Sally Magnusson is in Edinburgh to celebrate 70 years of its International Festival, and JB Gill meets gospel music legends The Blind Boys Of Alabama.
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I'm in Edinburgh - a city that's celebrating 70 years
of its world-famous festivals.
Welcome to Songs Of Praise.
On this week's programme, I uncover the history
of the Edinburgh Festival.
How an idea to lift the gloom after the Second World War
grew into the largest annual cultural event in the world.
JB Gill from JLS finds out about the faith that drives
gospel music legends The Blind Boys of Alabama,
before they perform here in Edinburgh.
And I'll be chatting to writer and comedian Paul Kerensa,
to find out how faith and comedy come together.
If you believe in a creator, you believe in creativity.
This is one of the freest ways of using the
creativity that I think is God-given.
As the world's premier festival city, Edinburgh has offered
an unparalleled creative showcase every year for seven decades.
From the Military Tattoo to celebrations of comedy,
film, dance, music and much more.
The Edinburgh International Festival was the first of the
festivals to be established, 70 years ago.
Every year since then, there's been a service of prayer and
praise here at St Giles' Cathedral to mark the beginning of this
All our hymns today are from Stockbridge Church,
just a short walk from the city centre.
It's a beautiful Georgian building and a popular venue for
performances during the Fringe.
And as people from all nations flock to Edinburgh's festivals,
we begin with a hymn that bids all the world to sing
in praise of God.
# Let all the world in every corner sing... #
Planning some of the world's largest cultural events
is a huge undertaking.
Julia Amour is part of the team who get the show on the road.
The really exciting thing is this is not one festival
but it's five festivals taking place
in August and another six around the rest of the year.
And now we have more attendances than at a Fifa Football World Cup.
The original festival, the International Festival
was born after the end of World War II.
There's a wonderful phrase that the Lord Provost of the time used
about it being a platform for the flowering of the human spirit
and that's one of the values that we've hoped to carry through all
this time in our 70th anniversary year.
Do you sense the Festival has retained the
spirituality that it was born with?
Absolutely, I think those values are very important to it,
and the Church of Scotland was very important
to the establishment of the International Festival.
It couldn't be born without being christened, I guess,
and the minister of St Giles' said that this was
a historic agreement between the city and the Church
about the importance of arts and culture.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is also celebrating its
70th anniversary this year.
It's now the world's largest arts festival and a
launchpad for all sorts of performers.
Paul Kerensa is a stand-up comedian and writer,
whose credits include hit shows Miranda, Not Going Out
and Top Gear. He's been performing his comedy here
at the Edinburgh Fringe for more than 20 years.
Paul, how does it feel? That moment when you're in the
spotlight and all these people waiting to be entertained?
Yeah, it's the calm before the storm, isn't it?
That moment at the top of the rollercoaster,
just before it comes down. I always think,
with a comedian, a vicar, a teacher, you are the one person
facing the wrong way - then you've just to prove
that you should be here.
It's... Give me a cheer if you're a parent.
Give me a cheer if you're not a parent.
-Less of you, but more energy, more...
-More joie de vivre...
So what was it that attracted you to this?
The masochistic way of life, in the first place?
There was nothing left, really...
So, I tried acting and it turns out I was best at being myself,
I think, as an actor and I think stand-up -
it is quite addictive...
Once you've done it, you think, "Well, I have to keep going
"with this." He is quite a big baby 9lb 11oz, he was...
Ooh, yes. Mostly women are responding to that, I notice.
It's great fun, there's nothing else like it.
And at the same time, you've had a Christian faith -
has that been a lifelong thing?
Yeah, well, I've been a Christian since I was a teenager,
really, but I also did a theology degree,
so I had friends going off into vicarhood and that sort of thing
and then I went the other way, to stand-up comedy.
But I always think, if you believe in a creator,
you believe in creativity and that, for me, is one of the freest
ways of using the creativity that I think is God-given.
You know, you're probably aware of the statistic that the Bible
is the bestselling book in the world, of all time,
which is fantastic. You know, it's the most shoplifted book
of all time, as well, do you know this?
It is the most stolen book...which is ironic,
cos quite early on there is...
It says, thou shalt not do that, but obviously they haven't
got that far yet...
There maybe historically has been that battle between
people of a faith and comedy, you know? Can the two mix?
And I think Jesus was using humour 2,000 years ago.
I love to think there must be a tale to be told about the
matey carpenter sort of background of someone like that.
Sawdust in your friend's eye and a plank in your own.
Even using carpentry language to get his point across.
And that use of humour in storytelling
is there, I think, in the Bible,
just as it is here today.
# Will you come and follow me? #
As well as being a festival season, August is, of course,
holiday time, believe it or not!
