A Nun Soars From Convent to Stardom
Sister Wendy's TV shows on art have large following
When Sister Wendy Beckett agreed to briefly leave her quiet convent to speak about art on a national television arts program, she had no idea the experience would dramatically change her life.Skip to next paragraph
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The year was 1991. The program, broadcast on the BBC-2, the British Broadcast Corporation's more unorthodox channel, featured a slew of well-known art historians and television personalities. But Sister Wendy, a shy figure dressed in her characteristic black wimple, seemed to upstage them all.
Speaking eloquently and articulately, Sister Wendy displayed a passion and knowledge of the artist Rembrandt's paintings that few possess. She also proved she had a natural TV presence, appearing completely at ease in front of the camera and talking without a prepared script or even handwritten notes.
"She can walk into a gallery without knowing what she's going to say, and she literally speaks off-the-cuff," says Nick Rossiter, the executive producer of three BBC TV programs starring the once camera-shy recluse. "Usually when we film, we have to take two or three takes. But we now call her 'One-take Wendy.' "
But despite Sister Wendy's obvious ability, BBC executives at first were not too impressed. After all, they figured, few viewers would be interested in watching a prime-time TV spot starring a sixty-something nun. Especially a nun with a rather noticeable overbite who wears heavy glasses and no makeup - not even for the camera.
How wrong they were. After the program aired, the BBC's mailboxes were filled with fan mail. To their surprise, the letters were addressed not to the glamorous celebrities, but to direct, plain-speaking Sister Wendy. A star was born.
"There was a remarkable response," recalls Mr. Rossiter. "After she appeared for just three minutes, the press the next day said, 'Give this nun a series.' "
And so they did. The next year, Sister Wendy filmed a series of 10-minute programs about art called "Sister Wendy's Odyssey." (She donates all proceeds to the Roman Catholic Church.) That was followed by "Sister Wendy's Grand Tour," in which she traveled to the great museums of Europe, marveling at the objets d'art she previously had only seen in journals and books.
Her programs differ greatly from the usual "talking heads" format characteristic of similar art broadcasts. Open and unpretentious, Sister Wendy talks to the camera as if it were a casual friend. She also discusses the symbolism of the sexuality inherent in much art, often leaving her audience in awe of the nun who can converse so openly about love between a man and a woman.
When viewer figures reached 4 million, Sister Wendy left BBC-2 for BBC-1, the more commercial channel, for the broadcast of "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting." That series, which ended in September, consisted of ten 30-minute installments covering everything from ancient cave paintings to Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans.
"Sometimes a great wave of revulsion would sweep over me at the thought of having to leave my solitude," Sister Wendy told the BBC, explaining how the series brought a mixture of both happiness and discomfort to her life.
"Then a wave of contrition would sweep over me," she says, "and I'd think, 'If people are actually finding these programs helpful, then I'm not morally at liberty to say I'd rather not do it.' "
It was the "Story of Painting" that brought Sister Wendy, who previously had enjoyed a sort of cult-figure status, the mass acceptance her producers had been working toward. The program, which was filmed in Egypt, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and New York among other places, will air in the United States on PBS beginning this fall.