What lessons did Stacey Dooley learn while living in a convent? Nun whatsoever

TV review: The usually empathetic presenter just wasn’t on the sisters’ wavelength

Stacey Dooley is sometimes credited with creating a new, conversational genre of documentary film-making. But it is perhaps more accurate to say she is taking up the torch lit by Werner Herzog, Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux, who similarly inserted themselves into their work and often came across as mildly frazzled by the events they were witnessing.

The quality that sets Dooley apart is empathy. She brings bucketfuls of it to subjects as diverse as child labour, pollution in the fashion industry and an epidemic of stalking. But that open-hearted, have-a-hug approach doesn't quite work in Stacey Dooley, Inside The Convent (BBC One, 10.45pm).

One problem may be that Dooley doesn’t seem especially desperate for spiritual enlightenment, declaring at the top of the film that she isn’t religious and has never prayed. This no slight on her: to be self-assured and essentially at peace with the world is not yet a sin (though certain corners of Irish Twitter would probably disagree).

It does, however, present an obstacle as she spends 10 days with a community of Anglican nuns at St Hilda’s Priory, in Whitby, Yorkshire.

“I’ve been wondering if I need to rethink things. A lot of us are thinking, what do we really want? What’s it all about?” says Dooley at the outset. And yet this quest for ecclesiastical illumination doesn’t really go anywhere and Dooley comes across more as a film-maker on assignment rather than lost soul in search of salvation.

That being said, Dooley has never met someone with whom she couldn't get along and has soon struck up a cordial dynamic with the Sisters. Nor is she afraid to probe slightly. She asks Sister Grace, who is 56, and with the community over 20 years, if she ever regretted her decision to retreat from the modern world.

“I have wavered, I’ve had doubts,” replies the Sister. “When I was about 50, I thought, ‘Have I done the right thing? Shouldn’t I be married with my own children?’ and I’ve always come through that.”

Dooley later sits at the priory graveyard with an older nun, where they discuss death. The Sister says she can feel all around her the presence of people she has lost. Dooley isn’t on the same wavelength. “I’ve lost quite a few people. When you say you know they’re there. I don’t know that they are here. That makes me sad.”

Inside the Convent finishes with Dooley delivering a reading of Romans 14:18. “For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord,” she intones. The scene is presented as the culmination of her 10 days in Whitby. Yet for this to work as a climactic pay-off, there needs to be a sense that Dooley is having a moment of profound revelation. Instead she reads the lines and gets on with her day.

There is a feeling of two worlds briefly passing by, with mutual understanding as far away at the conclusion as when Dooley first crosses the threshold of St Hilda’s. It’s hard not to conclude that, though Dooley is second to none when it comes to persuading strangers to share their innermost secrets, she is, in terms of spirituality, largely content and not in need of saving. And so she leaves the convent none the wiser.