Miracles can happen! And if one was going to turn up on TV, it was always going to be on feelgood pastoral hit An Island Parish…
22:47 GMT, 16 November 2012
‘Please, Lord,’ Gill Nicholls used to pray whenever she watched BBC2’s long-running series An Island Parish, ‘I want you to know I have no ambition to be a TV docusoap vicar.’
As the Reverend Gill, at that time, was vicar of a deprived housing estate in Kent, and An Island Parish favours idyllic locations such as the Scilly Isles and the Outer Hebrides, it seemed unlikely that the Lord had that vocation in mind for her.
But then Gill, 64, retired and went for a fortnight’s holiday to Sark, the tiny Channel Island with a population of 600 and no cars.
On an island three miles long and a mile and a half wide, it must have been a godsend for the crew to discover not just one church, but two and both led by women
The Anglican flock of St Peter’s Church had been without a vicar for three years. ‘They were desperate, praying their socks off,’ Gill explains. ‘And somebody said, “You could be the answer to our prayers.”’ Gill, who married three years ago, was looking forward to retirement with husband Colin, a lay reader and former pottery teacher, but agreed to help out as a locum for six months – and ended up staying for a year. Coincidentally, the production team for a new series of An Island Parish arrived hot on her heels.
On an island three miles long and a mile and a half wide, it must have been a godsend for the crew to discover not just one church, but two – and both led by women. Methodist lay pastor Karen Le Mouton, 55, was also a newcomer to Sark, having arrived in January last year, so who better to help Gill settle in
The two women became firm friends. Indeed, when Karen was blessed with a personal Easter miracle, Gill phoned to ask if she might share the experience with her flock. ‘I was so thrilled for her,’ she explains. And was it really a miracle ‘That’s exactly what it was.’
On Easter Saturday, Karen’s husband Steve accidentally toppled a paving slab onto her foot and broke her toe. On an island without cars, that’s no joke.
After getting through her Easter Sunday service in agony, Karen was taken by tractor-drawn ambulance to catch the ferry to Guernsey for an X-ray.
Three days later, on crutches (and morphine) at a religious conference on the mainland, she was meditating and praying. ‘I got this picture in my head of Jesus’s hand holding mine,’ she explains. ‘And the words formed in my head, “Come walk with me.”
‘I really struggled,’ she says. ‘You hear of these things happening, but I never expected it to happen to me. If it wasn’t God, I knew I’d be screaming the house down if I stood up. But I took a step and carried on walking.
Everybody from An Island Parish was so positive and enthusiastic… and the filming happened in an atmosphere of excitement and love for the place
'When I took my stocking off, I could wiggle my toes. I didn’t have any pain. My crutches went back and I never used them again.’ And what did her doctor think ‘He’s a Christian and he was up for it being a miracle.’
An Island Parish returns for the first time since the death last year of its creator, the acclaimed documentary-maker Nigel Farrell – but its gentle, feelgood formula remains the same.
There is an element of tragedy – the island was affected last summer when an elderly Swiss tourist was killed, and others were injured, in a rare horse-and-carriage accident – but otherwise you might think life on Sark is all peaches and Channel Island cream.
Islanders are resilient; they don’t have much choice because Sark has no NHS, old age pension or unemployment benefit. ‘People look out for each other. It’s how communities used to be,’ Karen says. There’s no crime and the highlight of the social calendar is the annual sheep race.
When Prince Charles and Camilla made a royal visit, they were on the island for 53 minutes and a lady called Puffin gave them a funny sheep mug to take home.
But is island life really so idyllic ‘No,’ says shepherd David Scott, with a hollow laugh. ‘Especially at the moment. Everything’s very unsettled. But that’s kept out of the show.’
The reality is that Sark is riven by political controversy, its traditional way of life and fragile economy threatened by plans of the billionaire Barclay brothers, who own a third of the island, to turn land over to vineyards.
That’s why making the series was such a good experience, says Gill, who’s retired again and living in Buckinghamshire. ‘It’s been a difficult year for Sark. But everybody from An Island Parish was so positive and enthusiastic… and the filming happened in an atmosphere of excitement and love for the place.’
Meanwhile, there’s a vacancy on Sark for a CofE vicar. Driving licence not required. Wellies essential.
An Island Parish is on Friday at 8.30pm on BBC2.