Nowadays, there are many more options for what to do
with your time off, including a brand-new way of
exploring Britain's Christian heritage.
JB Gill has been to Shropshire to try it out.
I'm a huge lover of being outdoors and there's nothing better
than pitching up a tent and having a great time in the countryside.
But tonight, I'm trying camping with a difference.
Ah, here we are, I'm going champing.
Yes, that's camping in a church.
Peter Aiers of The Churches Conservation Trust
is the man behind the idea.
Peter - camping inside a church?
How did that come about?
Well, we're a charity. We've got 352 historic churches
that we look after and we were looking at different ways
they can be used to raise money. Historic churches are for
everybody. They're the most democratic of historic buildings,
and it's really important that the spaces remain open,
so this whole new audience are coming to our buildings
and really enjoying them for what they are.
Is anyone slightly apprehensive, as I am, of staying in a place
-surrounded by a graveyard?
-Well, it's not the graveyard
you need to worry about here, I think it's the Roman soldiers
that march past every night... No! I mean, the whole experience
is really, really positive. They are such tranquil spaces.
All the feedback is - what a beautiful, peaceful place.
-So, here we are.
-Wow, it's a beautiful church.
What can people expect when they come champing?
Well, we provide these very comfy, champing beds for you.
You can see there's a hamper with some treats in there for you.
We've got lanterns, we've got these amazing LED candles,
they look just like real candles, but they don't set fire to
the building or drop wax on our ancient stonework.
It's a lot more luxurious than I did think it was going to be.
Really? Oh, good.
So, what sort of things are special to this church?
Well, you're standing next to the best font in our collection
of churches. This is made from a Roman column,
a piece of Roman architecture, which has become the font.
Do you want people to take away a deeper significance
-of the churches that they stay in?
-People come for lots
of different reasons, and if you dwell in these buildings,
you get a sense of what has been going on for generations.
The Reverend David O'Brien is a vicar in the area.
This church is no longer used for regular services.
Do you think the building itself speaks about God?
I think it does. The shape of the building,
the stained glass windows, the baptistery, everything
in the church is built to remind people of something about the
Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christianity isn't just about going
to services, it's about connecting with God.
And although champing seems unusual, if it's a stepping stone
for somebody to access the Christian faith,
then I think it will be a good outcome
and a good use for the church.
KNOCKING ON DOOR
I'm pleased to say, I'm not the only one sleeping here tonight.
-Hiya, you all right? I'm Sam.
In you come.
Well, I'm an outdoorsy person, myself, so I go hiking
and camping with friends a lot, most weekends.
And this just seemed like a really exciting thing to do.
-Right, well, I guess that's lights out. Night, Sam.
-Well, we made it.
-How did you find your night's sleep?
-Pretty good, actually.
It was a lot warmer than I thought it would be
and it wasn't spookily quiet, as I thought it would be.
Actually, it was just really peaceful.
-I didn't hear anything go bump in the night.
-No, me neither!
Do you think people will take away more from this than
-just a fun camping experience?
I really hope that people, when they come champing,
will be able to experience God in these wonderful,
beautiful old churches. And I'd definitely recommend it
for anybody that wants an experience and see what it's like.
It's a great new adventure to try out.
This is definitely THE most unsual place I've ever stayed,
but it's also one of the most beautiful
and having spent time here, you really get a sense
of the worshippers who've been coming here for centuries.
I might just be coming champing again.
# The Lord's my shepherd... #
If you've not yet got your tickets for The Big Sing,
then what are you waiting for?
For your chance to see the stars and join our
5,000-strong congregation at the Royal Albert Hall,
please go along to our website...
We owe a real debt to the men and women
who wrote those great hymns that we so enjoy singing together.
One of them was the Reverend Walter Chalmers Smith,
who was a minister here in Edinburgh in the 19th century.
He wrote Immortal Invisible.
# Immortal, invisible, God only wise... #
A quick drive across the Forth Road Bridge, and we're
right away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh.
This is Culross, one of the most picturesque and ancient
villages in Scotland and one with a rich Christian history.
These are the ruins of Culross Abbey,
founded exactly 800 years ago.
Archaeologist Adrian Cox is here to tell me
more about this once-magnificent Christian community.
Adrian, help me to make sense of what we can see here.
Well, we're inside a medieval abbey, a Cistercian abbey
which had a number of buildings arranged around
a cloister, which is up there above our heads.
This would have been ringing to the sounds of bells
and you would hear chanting and prayers
and in a way, a monastery was like the university,
the centre of learning of its day.
Why was this abbey founded?
Well, the site is connected with two very famous saints.
The first is St Serf, who we think founded a religious
community on this site, in the sixth century.
