Nuns Aloud Review: Will They Find The Nun Factor?

NUNS ALOUD: Tuesday 15th February, BBC One, 11.20pm

Like the proverbial chicken and the egg, with tonight’s Nuns Aloud it is hard to think what came first: two record company execs embarking on a quest to find a group of singing nuns and consequently making a programme about it, or indeed the premise of the show (and genius title) itself.

In fact, you can almost imagine a TV exec’s thought process: ‘Right; people like talent, but they also like it when it’s unexpected (Exhibit A: Susan Boyle). Hmm… Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we televised an X-Factor type search to find singing nuns?’

While you can’t deny its televisual value, the programme is indeed based on a real proposal from Universal’s Decca Records, who, spurned on from the success of their 2008 signing – a group of Austrian monks whose Gregorian chant album became a best seller – decided to set themselves a similar challenge, this time with, you guessed it: nuns.

The men assigned for the job are top exec Tom Lewis and his right-hand man Oliver Harrop, who travel across Ireland, Wales, France, Spain and the USA on their mission to find a set of nuns with blessed vocal chords capable of sounding “other-worldlyâ€?. There’s just one little hitch: they want a blend of young voices (on one disappointing visit, the monastery Oliver visits has just four nuns, one of whom is 102) and the nuns kind of need to be open to the idea of promotion and publicity. Slightly difficult to guarantee, when you’re visiting ‘cloistered’ monasteries who refuse cameras and only agree to talk when separated behind iron grills…

Speaking of the grills, the nuns are on hand to spin a positive and non-regretful image of their life of enclosure (a term which sounds as zoo-like as it is to attempt to film. Says a cameraman: “It’s a little bit like a wildlife shootâ€?). As one nun positively testifies of her life away from society, “it does one great thing that modern life cannot do. You can’t run awayâ€?. Hmm, not sure I’m sold on that one, but if it gets me eternal happiness…

Elsewhere, Tom is on hand to play Simon Cowell’s slightly less scary but still pretty blunt nun-judging equivalent: “It’s not a nice sound… It needs to be absolutely stunning and it wasn’t today at all.â€?

Moments like this have you questioning the purpose of the project: after all, the nuns haven’t exactly sought the men out asking for their voices to be judged. In this up-against-the-clock mission, it is of course the record label who need the nuns, rather than the other way round. And high on their priority is not spreading the good word of God and the virtuous effects of Gregorian chanting, but to make money. And lots of it. But hey – that’s showbusiness…

Without spoiling things for those who didn’t get round to buying the eventual album (it came out at last year, don’tcha know?), the decision of who to sign up comes down to a matter of talent or media access. One pioneering group of nuns in Boston certainly embrace publicity (shunning minimal speech and a life of being closed off from society, these modern day sisters have photographic and recording studios, and are designing a religious phone app) but lack, well – the ‘x’ factor, while a monastery in France have the voices of angels, but refuse to be filmed or involved in promotion and publicity.

Who will reign as Nuns Aloud? You’ll have to watch to find out…

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