50 Years Ago Songs of Praise


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50 Years Ago

Pam Rhodes celebrate five decades of Songs of Praise. She visits Tabernacle Baptist Chapel in Cardiff, home of the first episode, and is joined by Sir Cliff Richard.


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Looking at the watch... Right-ho, cue telecine.

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50 years ago, the world was very different.

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The first manned space flight had only just taken place...

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..yet most trains were still powered by steam.

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And television was in black and white.

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Just as the '60s were about to swing,

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a new TV series was commissioned to feature congregations singing in their own churches.

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It was called Songs Of Praise.

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In the first of three special programmes to celebrate our 50th birthday,

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we return to the church where it all began,

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to enjoy the same hymns that were sung in the very first programme.

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Plus, reminiscences from Geoffrey Wheeler and Sir Cliff Richard.

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# Come on, let's twist again

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# Like we did last summer... #

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1961, the year of the Twist, was when Songs Of Praise was born,

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at 6.15 on October 1st.

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It came from Tabernacl Capel y Bedyddwyr -

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Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Church - in the centre of Cardiff.

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Well, the world has changed,

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except that hymn-singing is still right at the heart of what we do,

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and hymns don't get much better

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than our first one today,

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with its tune named after the Rhondda Valley,

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and inspirational words from William Williams,

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the writer known as the "Sweet Singer of Wales". Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.

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IN WELSH:

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And out steps Prince Charles, as always, looking tremendously fresh.

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Songs Of Praise's roots lay firmly in Wales.

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As part of the celebrations following his Investiture in 1969,

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the country's new Prince took part in a programme from Swansea.

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And earlier in the decade, it was a Welshman who,

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by a fortunate co-incidence,

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was responsible for commissioning the very first programme.

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Before lunch one Sunday, I switched on the television set

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and, by chance, there happened to be a programme

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I didn't know was going out, in Welsh,

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from a Welsh chapel, in Cardiff, I think it was.

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I happened to watch it, wondering what the devil it was doing there, from Crystal Palace transmitters.

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The force came, I think, from the wholehearted, uninhibited quality of the singing.

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This experience inspired a programme of hymn-singing in English to be commissioned,

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and a producer for the new series was appointed.

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One of my jobs was to find a suitable title for the series,

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and it being a hymn-singing festival, I turned to the Bible

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and to the Book of Psalms, and in Psalm 147, I found this, in Welsh.

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Molwch yr Arglwydd, canys da yw canu i'n Duw ni,

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which, in English, is, "Praise ye the Lord,

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"for it is good to sing praises unto our God."

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And that gave us a clue. It HAD to be Songs Of Praise.

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# Songs of praises

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# Songs of praises

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# I will ever... #

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Many of the early presenters were clergymen,

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and the man who introduced the hymns in the first programme

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was a Congregationalist minister from Aberystwyth.

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I think television had only been in existence for just a few years,

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and the chief image that it conveyed

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was that it was a secular animal, despite the fact that there were religious programmes in Welsh.

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But this was the programme, I think, that brought home to most people

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that this was a vehicle that could convey the most delicate, sensitive emotions of the soul, as well.

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The world often felt vulnerable in 1961,

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with nuclear war seeming a distinct possibility.

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The top news stories included the summit between Harold Macmillan and President Kennedy,

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the building of the Berlin Wall,

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and demonstrations against nuclear weapons.

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Not only was the world very different in 1961, television was as well,

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with just two channels to choose from.

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However, there were some programmes WE'd still recognise.

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The Sky At Night has had the same presenter, Sir Patrick Moore,

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since its first programme in 1957.

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If I'd come on the air when we did the first of these Sky At Night programmes

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and said that within five years, I'd be showing you pictures of the first man to go round the Earth,

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in orbit, in a spaceship... Well, I think you'd have regarded me as mad! But it HAS happened.

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MUSIC: "Blue Peter" Theme Tune

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And Blue Peter has been entertaining and informing children for nearly 53 years.

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We will be back in a fortnight's time, when we'll be starting a brand-new cartoon serial

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-about a Red Indian boy, so see you all then. Bye-bye.

-Bye.

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Popular programmes on the day Songs Of Praise was first broadcast included What's My Line?...

