July 28 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Awkward timing and blushing priests

TV nudity, THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS says, often rears its head, and other parts, at the most embarrassing times -By Fr John Bollan

Malta is roasting. I realise that not all eyes will weep for me, as I sweat away half my body weight and then eat and drink more than enough to replace it with interest. Holidays afford me the opportunity to catch up on television in short, concentrated bursts—‘binge watching’ as they call it.

Top of my list for a while has been the BBC’s much-acclaimed Broken, written by one of our premier purveyors of grim and gritty drama, Jimmy McGovern. You just know there is something special about a series when both priests you admire and parishioners whose judgement you trust make the same hearty recommendation.

In general, priests have to be careful about the things they recommend, especially TV programmes. I learned a stark lesson in this regard during my time as a curate in Johnstone.

Over breakfast one morning, Fr Willie Diamond, one of the wisest and best-loved priests this diocese has known, was enthusing over a show he’d watched the night before.

“Did you see it, John? No? Oh, it was tremendous. Real edge-of-the-seat stuff. Promise me you’ll watch it next week?”

Willie continued in this vein for a while and, seeing his evident enthusiasm, I promised that I would.

Of course, like so many of my promises, I promptly forgot all about it. It happened, however, that I had been out the next week and, as I sometimes did, I chapped Willie’s door to say that was me back.

He beckoned me in excitedly, saying: “Good, John: that programme I was telling you about is coming on now! Sit down.”

So I sat down and watched the pre-titles recap of the previous week’s storyline, and, sure enough, you could tell it was a well-made, fast-paced thriller.


About 15 minutes in to this episode, however, it took a turn for the worse. What followed was, without doubt, the most explicit simulation of acts of intimate congress I had ever witnessed. Maltese levels of sweat began running down my brow and into my eyes, somewhat blurring what was being enacted on the screen.

I blinked through the perspiration in the direction of the canon who had both hands in front of his face, peering through a gap in his fingers.

As he withdrew his hands, I could see he was as white as a sheet. “Oh, John,” he said, “I’ve told everyone to watch this.” By ‘everyone’, he meant most of the parish.


Like me, he was probably imagining the range of reactions among the pious burghers of Johnstone, from Horlicks-spattered screens to life-threatening cardiac episodes.

I made my excuses and retired to my room, waiting for the next day’s backlash. Thankfully, such was the esteem in which Fr Diamond was held and so great the resilience of the Faith in Johnstone, that the embarrassing blip in Willie’s career as a TV critic was quickly forgotten.

That was not the first time, however, that I have been in an awkward viewing situation with a member of the cathedral chapter. Not long after I was ordained, while serving as a curate in Clarkston, I was joined for a few weeks by Canon Jim Murphy.

Canon Murphy was one of those legendary priests who had been in at the birth of the diocese and who could, until his last days, regale you with stories about being a young priest in the 1940s. He only died last year, God grant him Heaven.

Anyway, the canon would sometimes come up from his retirement home in Weymss Bay to help me cover the Masses in Clarkston and in neighbouring Eaglesham, since the pastors of both parishes went on holiday at the same time.

One evening I was relaxing in my sitting room with a little bit of Shakespeare: Zeffirelli’s sumptuous film of Romeo and Juliet. I have mentioned before how much I admire Zeffirelli’s painterly eye, not least in Jesus of Nazareth—and trivia fans will know that he cast the same actress, Olivia Hussey, as both Mary and Juliet.

I was well into the film when the good canon knocked my door and, from the corridor outside, started asking how we would divide the next day’s Masses between us.

The noise from the television was making it hard for him to hear me, so I asked him to come inside. Without really looking at the screen, I pressed the pause button on the VHS remote control (no fancy DVDs for me back then) and turned to give Fr Murphy my full attention.

He glanced at the screen and then looked quickly away, as if burned by what he had seen. Although his pipe was unlit (and empty) he put it to his mouth and seemed to be using it as his breathing apparatus. Bemused by this curious turn in his behaviour, I looked at the television and saw, to my acute embarrassment, what had shocked this holy priest.

I had inadvertently pressed the pause button precisely at the only (and fleeting) moment of nudity in the film, whereby Romeo, the morning after his secret wedding to Juliet, leaves their bed and walks to the balcony.


While the scene is shot from behind, his, well, his behind may be briefly seen.

And so, thanks to the way in which paused VHS tapes were never really frozen in a single frame, the canon was presented with the sight of Romeo’s derrière flickering somewhat menacingly in the corner.


There ensued a conversation that must only have lasted a minute or so, but the laws of time are routinely bent by mortification.

“It’s Shakespeare,” I exclaimed, my voice a good deal higher than its normal pitch.

Rather than unfreeze the frame—which would have restored the Shakespearean dialogue and dispelled any notion I was watching some pre-watershed smut—I switched the television off altogether, merely compounding the impression that I had been caught in flagrante.

Priests are men of the world, of course, and I would like to think that he believed me. Even if he had his doubts, perhaps a subsequent viewing of the film would have shown him that there was more of the Bard than the bawd about my viewing choices that night.

Anyway, back to Broken. I’m only halfway through, so I’ll keep my thoughts for next week. Thus far, however, I would say that it’s certainly against the grain of most recent television portrayals of the priesthood.


There is something heroic in the character of Fr Michael and I’m pleased that someone like Sean Bean was chosen to bring him to life. Although his surname suggests otherwise, Mr Bean tends to play heroes, even flawed ones—and which hero is without flaws? I’m glad I’m watching this series in the heat and the sun of Malta, since it acts as a counterweight to the gloom on the screen.

Of course, watching a drama about a parish makes me think naturally of my own parish, enjoying its own holiday thanks to the ministrations of my generous supply brethren.

They are worth their weight in gold and make a real difference to my life, offering not just an opportunity to get away but the reassurance that the people of southwest Greenock have access to the Eucharist and different voices to listen to.

I am trying my best not to send too many texts and emails checking up on this or that aspect of parish life: it’s a symptom of clerical vanity that we imagine our parishes cannot function without us, or will run aground without our hand at the tiller.


In a sense, these reminiscences from my past chime with this week’s Gospel about the disciple of the kingdom bringing out from his storeroom things old and new. I’ve shared the old with you.

Next week, when I’ve finished watching Sean Bean’s take on my day job, I’ll offer you something new instead. But for now, it’s back to the sun for another boost of vitamin D and perhaps one of those Aperol Spritzes I keep hearing about.


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