Cursed by an avalanche of trivia

19th September 1997 at 01:00
HOLY SMOKE. LWT. Sundays, 10.15-10.45am. Age range: 10-15

With much religious broadcasting a turn-off for young people, London Weekend Television has made a bid for the youth market by screening Holy Smoke, eight loud-talking and upbeat programmes which try to show that Alan Shearer, Noel Gallagher and Gillian Anderson aren't the only gods in town.

Presenting the series, which is aimed at 10 to 15-year-olds, is nose-pierced and denim-clad Anna Richardson, who will be familiar to viewers of Love Bites, which was made by the same team. Like Love Bites, Holy Smoke has a relentless cheeriness and a funky, music-video format.

Each 30-minute programme manages to cover a dozen subjects, from vox pops asking kids what they'd to if they were God for a day - answers range from the sincere ("peace" and "stop racism") to the silly ("I'd go skiing") - to a bluffer's guide to Buddhism; from an interview with a trendy rabbi ("Heaven is cool") to a video diary made by two young Rastafarians from Chislehurst in Kent.

While each week Jason Bradbury - former Big Breakfast presenter - tries his hand at a different religious experience, such as thumping Sikh Dohl drums and gospel singing, there's also an endless parade of eccentric personalities. My favourites from the early programmes are the church-going Spice Girl lookalikes from London's East End, who tell us what Christians "really, really want".

Though adults may find the series' approach superficial and irritating, teenagers might appreciate its mix of the ridiculous and the serious. The interview with black pop group Damage - "soul in the music and music in their souls" - reveals a surprisingly sincere bunch of young men feeling their way among the hazards of openly discussing their beliefs and how they came to them.

But the blizzard of bite-sized bits of information about the world's religions tends to be confusing. In the end, it only gives you a fragmented impression of the variety of possible beliefs. At its worst, it encourages a moral relativism - each religion is as good as another - which many of the participants would surely find disagreeable.

Likewise, there is little attempt to explore either beliefs or ethics in any depth. When the format is a constantly shifting barrage of sound bites, it's impossible to pin anyone down. The impression given is that the world's religions are a free-for-all supermarket in which any idea can be picked up or put down at will.

The really difficult questions about, say, the clash between belief and toleration, simply disappear under the avalanche of trivial facts. And while the vox pops show teenagers trying to relate traditional belief systems to everyday ethical problems - does being a Muslim help you "do the right thing"? - the series as a whole fails to tell us how.

For schools, Holy Smoke provides lots of material, though teachers will need to find a method of using the snappy format in a way that goes beyond its larky humour and zany immediacy. Britain has a very lively religious culture, but this series is less concerned with delivering youth to church than to the advertisers. As the first programme says: "Don't forget God's watching - make sure you do!"

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