Press Column

One knows the old beliefs linger in the countryside , but it is still a little surprising to hear from a survey of religious belief in Downham Market, Norfolk, that there are still people who believe in Cliff Richard. The Guardian reported that the local Pentecostal church had asked 253 people if they could name a famous Christian. It is not said explicitly, but the results suggest that most of them couldnít. Nine percent ó about twenty people ó named Jesus; 8% Cliff Richard; 2% the Pope. 0.8% named Tony Blair ó I think this means two people. No one at all mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Anglican clergyman. The whole thing was actually done as a stunt to raise awareness for an Alpha course, though the angle the Guardian preferred was more personal: "He is famed for having more top 10 hits than any other pop star, for not having sec in 38 years, and for being the top female choice for a perfect lover. But yesterday the true extent of Sir Cliff Richardís renown became clear: the Peter Pan of pop is a more famous Christian than the Pope." The fact that this survey was made in a Norfolk hamlet was not mentioned until the fourth paragraph.

The last echo of Diana had a curiously plangent note. The Mail on Sunday had tracked down one of her impersonators, a woman who claimed to have earned up to £5000 a day. "Christina, 37, opened fetes, did interviews and even starred in tacky films as the princessís half-naked double." There was nothing, one would have thought, to stop this lucrative career. But when the princess died, sh suffered a change of heart. "I was so stunned she had died, and for a while I had to care for my grandmother. Then a social worker said I had an aptitude for carting, and should apply for a job." So now she works as a care assistant in a home for old and mentally handicapped people. There was even a photograph of her kneeling on the floor to gaze inspiringly at a rather bewildered old lady in an institutional armchair.

"The only regrets I have are for things I didnít do because I was being Diana all the time Ö I know now I was just in love with money, but a lot of it went on the clothes and jewellery I needed to look like her. So itís not left me well off, and I needed a job .. It is a proper job to care for others, and the money is quite enough without me having to dash from one airport lounge to another."

More on the BBCís new Sunday morning religious programme Heaven and Earth. This is really trespassing on the television criticís territory, since I have no intention of ever watching it. besides, who could say more damning things about it than the producers themselves. "The recipe is celebrity interviews by former Cadburyís Flake girls Katrina Skepper, cooking and soft ethical dilemmas. Jo Brand and Uri Geller will be quizzed about their childhoods and how they spend their Sundays." The Guardian media page explained. [The presenter ] points to the fact that Brandís best friend was the vicarís daughter as an example of the religious dimension. "Itís light touch daytime entertaining ó the warm friendly voice in the corner you donít have to concentrate oní the producer explained to Madeleine Bunting.

The main point of her long piece was the news that Melvyn Bragg is to make a 20-hour series on Christianity next year, which does sound as if it will have some substance. Coupled with a BBC series on the Catholic Church since Vatican II, this was enough of a peg for a long piece arguing that religion is the new atheism, or whatever television people say when they want to express fashionability. The serious point of it was just how dreadful deliberate religious programming is when its left in the hands of professional religious types rather than serious journalists. The fact box at the end contained the usual bizarrely magimixed assortment of cuttings and fact-checkerís opinions. What is one supposed to make of the assertion that "Sir Harry Secombeís penchant for comedy sill in evidence through his regular solo offerings of heartfelt hymns"? But it was delightful to discover that the Alpha Zone, "British TVís first Christian rock show" on Channel Five, had 16,000 viewers in April 1997. Christianity canít be completely doomed when the Tablet outsells a religious TV programme.

You magazine sent a reporter to discover if healing worked. The results were much as one would expect. She had a hangover cured ó perhaps. She thinks that a distance healer in Lincolnshire has cured her verruca, and she is sleeping better. "Coincidence? Perhaps."

While on the deep unanswerable questions of life, I have stumbled on one asked by an American preacher. Paige Patterson is the chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention, who demanded last week that President Clinton resign after the revelations of his antics with Monica Lewinsky.. Nothing unusual there, you might think. But it was the way he put things in a wider perspective that caught my eye. The presidentís conduct with Monica Lewinsky, he said, "bespeaks a certain enthralment to materialism, which is exactly what caused the demise of Rome, to say nothing of 21 other great civilisations. It will kill us too." Several things are puzzling about this. It was not the materialism of the Romans so much as that of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, Visigoths, Angles and other churches in communion with the see of Canterbury which caused the trouble. There is also the worrying precision of the 21 other great civilisations. Why 21? I canít think of nearly that number of great civilisations. In fact I canít think of any, though this is probably because I have been a journalist too long. But itís not a bad one we live in, where superannuated Diana impersonators find themselves happy at last as care assistants.

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