Songs of Praise

John Russell brings religion into it.

It hardly needs repeating that my formative years predated the Coronation in 1953 and so the advent of television. My grandmother’s radiogram was tuned permanently to the Third Programme – not for her ITMA, Life with the Lyons, Monday Night at Eight, or the early editions of the Archers. Instead strange seemingly tuneless symphony concerts by composers with, to me, unpronounceable names. But perhaps more significantly, religious broadcasts and in particular Choral Evensong, the precursor of its television equivalent, Songs of Praise.

Until recently this unique programme carried with it a frisson of tension in always being broadcast live so there was always the possibility of some unpredictable breakdown betwixt church, transmitter and studio.

To cut to the chase every Wednesday afternoon Choral Evensong has formed a background to my life for more years than I care to recall, especially in retirement Even to the extent of attending several broadcasts in Hereford, Chester, Lichfield and more notably the Jazz version at St Martins in the Field in Trafalgar Square. Here the producer introduced the programme to the congregation ahead of the broadcast by intimating that “We are expecting a good deal of criticism from our regular listeners for the nature of this programme so please sing with gusto and make it sound that you are enjoying yourself”. We did and we did. Sublime

The programme itself actually has a small band of enthusiasts who try to follow it around the country to a different venue each week, just like those who try to tick off the 92 football grounds or in my case the Baseball ballparks of our former colony. So having set the scene and moving on we proceed with a brief introit welcoming congregation and listeners at home then we move into the first lesson extolling the virtues of our great benefactor, the incomparable William McGregor for whom a demand for unrivalled loyalty led to innumerable glorious years in the sunshine.

Moving on, our first hymn has to be Abide with Me and the link with our great administrator, Frederick Rinder. After the first lesson, which predated Alf Ramsey and Bobbie Moore comes the second lesson, this time from the post-Wembley ’66 era. This shall be read by inspirational leader Ron Saunders, for whom one hundred and ten percent was always demanded and expected as he led us out of the wilderness into the steppes of eastern Europe and wherever. Followed by the Creed:

“I believe in Aston Villa
Greatest soccer club in the galaxy.
and in Unai Emery our current manager.
Born of John Wesley
Suffered under James McMullen, Joe Mercer and Dick Taylor
Were set amongst the footballing minnows until ascending again under Ron Saunders
Only for Billy McNeill to take us on a brief journey amongst the minor saints again before cometh Graham Taylor and the resurrection which begat the Premier League and everlasting riches.”

A second hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic may lead to numerous letters of protest from north London as implied earlier in the producer’s observations. However, this is my article and as previously reported my departure for away matches was always preceded by the playing of trumpeter Teddy Buckner sending me on my way. So Glory, glory hallelujah it is.

The service invariably ends with a little tinkling of some secular music on the organ but we are lucky enough to hear the marvellous George Thalben Ball playing the wonderful instrument of Birmingham Town Hall (coupled with Symphony Hall; two incredible organs within four hundred yards of each other. Aren’t we lucky?). For the better part of two decades George played the city organ every alternate Wednesday at 1 pm. The audience was invited to take along their lunchtime sandwiches but nobody was ever seen to be so disrespectful.

We return to our daily chores suitably refreshed as we are accompanied by the First World War refrain of Tipperary, as sung on the road to Wembley 66 years ago. Sublime.

Nothing can take the place of what has gone before. Amen.