24 hours after Christmas - it's Easter

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IN A world dominated by reality television, home makeovers and big money quizzes, it seemed the last bastion of traditional broadcasting.

But Songs of Praise, the longest running and most popular religious programme in the world has become the latest show to be accused of hoodwinking its audience.

After the Richard and Judy competition shock and the Blue Peter phone-in scandal comes the great Songs of Praise debacle - with a bishop revealing Christmas and Easter episodes were actually filmed on consecutive days in November.

In a speech about the difficulties of trusting the media, the Rt Rev Jonathan Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield, let the cat out of the bag and described how members of the congregation who attended the fake Easter service in November were asked to wear lighter, more summery clothing and to sit in different pews to create the impression of spring. The "Christmas" service had been filmed the day before.

He said: "They told us that after we'd done Christmas we would do Easter straightaway - just change the flowers and get bright lights outside to mimic lighter spring evenings - it wasn't a deliberate deceit but it will give an air of unreality to the Easter programme."

The bishop said the example demonstrated the dangers of taking the media at face value: "People lose confidence in what they see if they believe it is created, rather than really happening."

Yesterday, after unleashing a minor media storm of his own, the bishop backtracked on suggestions he was accusing the BBC of subterfuge.

"If I am attacking the BBC then I am attacking myself because I knew about it in advance and I was party to it," he said.

"I used this in my speech to illustrate the point that what you see on television isn't always reality. Many people I have spoken to are completely shocked when I tell them that the Easter programme was recorded before Christmas."

Media commentator Mark Borkowski disagreed with the bishop's assertion that such fakery is undermining people's faith in television.

"The bishop is just demonstrating that he is a modern bishop with a good ear for a soundbite," he said.

"People these days take TV with a pinch of salt. In most people's lives it is more ephemeral than it has ever been. People make up their own opinions about things."

The bishop's comments came after a spate of revelations about supposedly "live" programmes being taped in advance. Broadcasters are now investigating the use of premium rate phone lines after a series of competition scandals involving programmes including Channel Four's Richard and Judy, Channel Five's Brainteaser and the BBC's Blue Peter.

Yesterday a BBC spokesman defended the reputation of Songs of Praise.

"There was no deceit intended whatsoever," he said. "It was made clear to the cathedral and the congregation that we intended to record two programmes while we were there.

"It is common practice that we will take advantage of a spectacular setting and at the same time make the most efficient possible use of resources. Songs of Praise is always filmed in advance."

'Old-fashioned' favourite across the world

WATCHING footage of a service at a chapel in Wales in 1961, Tonight producer Donald Baverstock had the idea of a weekly broadcast from a church.

Even then many thought it was an old-fashioned concept, Songs of Praise was to become the most popular and the longest-running religious programme in the world. At its peak it attracted 12 million viewers, and presenters included Sir Harry Secombe, Dame Thora Hird and Aled Jones. With royalty and popes among the special guests, it became a British broadcasting institution.

The programme marked the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 with a broadcast from Harrow School, while the death of Princess Diana was honoured by a service from St Paul's Cathedral.

In these days of digital channels and God TV, Songs of Praise still attracts 2.5 million viewers a week and is regularly broadcast in countries including New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.