Report by Rebecca McKie
Godmanchester Parish Church played host to the BBC Songs of Praise team in October, as they arrived to film the programme’s Advent Sunday edition in the town. It is the second time Godmanchester has featured in the programme – the first was in 1975, when the town was filmed for the first ever Songs of Praise to include interviews.
Members of the BBC team began to arrive at the church almost a week before the recording took place, setting up scaffolding and readying the church for the cameras, lighting rigs and equipment which were needed for the shoot. Godmanchester churchwardens Andrew Fawcett and John Thackray headed the logistical and clear-up operations, and worked closely with the BBC to ensure that the event would run smoothly. ‘The scaffolders and technical crew were terrific. They were so well organised’, said John Thackray, who, as well as project-managing the event from the parish side, also took part in it as an interviewee.
Rehearsal and recording in the church took place over two exhausting evenings, from 6.45pm until 10pm the first night, and until 10.30pm on the second, followed by a clear-up operation which went on until 1am. Turnout for the event was high – around 450, including some 120 from local choirs – and more than 1,000 candles were used during the recording.
Parishioners and clergy were closely involved throughout the proceedings. The Parish Flower Guild, led by Bizz Thackray, decorated the church with masses of Advent foliage, and choirmaster Ken Diffey undertook many rehearsals to prepare the church choir for their role in the event. Godmanchester Church’s strong musical tradition meant that the BBC’s musical director was able to use some of the parish’s own musicians for the service. The programme opened with a medieval Advent Antiphon from the ‘O’ series sung by Godmanchester Curate Ally Barrett, and also featured a hymn tune, ‘Godmanchester’, written by the Vicar, Peter Moger, to new words. Heather Moger, Peter’s wife, played recorder in two of the hymns. Songs of Praise Producer Rowan Morton Gledhill paid tribute to the professionalism and talent of Godmanchester’s musicians and singers: ‘It’s been one of the best singing congregations I’ve seen. Throughout the time we’ve been here, we’ve been immensely impressed with the can-do attitude of everybody here.’
Among the programme’s key themes was the idea of ‘origins’, looking at what Mary and Joseph would have been doing on Advent Sunday if Christ’s birthday truly fell on 25 December. Parishioners’ and clergy’s stories were woven into this strand. Peter Moger spoke with presenter Pam Rhodes about a set of candlesticks which found their way back to their origins in Godmanchester Vicarage: ‘While I was at Ely, just about to take up my post at Godmanchester, a visitor offered a candlestick and cross set to anyone who could find a use for them. I took them, but didn’t get round to unpacking them properly until we moved into the Vicarage. When I did, I was astonished to find that they had previously belonged to Harold Kitchener, Vicar at Godmanchester in the 1920s, and the first occupant of the present-day Vicarage.’
John Thackray’s interview concerned his discovery of the graves of some of his ancestors in the churchyard at Godmanchester, not long after he and his wife Bizz began to worship in the parish. ‘It was my turn to mow the churchyard on the grass-cutting rota, and as I went in and out between the graves, I spotted the grave of Matthew Thackray, one of my ancestors who moved down from Yorkshire in the 1820s,’ he said. ‘We gradually found about 14 Thackray graves here, which was very moving. It felt like coming home.’
Mary Hardy played a key role during the filming of the last Songs of Praise in 1975, when she was a teacher at Godmanchester’s Community Primary School, and wrote a hymn for the children to sing. She has been interviewed for Advent Sunday’s programme, a poignant task as she is one of only two interviewees surviving from the 1975 edition. Mary was filmed looking back over a tape of the previous programme, and she talked about friends who were featured in the show: ‘It’s been a mixed blessing – it’s wonderful to see all my former pupils, but very sad to see again so many friends who have died. It’s a real privilege to be involved in the programme for a second time.’
Songs of Praise facts:
Songs of Praise has visited over 1,800 different churches, chapels and cathedrals
4 Songs of Praise producers have become bishops
Songs of Praise has had 182 presenters
The programme’s biggest ever audience was 11.4 million (Christmas 1988)
Over 12,500 hymns have been sung on Songs of Praise over the last 40 years