Inside the Vatican: a fascinating programme for anyone interested in cleaning

A Vatican worker cleans the Baldacchino over the main altar in St Peter's Basilica (CNS)

The BBC’s Inside the Vatican relies, we are told in its somewhat breathless publicity, on unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Vatican City State. But viewers hoping for a fly-on-the-wall documentary that would tell them something they did not already know, or which could not be gleaned from other readily available sources, would have been disappointed.

There were scenes showing what happens after St Peter’s Basilica closes at night, and anyone interested in cleaning would be fascinated by the sight of men in white protective clothing scaling the baldacchino over the high altar and attacking it with what looked like giant cans of Pledge; but as for the rest of the people who work in the Vatican, most of these were giving little away.

There were two immense drawbacks with this programme. First of all, aimed at an English-speaking audience, its main focus was not just on English-speaking characters, but people from England itself. Some effort was made to show that people in the Vatican come from all over the earth, and include women, but the first episode was dominated by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, a Liverpool native, who is in charge of relations with states – the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, and so the highest-ranking Englishman in the Holy See. As the head of Vatican diplomacy, the archbishop gave ample evidence of how he had got to the top – he was entirely charming, diplomatic and dull. He spoke in press releases, and gave away nothing of import about the Vatican’s diplomatic activity. He revealed that he had a busy timetable, meeting, for example, a delegation from the Central African Republic, without giving us a hint of any controversy.

Worse was the obviously staged meeting in the Vatican communications department, where several officials, this time all laity, mouthed platitudes for the benefit of the cameras. If this is the best they can do, then Vatican communications are in much worse condition than we all previously thought.

Again, we were treated to a member of the Sistine Choir talking to camera about his life and music. Anyone would think that the said choir was an entirely happy crew with a high standard of excellence. The truth, however, is known to be rather different: its director stepped aside in July amid an investigation into the choir’s financial and administrative operations.

Several times the programme insisted that all Vatican employees were devout Catholics; once more, there was no probing beneath the surface. The net result was an impression that the Vatican was peopled by the religious equivalent of the Stepford Wives: a rather creepy place, where everyone only said what they thought you wanted to hear.

This sense of a well-prepared script was the second drawback of the programme. Only the Italian participants seemed inclined to go off piste, but they, frustratingly, had minor parts. The Italian nuns and helpers preparing food for the homeless in one of the Vatican’s convents seemed relaxed and happy in their work. They came over as human and interesting, and did not contribute to the overly reverential tone of the programme; but they were only one bright moment in a tedious hour.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. Inside the Vatican is on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday, September 27 and available on BBC iPlayer