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Evolution, not revolution on the set of Praise Be

By Julia Stuart

It is inevitable that television programmes change when the person in front of the camera changes. So faithful viewers of TVNZ’s long-running Sunday morning nod to God – Praise Be – may be feeling a little unsettled as Presbyterian minister Rev Chris Nichol takes over as host from Anglican layman Graeme Thomson.

There’s no need for alarm, says Chris Nichol soothingly. “Evolution is the right word, not revolution. We have a constituency we could alienate very quickly if we wanted to but why would we do that? It’s a fantastically faithful audience. Having said that I think people are already starting to notice a few changes in the last few months.”

Chris describes his succession to Graeme Thomson as “a gracious mantle-passing”. For 20 years Graeme was Praise Be, and his willingness to recognize Chris as his heir has been important to Chris taking over the job.

“Graeme had a particular style that was him. Graeme and I are not the same person so it needs to become me a little bit. There are no Bible readings or overt prayers any more, except for the odd blessing at the end. There is more reference to sport. There are more jokes. It’s a little bit faster.”

Chris is no stranger to the programme. He worked on Praise Be when it was based in Christchurch in the 1980s, along with Ron Pledger, who is still the producer and director. As the programme evolves, it’s keeping the mix of hymns, songs, sacred and contemporary music but extending the range.

Contemporary music? Chris, who is himself a saxophone player and vocalist with a group, The Dunstan Rangers, sees four strands.

“There’s contemporary hymnody, by which I might mean Shirley Murray. There is a whole strand around the drums/guitars stuff that I think is really important in a show like this. There’s another around the rebirth of a capella gospel singing, and then there’s a whole lot of other music that is not identifiable church music but is certainly spiritual.

“Into that mix we have to add the traditional stuff. Introducing the new stuff has to be done in a way that invites people to enjoy and appreciate it rather than scare the hell out of them.”

So who’s watching Praise Be? The audience is as wide-ranging as the music.

“A lot of our present audience are people who don’t go to church; and that’s a lot of our future audience too,” Chris says. “This is why we can’t simply stay with traditional or even contemporary hymn forms. If people don’t recognize the music, they won’t watch it.

“A lot of people my age say to me that they don’t go to church but they like the echoes of childhood that they hear. But they also need to hear echoes of their present lives as well. And that’s the challenge.”

The audience profile tends to be older but Chris is trying to drive it down to 40-somethings.

In addition to Praise Be Chris will front a totally new series in the same time-slot later in the year. My God is a series of 10 in-depth interviews with people in different religious traditions in New Zealand. The idea, Chris says, is to recognize there are a lot of Kiwis across the religious spectrum who get their religious nourishment in different ways, and we need to understand one another a good deal better.

The programme invites people to talk about their experience in their own terms and the difference their spirituality makes for how they live their lives.

Praise Be and My God will play for 44 Sundays in the year, a huge demand for a 100 percent NZ produced and staffed programme. Chris is also communications manager for Presbyterian Support Central, so he has a pretty demanding lifestyle.

Soon he’s off to the Council for World Mission conference in the West Indies, and before that the Dunstan Rangers launch their new, all original CD. But it’s clear that each of Chris’s many activities informs the other, and certainly the TV audience is richer for them.