Saints and sinners

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

21 October 2017

9:00 AM

Any rival reality-TV makers watching Channel 5 on Thursday will, I suspect, have been both mystified and slightly embarrassed at not having thought up Bad Habits, Holy Orders themselves. After all, the concept is a blindingly obvious one. Take five young women whose primary interests are selfies, booze and clubbing and make them live like nuns for a month. And not metaphorically either: the five are staying with the Daughters of Divine Charity at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Swaffham, where days filled with prayer, reflection, manual work and wholesome play end at a 10 p.m. bedtime.

The first episode began by taking perhaps unnecessary care to make sure we understood the contrast between the two sets of women: cutting from the nuns praying in chapel to the girls twerking in nightclubs, from the taking of the communion chalice to the swigging of vodka. Less predictably, all concerned were then asked to describe their ideal man, with the girls mostly citing footballers and the nuns mostly pleading the fifth amendment — although one did admit that she’d favour somebody who’s ‘tall, slim’ and, maybe not insignificantly, ‘a carpenter’.

And just as The Apprentice participants start by assuring us what prats they are, so the five here were keen to point up their credentials as what euphemistic obituary-writers tend to call ‘party girls’. ‘I don’t know how many people I’ve slept with,’ explained 23-year-old Paige. ‘I have one-night stands all the time,’ declared 19-year-old Rebecca, whose job title seems to be ‘notorious Newcastle clubber’.

The five duly turned up at the convent in their full mini-skirted glory, lugging several cases of shoes and causing the nuns to whisper ‘Oh my goodness’ a lot. In fact, though, the girls plainly had no idea what their destination would be — which is why the rules came as such a shock, with bans on drink, make-up, phones and, to Paige’s especial alarm, bad language. (‘Fuck. No swearing. That’s me fucked.’) Before long, they’d also realised that very few of their many outfits were, as one understatedly put it, ‘nunnery-appropriate’.

In the circumstances, then, they did a fairly good job of adjusting to their new lives, busted only once for buying vodka (which was poured down the sink) and generally coming across as funny, rather sweet and touchingly eager to please — if not always certain of how to. The nuns were a likeable lot as well, on the whole opting for amused puzzlement over the horror-struck disapproval that previous generations of religious sisters would surely have displayed.

Yet, while all this was entertaining enough, and sometimes quite affecting, the most revealing aspects of the programme were, I’d suggest, inadvertent: specifically about our contradictory attitudes to hedonism, and even more specifically, to any pretty young women who embrace it. (If asked to reduce those attitudes to three syllables, I think I’d go for, ‘Tut-tut! Cor!’)

Thursday’s opening captions, for example, took a solemnly head-shaking line on the sad decline of morality in an age where ‘many young women are embracing a culture of drink, casual sex and self-obsession’. The narrator, too, made several doleful references to ‘this lost generation’ — usually followed by more footage of the girls dancing in their pants to show us just how lost they were. Meanwhile, any signs of repentance (‘I feel like my self-worth comes from Instagram,’ lamented lingerie-model Gabbi at one point) were seen as heartening proof that the nuns were indeed ‘challenging the girls’ values and beliefs’.

For the purposes of the programme, in other words, we’re clearly expected to accept the notion of ‘Nuns good, party girls bad’. (Old ideas of saints and sinners apparently go deep.) Yet, wouldn’t it be more honest — as well as more interesting — if the challenging of values went both ways? Might it even be possible, for instance, that one or two of the more imaginative nuns are now at least wondering whether it would necessarily be a total disaster to be a fun-seeking young hottie?

And so to the best documentary series of the year — and very possibly of the past decade. With just two of its ten hours to go, The Vietnam War (BBC4, Monday) has already managed the impressive double of making everything about the war seem far more complicated and far clearer at the same time — including the fact that throughout the whole tragic business virtually nobody in any American administration (and certainly no president) ever thought America had a chance of winning.

It’s also combined its calmly authoritative political analysis with individual stories of piercing power. On Monday, a former US soldier talked about tunnel warfare and how ‘I beat and strangled someone to death in the dark’ — by which he meant complete blackness. ‘The other casualty,’ he added, ‘was the civilised version of me.’

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