CHRISTOPHER STEVENS:  The pastor who's more metal than Songs Of Praise

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: The shrieking pastor who’s more heavy metal than Songs Of Praise

Pandemic 2020

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Frank Of Ireland

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On Sundays, Pastor Tony Spell does not address the scant pews of his congregation as ‘Dearly Beloved’, nor does he invite them to turn to No 127 in their hymn books.

Instead, he prowls the stage around his pulpit with a Bible held aloft, shrieking into a microphone the size of a baseball bat, while men and women in the church roll their eyes, contort their bodies and speak in tongues.

It’s an evangelical sales pitch that morphs into a heavy metal concert. Pastor Spell grunts and screams while a chorus of berobed women sing harmonies — as though Ozzy Osbourne had replaced Diana Ross in The Supremes.

Prayer meetings at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are something of an event — the high point of a week spent distributing food and alms for the city’s poor and preaching the gospel to drug addicts.

Pastor Tony Spell grunts and screams while a chorus of berobed women sing harmonies in Pandemic 2020

Unsurprisingly, Pastor Spell doesn’t intend to close his church for any pesky coronavirus. ‘We will comply when they set up an ice skating rink in the Lake of Fire,’ he fulminates. ‘We will comply when they sell popsicles in hell.’

There was quite a bit in that vein throughout the third episode of Pandemic 2020 (BBC2), a compendium of the ways cultures around the world have faced Covid-19.

At first, with an emphasis on the pro-Trump tendencies of Pastor Spell and his flock, the film-makers seemed intent on condemning the Deep South preacher. The implication was that, by continuing to praise God, they were selfishly fuelling the catastrophe.

But a more thought-provoking, nuanced analysis emerged during the hour. In India, an itinerant wedding musician called Prakash Bhat slipped past police blockades in the slums of Rajasthan so he could continue to visit a shrine.

And in the Xingu Indigenous Park of central Brazil, the Amazonian Kuikuro people celebrated the lives of their Covid dead with wrestling matches between the young men of neighbouring villages.

Centenarian of the week:

The self-deprecating wit and intellectual confidence of actor Peter Ustinov, in The Parkinson Interviews (BBC4), is still a marvel to behold. Aired to mark the 100th anniversary today of his birth, it reminded us Ustinov is a vanished breed.

Like the Louisiana Christians, they all knew they risked spreading or catching the virus.

But Mr Prakash’s wedding dances and the battles of the Kuikuro mattered more to them than life and death. ‘These rituals are essential to our culture,’ one native Brazilian quietly explained.

To an atheist, Western society that values the existence of life above its quality, and where tradition is dismissed as sentimental, the only statistic of any importance for the past year has been the death count.

This documentary showed us other rationales. It did at least try to understand that some people regard freedom of worship as more crucial than breathing. But, in the end, it came down on the side of the doctors. One consultant at a Coventry hospital, exhausted by months of fighting the virus on her wards, said: ‘I feel like I’ve lost my ability to smile and be happy.’ You won’t hear them saying that at the Life Tabernacle church.

Bereaved son Padraig (Pat Shortt) could have done with Pastor Spell to lead the singing at his mother’s funeral, in the first of a new sitcom, Frank Of Ireland (Channel 4).

Instead he asked Frank (Brian Gleeson), a failed singer-songwriter, to perform The Lord Is My Shepherd.

Frank thought he’d rather do My Heart Will Go On, or perhaps Every Breath You Take.

That faintly funny joke was about as good as this first episode got. Brian and his brother Domhnall are trying to create a Hollywood-style comedy about two overgrown adolescents — with plenty of immature jokes about sex and embarrassment.

All they’ve achieved so far feels like a remake of Dumb And Dumber, starring Mrs Brown’s Boys.

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