century re-incarnations of the Doctor Who show. But, if they don't make unreasonable moral demands, I don't mind the modern illusionists using the church, so long as they pay enough to help us keep this building open as a sanctuary of prayer, encounter and hospitality for the rest of the year. One day these things will be as popular again as TV 'entertainment' is now.

Prayer in the midst of life's illusions
Anyway, back to the story. The Tea Room couldn't open on Friday as it was needed to prepare the stars for their appearances. We were well compensated, needless to say. I was consoled by the fact that several of the regular Tea Room volunteers came to join the midday Eucharist congregation, tucked tightly into the sacristy to leave the rest of the building free for uninterrupted filming. It was the only compromise made to filming apart from restricting church access.
All the Friday 'regulars' showed up, plus those freed from serving food and drink upstairs. Fifteen of us, bonded in worship by an unusual occurrence, and blessed by doing what we love best, no matter what else is happening around us. The last time a celebration in a different setting had quite such a satisfying impact on me was with a youth group around a boulder in a Valasian alpine pasture seven years ago. Again it was gratifying to see members of the church 'home team' just being there for people, being recognised and accepted.

Who is the real thing?
There were sixty 'extras' on site for filming, all dressed in style for a nuptial outing. They were used in different ways for different angles and only occasionally were all on the set at one time, so there were a lot hanging around at any time, waiting to be called, and we got to chat with them, and find out how many different walks of life they came from. At one moment I was amused, sitting outside in the churchyard chatting, to realise that cameras were being trained on me through the railings, by someone assuming I was an actor. Both Chris and I sporting our clerical gear were from time to time subjected to the question: "Are you an actor or the real thing?" It's an interesting question if you're the 'real thing' and you're acting the role of pastor and welcomer, but it's not the same as "Are you paid by the BBC?" There was an actor playing the cleric in the script. Chris learned he was a lay minister in a London Anglican Parish, commissioned to help distribute Holy Communion in his home Parish. Yes, there is a difference between reality and illusion, but it takes a bit of disciplined thinknig to make sure the difference between the two is always maintained. How good are we at doing this in the world of many virtual realities, I wonder?

The day's filming ended almost to schedule. Richard, our bell tower captain went upwards and fiddled the tower clock's hands to instructions issued over a walkie talkie, so that the movement of the hands could be filmed. A special elevating platform vehicle was brought in to film this. Once the work was done, the crew had problems stutting it down. Itz seems the accellerator stuck open, creating huge volumes of noise, and driving away customers from Piazza Italia opposite the church. Then the extending arm dropped slowly out of control on to an (empty, thankfully) table. Apparently the lorry from the hire company meant to pick up and return this vehicle turned up punctually and went away empty because the crew were slightly delayed - profitable for somebody no doubt - so, the platform had to be taken around into Working street and parked until it was collected after the weekend. Fine, except that the arm with the platform on was parked over the church railings, within a metre of a priceless window and a turret capable of giving lead thieves easy access to the church roof.
By the time filming was over, I was at home trying to re-focus on getting ready for Sunday. Around ten at night I remembered there were things I had forgtten to bring home with me from church, so I popped in the car and went down to find this platform compromisingly parked. On the way home I calle din Central Police station to ask them to keep an eye on it till Monday. Fortunately it was plumb in line with the surveillance camera on the Quuen's Arcade roof, so I slept soundly. And I got a call from Central on Monday to check all was well. One nice spin-off from this was seeing a guy I knew on night duty reception in Central Police station (a thankless task Friday nights). He's someone I know from St John's. He brings his elderly mother to church every other week, as his work shifts permit, but had never volunteeed that he worked for the Police. Now I know, and appreciate the effort he makes. Silver linings abound.

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