How to Read a Church…and present a BBC4 TV programme

Richard Taylor’s programme Churches: How to Read Them  is showing on BBC4 (let’s face it, BBC4 is currently justifying the license fee on its own, with precious little help from elsewhere) and, a few episodes behind, on BBC2 on Friday evenings.
Despite our supposed national Godlessness, countless people visit Britain’s churches every day, but how many of us really appreciate the ‘language’ of these buildings? Richard’s excellent series looks at the historical, cultural and religious significance of church architecture – he has an enjoyably infectious enthusiasm for ecclesiastical nooks and crannies (those aren’t technical terms). His book How to Read a Church, which inspired the series, comes highly recommended by The Dabbler.
But for this special guest post, Richard gives us his ‘confessions of a novice TV presenter’, revealing an admirably Dabblerish (i.e. amateurish) approach to being a media star…


Imagine this.  You wake in a pretty hotel room, filled with the light of a springtime morning.  You gently get dressed and wander downstairs, where a nice person is waiting to buy you breakfast.  A second nice person then drives you through country lanes, to a beautiful old church.  You get out, poke about in the church, and describe what you find to a man with a camera.  Job done, you drift across to the local pub, where a third nice person is waiting to buy you lunch.  You settle down in your chair, pat your expanding belly, and exclaim, “Isn’t life grand?!”

This was one aspect of my life in April and May this year, during the filming of Churches: How To Read Them, a new BBC4 series which is currently running on Wednesday evenings.  The series was inspired by my book How To Read A Church, which was first published on Random House’s Rider imprint in 2003. 

The book and the series explain what you see when you visit a church – the imagery, the symbolism, the history, the drama.  My streak of insane, ridiculous, preposterous good luck, which started eight years ago when Random House plucked my proposal out of the pile and agreed to publish the book, continued when I was asked to write and present the series.  Over the course of six weeks we ricocheted around Britain, taking in around 70 churches, and tracing their development from the early Roman missionaries, right up to the Digital Age.

Can you think of a nicer way to spend six weeks?  You can, I promise you.  14-hour days, freezing churches, battling choirboys and stroppy bell-ringers, a different Travelodge every night, hundreds of miles crammed into the back of Fiat Punto.  At the church of the Holy Trinity in Coventry, which we reached at the end of ten day’s filming, I was trembling as I tried to push through my exhaustion, film the final scene, and catch the train that would take me back to my wife and daughter in Sheffield.  At that moment BBC4, Random House, churches, the great massed company of the holy Angels and Saints, could all get stuffed as far as I was concerned – I just wanted to see my little girl.

But for all the stressful moments, the sunny side won hands down.  Having the chance to do something like this was a colossal privilege.  It is a privilege to visit these glorious buildings.  It is a privilege to lead a different life for a few weeks.  And it is a privilege to stand in front of a camera and tell people about something you love.  

Richard Taylor is the author of How To Read a Church (Rider Books, £9.99) .
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9 thoughts on “How to Read a Church…and present a BBC4 TV programme

    September 24, 2010 at 15:38

    Brilliant! How gloriously enviable and unenviable at the same time (as I guess most things are when you’re actually living them…) But church crawling is surely one of the great deep joys of English life.

    September 24, 2010 at 15:45

    …that and the accompanying pub-crawling, Nige…

    September 24, 2010 at 15:53

    and never forget the pleasure to be got for a curmudgeonly old papist such as me in decrying the aesthetic destruction wrought by those ‘damned Prots’. Mumbling under one’s breath how it is ‘our church’, stolen, but at the same time secretly glad that we’re not burdened with having to pay for the upkeep.

    September 24, 2010 at 17:56

    The description of waking up and attendant ablutions so much more precise than M.Proust’s, and Brit, absolutely right about BBC4, the Travelodge, way over and above the call of duty.

    Pat Poynton
    September 24, 2010 at 22:15

    wonderful series…have loved every episode so far. The sort of intelligent, unfussy programme we just don’t get enoughof these days. A minimum of unnecessary music and an unselfish presenter.

  6. Worm
    September 25, 2010 at 20:40

    Saw the first episode and thought it was brilliant. So many beautiful buildings that go seemingly un-noticed in this day and age! Also just got hold of a copy of Simon Jenkin’s ‘Country Churches’, and am looking forward to adding ‘How To Read a Church’ to my churchy collection!!!

    September 27, 2010 at 12:06

    However unpleasant the filming was, the programmes have been fascinating and full of information I’ve always wanted to find.

    October 4, 2010 at 02:46

    Richard Taylor is an engaging narrator, and his tone is personal without being narrow. Unlike so many documentaries, the editor has not been tempted to unfold all in a ‘highlights’ six minutes at the top of the programme, with the viewer forced to spend the next twenty five minutes joining the dots of a picture already perceived. Although the path is adeptly signposted, the buildings speak as architectural history should, in tangible details, not simply sweeping conceptual generalisations and sharp theoretical contrasts, climaxes and symmetries forced for narrative convenience. Taylor’s exploration of the visual language of the church is playful, and allows the programme to hold a surprising amount of content without being too weighty. More please, BBC.

    Mark (Pierson)
    October 8, 2010 at 19:55

    Thank you, as whether or not I agree with Richard’s description of the various churches he visits is immaterial – he presents the programmes in a both interesting and informative fashion. Even though it was from a few years back, I was glad to see the inclusion of a church which was rather different from what one often thinks of, but which counters the idea that the (Christian) church is dead. On Wednesday last (6 October) we saw KingsGate, in Peterborough. Just one thing, Richard. You stated that the only sign of the faith practised there was a crucifix. Yes, it was not a plain cross – it had “We are family” on it. But it was NOT a crucifix, with a dead Jesus Christ hanging from it. It was AN EMPTY CROSS because we serve a RISEN Saviour!

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