Found: long-lost radio series which got people talking about God
An award-winning BBC Radio 4 series presumed lost for over 30 years has been found and painstakingly pieced together again for broadcast this autumn. Priestland’s Progress was a ground-breaking personal exploration of the Christian faith, presented in 1981 by the then BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent, Gerald Priestland.
The series received 22,500 letters and that year Priestland was voted runner up to Pope John Paul II as Man of the Year. A front page headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed Priestland as ‘the man who has got us talking about God’.
BBC Radio 4 has now given permission to Premier Christian Radio to transmit the 13 programmes, which will be broadcast on Saturdays at 1PM starting on 4th October 2014. This is the first time BBC Radio 4 has agreed to allow another broadcaster to transmit any of its programmes.
The series only came to light again last year when the producer, Chris Rees, who lives and worships in the diocese, was sorting through some old boxes in his attic and discovered segments of the programmes. Having been told years earlier that the BBC had lost the programmes, Rees was delighted to find some of the original tapes. From the fragments, Rees pieced together the entire series onto CDs, a technology that had not been developed when the programmes were made.
Over 100 people were interviewed for the series, which tackled all the major themes of the Christian faith, including the nature of God, the Trinity, sin, life after death, and an exploration of who was Jesus.
Gerald Priestland’s genius was in responding to his interviewees’ experiences and comments in what was then an unprecedentedly personal and subjective style. His honesty, vulnerability and sheer humanity won him thousands of more listeners, many of whom wrote to him in moving terms. A typical letter stated “I’m a regular churchgoer and I have learned more about my faith in the past 45 minutes than in the last 45 years.”
Part of the series’ remarkable history is that the ‘masterpiece’ was very nearly never made. When Rees first suggested the idea to his head of department, he was told it would not be commissioned as it ‘really wasn’t the sort of thing we ought to be doing’.
It was only because of a chance encounter between the then Controller of Radio 4, Monica Simms, and the head of department, that Priestland’s Progress was ever commissioned. Simms must have somehow heard about the proposed series because she asked when she would receive a formal offer of the programmes. Rees recalls an urgent telephone call out of the blue telling him to prepare a proposal immediately.
Rees says making the series was a life and faith changing experience for him and added “Even now, after so many years, I still meet people who say listening to Priestland’s Progress made a profound impact on their lives.”