In an ornate gingerbread house at the PTL ministry’s Heritage USA resort complex in Fort Mill, S.C., lives 18-year-old Kevin Whittum, 28 inches tall and weighing 20 pounds, a victim of osteogenesis, or brittle-bones disease.
His motorized wheelchair whirs softly as he leads a TV camera on a tour of this supposed facility for disabled children that has been financed from $1,000 contributions.
Kevin’s House, as it is named, has been open 10 months, and for nearly all of that time, Whittum has been its principal fund-raiser and sole resident with his adoptive parents.
“This is our dining room, where we seat 10 for dinner,” he says in a tiny voice. “We’re on the way to the living room right now.”
The eerie, almost surreal scene is from Part 1 of “Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done,” a two-segment “Frontline” documentary on Christian fundamentalists that is biting, revealing, timely and utterly fascinating.
One problem: It’s also unavailable.
“This is a very strange decision,” Antony Thomas, the documentary’s British producer and director, said about its ouster from the PBS schedule. He’s in Los Angeles this week.
“It’s not a political decision,” said David Fanning, executive producer of the traditionally hard-hitting “Frontline,” who said he was the one who decided that the documentary was unsuitable for airing on PBS at this time.
Whatever else it may be, the decision is difficult to understand.
Initially scheduled to air on consecutive Tuesdays starting this week, “Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done” was deleted from the schedule after last month’s downfall of Jim Bakker as head of PTL amid charges of adultery, homosexuality and mismanagement.
A significant portion of the first segment is devoted to the pre-scandal PTL: Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, and the fairyland environment of PTL’s 350-acre Heritage USA, with its 500-room luxury hotel and Mainstreet USA Christian shopping mall (Heavenly Fudge Shop, Bakker’s Bakery and Deli, etc.) that is “hermetically sealed and artificially lit from a blue concrete sky.”
In an April memo to PBS stations, Fanning said the documentary was withdrawn so that the producers could re-edit it to reflect recent PTL developments.
However, Thomas said that after being told last month that his documentary would have to be updated--a decision with which he concurred--he was later informed that it was to be shelved until “the dust has settled” on the status of all of TV evangelism in light of the PTL scandal.
And Fanning now says that “Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done” will not air before next season.
If it airs at all.
“My clear view is that it’s now or never,” said Thomas, who also collaborated with Fanning on “Death of a Princess,” a 1980 documentary that caused a furor in the United States and almost disrupted British-Saudi relations.
“Either you time these films with the events or not,” Thomas said about his latest documentary. “In September, it (the Bakker matter) will be all forgotten.”
He’s right. Yanking this documentary--a WGBH/British Central TV co-production that has already aired in Britain--was a bad error. It is now or never.
In fact, rather than being diminished by recent events, Thomas’ documentary is made all the more compelling by the Bakker scandal. At the very least, its profile of Heritage USA would give Americans a chance to glimpse behind the headlines and understand why the Bakkers were criticized in some circles for turning religion into a carnival.
Thomas’ documentary extends far beyond the Bakkers, however.
At times sympathetic in tone, at other times critical, it monitors the growing links between America’s religious right and political right. It profiles the new ZIP-coded, area-coded, computerized, electronic evangelicals. It closely examines the economic polarization of church-going Christians in Dallas (“the most Christian place on this Earth,” Thomas asserts) while eliciting some astonishing statements from lavish-living W. A. Criswell, pastor of the 26,000-member First Baptist Church there. And in an especially moving sequence, Thomas also allows born-again Christians to recall their moment of rebirth (“For the first time in my life, I felt clean,” one says).
It’s very special TV that demands exposure in the United States.
“The timing seemed absolutely uncanny,” Thomas said about the Bakker scandal breaking in March while his documentary was still in the final polishing stages. To others, apparently, the timing was lethal.
“When I screened the film in England--particularly the first film--I thought that it would need to be updated, and I also thought the political analysis needed more edge,” Fanning said by phone from his Boston office. “By the time the second program came together, I felt it needed a lot of work for an American audience. We decided to carry it as a single program, to make it sharper and more sophisticated for an American audience. But that was the weekend that the fervor about the charges over Jim Bakker came up and we weren’t sure where any of this was going to go.”
Fanning said that it was a “mutual decision"--something Thomas disputes--to postpone the documentary indefinitely. “If there had been a space in June, I would have pushed for that,” he said. “But there wasn’t a space.”
Thomas acknowledged that the first few minutes of the documentary are flawed by overstatement about the size of the Christian fundamentalist movement and its influence on the American political scene. But those are minor problems that could be resolved relatively easily in editing.
So Thomas remains puzzled.
“I felt that I was up against something bigger than merely waiting for the dust to settle,” he said. “Something was very different. There wasn’t the same enthusiasm. Of course the updating was part of the problem, but was it all the problem?”
That sounds very mysterious. PBS has been accused by conservatives and liberals--but especially the former--of airing politically imbalanced programming. However, Thomas said that he has no proof that outside pressure played a role in the decision on his documentary. “It would not gibe with my experience with Fanning in the past,” he said.
“It’s our schedule, but we have to go with their take on something like this,” said Barry Chase, vice president of news and public-affairs programming for PBS. Chase added that he had not seen the documentary. “When it will come back and what it will look like, I can’t tell you right now.”
Fanning conceded that an extended delay would probably render the Bakker material passe. “That is a problem,” he said.
And a loss.
The TV picture shows a 1986 Jim Bakker on the daily Christian talk show that he hosted with Tammy, pleading and bawling in front of the camera, his trembling words enhanced by swells of organ music as he solicits $1,000 donations for Kevin’s House: “And I looked at that little face . . . and I said, ‘Kevin, I’m going to build a house for you!’ ”
Cut to Whittum, very intelligent and pragmatic, telling Thomas that he is contracted to “stay here and do whatever they want me to, do spots . . . usually advertisements for Kevin’s House to raise more money . . . just, you know, things like that.”
Cut to Whittum again, this time making a pitch for the PTL camera: “Send in what you can to help run this ministry. They wouldn’t ask if they didn’t need it.”
Cut back to Whittum with Thomas, who asks why the Bakkers were so obsessed with finishing Kevin’s House in 32 days to meet its scheduled July 4, 1986, opening.
“I think they might have been a little bit worried that I might die before the house was done if they didn’t build it fast,” Whittum replies.
Very gently, Thomas asks Whittum if he thinks the PTL had been more concerned about him as a person or about meeting the opening date.
Whittum pauses briefly, his lips forming a thin, ironic smile before he replies. “I think the Fourth of July.”
From “Death of a Princess” to death of a documentary. Captivating and important TV you won’t see.