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Multitude gathers for epic TV event.

Byline: By Will Mapplebeck

There was an air of nervous anticipation in the Minster Church of St Michael and All Angels in Sunderland city centre.

Latecomers dressed in their Sunday best searched for their seats while those who had been sitting patiently in their pews for 40 minutes sipped the bottled water they had been told to bring.

They had done their voice exercises, checked their hymn sheets and were ready to sing for their city.

At 7.30pm, they burst into the opening bars of traditional hymn Oh Praise Ye The Lord and the sound of 500 Sunderland and district Christians soared around the minster.

The Journal was getting a glimpse behind the scenes at a true broadcasting institution, Songs of Praise.

The BBC's flagship religious programme has been on the air for 41 years and, love it or loathe it, it has come to shape viewers' Sundays.

For many, the sound of hymns being sung and the pictures of packed pews are a sign that the weekend is coming to an end. It is Sunday evening and time to prepare for work.

The programme's mix of Christian music and interviews has proved consistently popular.

Even today it attracts up to six million viewers and up to 10 million more watch overseas.

Songs of Praise will always be centred on Christianity but also contains elements of a travel programme and features well-known people talking about their faith.

Nowadays it boasts a roster of celebrity presenters. The current crop includes Aled Jones, Diane Louise Jordan, Eamonn Holmes and our own Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan, one of the programme's newest presenters, who started last year, was fronting the Sunderland edition.

He agrees that Songs of Praise is an institution and says he enjoys travelling the country and meeting fellow Christians.

"Songs of Praise is hard work just for a half-hour programme. Making it is a massive operation and it has a pounds 4m budget," he says.

"It is a good religious programme and it is helping to change the viewpoint that you cannot be a thinking Christian."

He has a point. Tomorrow's edition, for example, will see Archbishop Desmond Tutu talking about the process of reconciliation in South Africa.

And last January, Songs of Praise put out a programme from Edinburgh for Holocaust Memorial Day.

But the Sunderland recording was along more traditional lines featuring an enthusiastic congregation and interviews with prominent local Christians, including businessman and school sponsor Sir Peter Vardy.

But how do you get your church on Songs of Praise? Despite receiving letters from parishes that would love to be featured, it is the BBC's researchers who make the decision on where to send the cameras.

They run the show, turning the featured church into a television studio for several evenings for rehearsals and then the recording. They also find out about the area's Christian heritage and whom they can interview.

The BBC handles the invitations and makes sure that other strands of Christianity in the area, for example Roman Catholics and Methodists, are present at the recording.

You might think that appearing on Songs of Praise is a matter of singing a few hymns, but it is a lot harder than that.

It lasts three hours and the hymns have to be sung a number of times until they are right. A conductor controls proceedings and gives the congregation tips on how to sing certain parts.

The eventual effect in Sunderland was impressive. After a few attempts, a wall of choral sound enveloped the minster.

Canon Stephen Taylor, who is based at the minster and led a prayer at the start of the recording, was delighted with how the evening was going. "It is good for Sunderland to get on Songs of Praise - it has been a long time since it came from the North-East.

"It is a big commitment for people. No-one will be going home until about 10pm."

But the Sunderland congregation were showing no signs of flagging. They were determined to give a good account of themselves and their city on a televisual institution.

* Songs of Praise from Sunderland will be shown on BBC 1 on May 18.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 26, 2003
Words:693
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