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Are you, then, a film actor?

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No...

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..and the often-anarchic Sooty And Sweep Show.

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No. No...

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Full-length dramas and concerts often featured in the schedule.

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Soprano Heather Harper sang leading roles in televised operas

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like La Traviata, and also took part in the first-ever Songs Of Praise.

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And singing a hymn from that first programme is one of today's

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brightest singing stars, Elin Manahan Thomas.

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# Let us, with a gladsome mind

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# Praise the Lord, for he is kind

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Ever faithful, ever sure

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# He with all-commanding might

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# Filled the new-made world with light

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Every faithful, ever sure

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# He the golden-tressed sun

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# Caused all day his course to run

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Ever faithful, ever sure

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# And the horned moon by night

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# Mid her spangled sisters bright

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Ever faithful, ever sure

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# All things living he doth feed

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# His full hand supplies their need

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Ever faithful, ever sure

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# Let us, with a gladsome mind

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# Praise the Lord, for he is kind

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# For his mercies aye endure

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# Ever faithful, ever sure... #

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I am delighted to introduce the man who was the familiar face of Songs Of Praise in the '60s,

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when there were so few TV channels that every household would've known the programme.

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His first programme came from Baden-Powell House in London,

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and he's in Cardiff today. It's Geoffrey Wheeler.

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Geoffrey, you were already well established as a TV presenter. You did Television Top Of The Form

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before Songs Of Praise. Did this series feel different?

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Very, very different.

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Technically, it was the same - the same cameras, the same lights,

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the same lines to remember. All these things were the same.

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But underneath it all was a more serious purpose. A lot of programmes are done just for fun.

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This was fun, too, but it really meant something to the people making the programme,

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and I think it showed.

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Now, many of the programmes were live,

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including one memorable occasion, when Winston Churchill died. On that day,

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you presented a programme from his old school in Harrow. What do you remember of that?

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I remember everything about it.

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I had to get, immediately, from Broadcasting House up to Harrow on the Hill on the Tube,

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and there was a complete standby unit.

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His timing, I have to say, was perfect.

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We knew he was ill, but he died that morning,

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and we were able to go straight into rehearsal for the programme.

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This was a really, really important moment in the history of the nation,

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and we were doing this live.

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There wasn't going to be a second chance. We HAD to get it right.

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# O praise ye the Lord

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# Praise him in the height... #

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I suppose, after all those years of interviewing people,

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of hearing about their challenges and faith,

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-I wonder whether it made an impact on your own faith.

-I think it did.

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You meet a lot of people when you're interviewing people,

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but when you meet somebody who is enormously moving in what they say,

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it's very humbling, and you look at your own life, and you think about it again.

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Well, as you're here, will you slip back into the familiar role and introduce the next hymn for us?

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Yes, of course, Pam.

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We've heard a lot, haven't we, about Royal weddings lately.

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Well, this next hymn was chosen by the Queen for her wedding.

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The music was written specially for it. It's a hymn of hope.

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Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven -

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we've a new beginning to look forward to.

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# Well, do you wanna dance? #

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In 1961, Cliff Richard was already a household name.

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# Do you wanna dance? #

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It was a very exciting time, because rock'n'roll was in its infancy. The fact that we had even gone in

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and made records was exciting. The fact that television,

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which was something that we went to my aunt's house to see,

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with a magnifying glass over the front to make it look bigger. Do you remember those?

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So the whole period was a freshness. I know that we'll probably never, ever going to capture that again.

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So, what were the highlight? Where were the performances you remember? Or the awards that were special?

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Being on television, doing Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

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Thank you very much. Now we'd like to introduce to you our vocalist.

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LAUGHTER

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..Cliff Richard.

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# The young ones

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# Darling, we're the young ones... #

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You could have remained very private about your faith.

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Instead of that, you stepped out on the stage of the Billy Graham

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rally in 1966, which was quite a momentous decision, really.

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It was so nerve-wracking to get up and speak to these people, knowing...

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There must have been that huge area that they have there for people when they come forward.

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Billy usually says to people, "If you want to give your life to Jesus, come forward.

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"This means nothing in itself but you will be met by somebody,

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"somebody will stand next to you and help you make the next step."

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And that space was full of press, so I was terrified.

