British TV – like its US counterpart – is generally one long stream of liberal mind-rot and shallow degeneracy. With the exception of nature programmes and the occasional historical drama, there is very little that is fit to watch, let alone actually worth watching. But, once in a while, something comes along that bucks the trend. And Bad Habits, Holy Orders, which starts on Channel 5 on Thursday, is one such series.
It follows what happens when five very ‘modern’ bright-lights good-time girls spend a month at the Daughters of Divine Charity Convent, tucked away in rural Norfolk.
The collision of these polar opposite worlds under one holy roof is played out in the new series, Bad Habits, Holy Orders, which starts next week on Channel 5.
From the moment the women arrive on the convent’s doorstep, wearing thigh-high boots and mini-skirts and swearing like dockers, it’s evident the nuns will have to draw on their oft-rehearsed virtues of patience and tolerance.
‘They are dressed very provocatively and I think it’s wrong,’ remarks Sister Francis, deputy head nun who has been at the convent for 47 years. ‘Promiscuity now seems to be the norm, rather than a relationship of love and trust.’
Singling out Rebecca Cheng, 19, a nightclub podium dancer from Newcastle who admits her life is a merry-go-round of one-night stands, Sister Francis is taken aback by her skirt which sits, ‘ten inches above her knee’.
What ensues, however, is a near Damascene discovery for the girls that, as their parents have no doubt long tried to tell them, there really is more to life than boys, booze and near-naked selfies.
Their precious phones are confiscated at the outset of their two-week stay, depriving them of their constant fix of social media. The teens and 20-somethings are then told there must be no noise after lights out at 10pm.
They are made to join the nuns for prayers in the chapel each morning at 7.15am — a time of day when some of them are more likely to be found stumbling home from a night out, or doing ‘the walk of shame’ after a one-night stand, than giving praise for a new day. Hours in between getting up and going to bed are devoted to yet more praying, cooking and cleaning the convent.
With such a dramatic change in lifestyle there was bound to be resistance and conflict, like the day the women sneaked off and bought a bottle of vodka — despite being told that alcohol is banned — while out shopping with the nuns.
However, the nuns’ reaction, disappointment rather than anger, at their behaviour and the disrespect they had shown, had a profound effect on the young women who quickly repented, poured the vodka down the drain and apologised profusely. ‘They asked if we would forgive anything and we said we would,’ says Sister Francis. ‘We wanted them to feel loved by us, and by God, and the idea of forgiveness seemed to be new in their lives.
‘Every era has its problems and for this one it’s social media and the pressures it puts young people under to project an image of themselves. It’s hard for older people like me to understand.
‘With us they could be themselves, rather than playing to the public gallery.’
Sister Michaela, 23, who is originally from Eastern Europe and has been at the convent for only a year, agrees: ‘We showed them there’s another way of life and that they don’t have to be partying every night to be happy.
Indeed Rebecca, who admits on camera to rarely remembering nights out, is a good example.
Nothing in her home life, with two supportive parents who run a shop and a younger brother, seems to shed any real light on her waywardness.
And when she talks about the impact her staying out partying six nights a week has had on her relationship with her father, with whom she ‘barely speaks’, the tears come thick and fast.
It is Rebecca, most resistant at the start and utterly terrified of the crucifix in her room, who, the nuns are proud to acknowledge, has the biggest epiphany as the series unfolds. ‘I feel 100 per cent happier and am really grateful for my time in the convent,’ she says, speaking several months after filming ended. I don’t go out nearly as much, which is a good thing as my friends have since told me they were thinking of cutting all ties with me because I was always getting drunk.
‘I used to walk around at home eyes glued to my phone but now I actually talk to my family. I even went on holiday with them in the summer, to Malaysia and Singapore. That’s a big improvement on my behaviour two years ago when they booked flights for me to go on holiday with them and I announced, at the last minute, that I was staying at home with my then boyfriend.’
To her parents’ relief, the other change is that Rebecca has ditched her life of promiscuity in favour of a monogamous relationship with a young man she has been dating since March.
‘There have been no more one-night stands for me,’ she says. ‘It feels good to really get to know someone, and for them to get to know me.’
But what’s proving harder for Rebecca is how to carve out a rewarding career with a clutch of C grades at GCSE and no A levels. Despite the impact that living with nuns had on her, taking holy orders is not among her ambitions. The same goes for the other girls, unsurprisingly, given that recruitment of nuns is at an all-time low and the Swaffham convent has only welcomed one British sister into the fold in the past 30 years.
Sarah, meanwhile, has swapped club hostessing for a responsible job as a personal assistant and moved out of the detached home where she grew up with her parents and into her own flat.
After the convent she didn’t go to a nightclub for three months and ditched her habit of drinking up to ten vodka and lemonades and a bottle of wine every night.
‘I actually went to my GP because I had tummy pain and he said that drinking like I did would definitely lead to health problems because my tolerance was so high.
‘Now I have a big night out no more than once a month. My parents are so happy that I had what they jokingly refer to as “my calling” and say that it could not have come at a better time.’
Gabriella, a dancer and model, who spent her pre-convent days pouting in sexy lingerie for her 20,000 Instagram followers, has decided to put her ten grade As at GCSE and her A levels to use by enrolling in a drama degree.
‘When you’re seen as a sex object it makes it harder to be taken seriously, because people think that’s all you can do,’ she says.
‘But I’ve always wanted to be a serious actress.
‘I spent my life thinking I had to please men, but the nuns gave me a different outlook, they want us to be happy and respect ourselves.’
Bad Habits, Holy Orders starts on Channel 5, Thursday, October 19, at 10pm