He becomes very important, because washed up on the shoreline
is a coracle which contains Princess Teneu.
And she has been expelled from East Lothian by her father.
And she's pregnant. And St Serf takes care of her
and her newborn son.
St Serf raised the boy in the ways of the Christian faith
and he became St Kentigern, also known as St Mungo.
St Mungo moves on to Glasgow and founds a religious community there
and he is the patron saint of Glasgow.
What was the daily life of the monks, as they lived here?
They mostly focused on prayer. They also had some colleagues,
some lay brothers who did all the manual work around the place,
-it was very useful.
-That's what we all need, isn't it?
That's right, we all need that. In a way, their labour sort of freed
up the time for the monks to focus on prayer and devotion to God.
What's your personal sense of this place?
Well, I always feel really privileged.
We're very close to the church there, the church is
still important and still in use and it's a very spiritual place,
definitely. You can sort of feel the spirituality in the stonework
around us, going back, you know, hundreds of years.
# Spirit of God, unseen as the wind... #
Music performers come to Edinburgh from all over the world.
To meet one of this year's headline acts, we sent JB Gill,
who of course, achieved worldwide fame himself
as a member of the boyband JLS.
I thought we'd done well, lasting five years in the cut-throat world
of the music industry.
But the group I'm about to meet have been releasing and
performing songs for over seven decades.
And I can't wait to meet them.
Since they began singing together, The Blind Boys of Alabama
have witnessed the Second World War, the Civil Rights Movement,
the moon landings and much more.
During that time, they've released over 60 albums
and won six Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Christianity is at the heart of their performances.
-For Christ's sake, Amen.
Jimmy Carter is one of the founding members.
Jimmy - absolute honour to meet you. We're here in Edinburgh,
and you are at the end of a world tour.
What is it that keeps you singing?
People ask me that question -
what is it that keeps me going? I tell them...
when you love what you do, you know, it keeps you motivated.
I've been doing this now all of my life.
We sing gospel music.
We tell the world about Jesus Christ.
And that's our message.
As a youngster, did you ever get frustrated or angry at God
because of, you know, your lack of vision?
-I asked him, uh... "I got five brothers..."
"And all of them can see, except me. Why is that?"
Now I know why. Because he knew that if I could have seen,
I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.
# What you say? #
You guys have been working so long in the music industry.
What are some of the things that you feel have been
-changed for the better?
-We started out in the South, you know,
-in the '40s.
-The South was segregated at that time.
Very much so.
And we weren't allowed to sing to white people, just blacks.
Now, we sing to everybody. We got a long way to go yet
-but...we have come a long way.
And I know you've performed in front of presidents...
-Three of them, yeah.
-There you go! Did you ever think
that you'd perform in front of a black president?
Never thought that, no.
# I wanna be free... #
And I know, first-hand, what it's like to perform
and to sing onstage.
What kind of feeling does it give you?
If you come to a concert with The Blind Boys
and go back the same way you came, then we haven't done
anything for you...
-# I feel like jumping
-Jump, jump... #
We try to make you feel what we feel
and that's the goodness of God.
And now here are The Blind Boys of Alabama performing
Singing Brings Us Closer.
# I remember when
# My mother used to sing
# Oh, the joy that her voice could bring
# When I'm low
# And I'm afraid
# And I long to see her face
# Singing brings her closer to me
# When our brother travelled on
# I said we have to carry on
# Even though the path was dark to see
# But I know he's here tonight
# Cos I surely feel his light
# Singing brings him closer to me
# We gather here
# Bring our old friend near
# Oh, it brings us closer
# Yes, it brings us closer
# Singing brings us closer to thee
# I look back on the days
# The times seem, oh, so strange
# Struggle and justice and despair
# But we marched right through that harm
# Joining voices, joining arms
# Oh, singing brought us closer to free
# Oh, it brings us closer
# Yeah, yeah, yeah
# It brings us closer
# Singing brings us closer to thee
# Oh, it brings us closer
# Yes, it brings us closer
# I know, I know
# Singing brings us closer
# To thee. #
Next week, we celebrate the legacy of Diana Princess of Wales.
Pam Rhodes meets a mum whose son met Diana when he was dying of Aids.
And I discover the impact she made by shaking hands with
leprosy patients in Nepal.
She showed a real love of God to the people, by touching them
and comforting them.
We leave you with a hymn which was sung at that first Festival
service, back in 1947. Until next time, goodbye.
# Almighty Father of all things that be... #
Sally Magnusson is in Edinburgh to celebrate 70 years of its world-famous International Festival, and JB Gill meets gospel music legends The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Plus hymns from Edinburgh's Stockbridge Church, including The Lord Is My Shepherd and Immortal Invisible.