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So, as a young, enthusiastic, evangelical Christian,

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as you were at that time, was Songs Of Praise even on your radar?

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Er, you know, I'd be working somewhere, anywhere,

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and have a Sunday off, or whatever, be in the hotel room,

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I used to tend to stay sleeping late, and I used to watch Songs Of Praise there.

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And as the concept changed,

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and grew, suddenly you found that you were getting people from

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all walks of life coming and talking about how they received their faith,

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how they achieved that moment of recognition of Jesus being this vital factor in our lives,

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and it was encouraging to see that. For me it was encouraging.

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The tranquillity of the worship...

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'I still think we need to feel there's a focal point'

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for all of us to be able to share our faith

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and...and I hope that, as the years go by, Songs Of Praise becomes more and more necessary.

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It's not just a TV show.

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Young ones have been an important part of Songs Of Praise right from the first programme,

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when a children's choir performed All Things Bright And Beautiful, sung now by youngsters from Cardiff.

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The first instinct that a human being has, when he's born,

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it's...the instinct is...sex.

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I'm very glad you make that point, you know, because I hold that strongly.

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That is an enormously important thing...

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In the early 1960s, pop stars debated with archbishops,

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and on the day Songs Of Praise was first broadcast

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it was one of several religious programmes on BBC television.

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The evening's final programme, at 10.45, was The Epilogue.

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..and prayers learnt at his mother's knee.

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This was a time when the influence of the BBC's first Director General,

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John Reith, pervaded the corporation.

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..as there was a board of governors over me

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in whom, de jure, all responsibility and authority was vested.

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In many ways you've got to go right back to John Reith.

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Here he was, a Scottish Presbyterian.

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If you like, he believed, in the end,

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the most important element in making programmes

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was the producer's conscience.

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That, you know, you can't sit in judgment

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on every one of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of programmes

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that are coming out of, say, the BBC.

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You depend upon the producer's conscience.

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Now, that tradition is really quite part of the spine of Songs Of Praise still.

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So I wonder if those founding fathers would be surprised

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that we're now celebrating Songs Of Praise's 50th birthday.

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What is their legacy in that, do you think?

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I think that any of them would recognise, still, in Songs Of Praise

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the essential elements which were part of its founding genius.

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They might have grumbles about the dancing girls and the guitars

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and that...you know...

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but nonetheless...they would... they would sense...

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that...that the faith was still being kept by this programme.

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It is often said that Songs Of Praise is folk religion,

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and that is exactly what it is,

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because that's how hymns originate.

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You know, most of religion is run by professionals,

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parsons, theologians,

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but hymns are where the congregation strike back.

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You know, the theologians can say a hymn is absolute doggerel

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but if a congregation decides to take it to its heart,

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sooner or later it will end up in one of the hymn books.

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My father, who was a coal miner, didn't have much formal education

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but was one of the most cultured men I knew,

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used to say that the half dozen most majestic words in the English language

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were found in that verse of O Worship The King -

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"pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise".

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And he said that's the best seven-word definition of the majesty of God you will find in the language.

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And I've never forgotten that.

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Lord of life and hope,

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may the assurance of your presence and the peace of your blessing

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give voice to the music of our souls,

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that we may praise you today and for ever.

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Amen.

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CONGREGATION: Amen.

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Well, it's not for nothing that Wales is known as the land of song,

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and here in the Tabernacle Chapel,

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where Songs Of Praise began life 50 years ago,

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we take our leave of you now with the wonderful combination of a classic Welsh tune, Blaenwern,

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and much-loved words from Charles Wesley,

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so it's goodbye from all of us here in Cardiff with Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.

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Next week, Aled introduces the second programme

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celebrating our 50th anniversary,

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with lots of magic moments from the past 50 years,

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the most surprising places, extraordinary people,

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incredible stories and inspiring music

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since Songs Of Praise began in 1961.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

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Sir Cliff Richard and Geoffrey Wheeler feature in the first of three special programmes celebrating five decades of Songs of Praise. Pam Rhodes turns the clock back to join the congregation in Tabernacle Baptist Chapel in Cardiff, which hosted the first edition in 1961, to sing the same rousing hymns. With guest soprano Elin Manahan Thomas.