TV UK, 12 May

The Monastery: looking for the Big Brother in the sky.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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The Monastery (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm) is a sort of highbrow reality TV show, remarkable if only for demonstrating that there can be such a thing. At first blush, the premise demands a roll of the eyes: five volunteers spend six weeks living as monks in a Benedictine monastery to see if they’re up to the challenge.

Well, if you want to understand what monasteries are all about, was my first thought, this is a stupid way to go about it, reminiscent of those daft history programmes in which studiously ordinary families from Wolverhampton live like Iron Age villagers or American Pioneers or Nazis for six weeks. (All right, I haven’t seen one about Nazis, but that’s only because commissioning editors are chicken; don’t think they haven’t considered it. ‘Next week, little Gretel makes her own costume for the Nuremburg rally, but what’s that filthy leftist Walter so grouchy about?’)

In fact The Monastery isn’t about the monastery at all. Superficially it’s about the spiritual journeys made by the volunteers, and that aspect may yet begin to grate. The volunteers are typical reality TV ‘characters’: the laddish one, the hippy, the self-absorbed yuppie, the old guy and the former loyalist paramilitary (admittedly a new spin on the Irish one).

But it is possible to see the programme as an investigation of the premises of reality TV itself. In the opening episode, one of the monks explained the importance of community life to the pursuit of self-knowledge: the ability to see oneself through others. The community life of the Big Brother house may be a diabolical caricature of monastic community – not least because it is designed to be observed by demonic Others rather than lived by Is and Thous – but it shares something of the same rationale, a certain quasi-mystical belief in the authentic soul.

Indeed, the elusive difference between traditional religion and contemporary mysticism and psychobabble is one of the most interesting things about the programme. On one level it should be obvious: robust beliefs, personal discipline and obedience to authority versus woolly relativism and self-indulgence. But the monks aren’t above talking up self-esteem, and with God out of the picture, the volunteers’ theological discussion groups rather resemble circle time.

The hippy volunteer, having found Bhuddism too rigorous and returned to Anglicanism, struggles most with the difficulty of religious ideas, but that’s because he’s the only one who is even vaguely conscious of the problem. For his part, the former loyalist paramilitary explains that he’s comfortable with silence, having spent so much time in solitary confinement in prison. He’s fighting a tendency to do himself down. The others are hoping to find out about themselves rather than religion, let alone God.

I suspect the religious context will never impinge on the basic reality TV format, because monasticism is surely the least infectious mode of religious practice. Indeed, in the absence of a broader social role for religion, it seems to have much in common with reality TV. If monks only want to know themselves, what distinguishes them from any other poor souls in search of inner peace/instant celebrity except for the fact that their Big Brother is in the sky? It would take a documentary about religion to answer that. The Monastery is a reality TV show, albeit a highbrow one.

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