As religious comedies go, BBC1's Monks is hard to get Revved up about

The Comedy Playhouse pilot starring Seann Walsh, James Fleet and Mark Heap feels like a step backwards after BBC2's divine Rev, says Ben Dowell

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As religious comedies go, BBC1's Monks is hard to get Revved up about
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Tonight, BBC1 airs Monks, a comedy pilot in which Seann Walsh plays benefits cheat Gary who has joined a monastic order in an attempt to evade the fuzz.

Co-starring James Fleet as the Abbott and Mark Heap – doing a good Mark Heap – as the Monk who hates Gary it’s….it’s… well it’s OK. But it does seem to smack of a return to the bad old days of religious-based comedy.

It’s well constructed, some of the gags hit home and the performances are as good as you would expect from its brilliant cast. But other jokes are signaled with the subtlety of Big Bertha, the bell that is subject of this particular gem: “She is massive and loud and only Francis is allowed to touch her,” chortle, chortle.

How can this happen? I thought a show like Rev had got us beyond this kind of religious sitcom, the days when all vicars were either trendy or idiotic like Derek Nimmo's Reverend Mervyn Noote in All Gas and Gaiters...

Because Rev changed the game. Tom Hollander plays that show’s central character, vicar Adam Smallbone, as gentle and funny, with vulnerability and an occasional steeliness that is both winning and highly plausible. Rev captured, for perhaps the first time in UK television, what it is actually like to be a vicar or to live in a vicarage. And as a result it was bone-achingly, laugh-out-loud funny.

But Monks – which began life long before Rev in 2000 as the Radio 2 comedy Hey Hey We’re the Monks and was also piloted in 2008 for BBC2 – seems to miss this essential humanity.

It hasn’t really thought enough about what being holed up in prayerful obedience probably does to people. I don’t know if writers Danny Robins and Dan Tetsell actually spoke to any real Monks, but it seems to me that they have just used their characters as vessels for their gags.

I am not asking for respect – this is comedy after all. And Channel 4's Father Ted was hardly respectful about the church, but that show worked because it at least engaged with a sense of what its characters (or at least its central character) might have been going through.

Father Ted also has the kind of surreal flair which is distinctly lacking in Monks, a show which needs some affection and FEEL for its subject – a quality that makes something like Rev so textured and rich and, well, so much funnier.

Comedy Playhouse: Monks is on BBC1 tonight at 10.35pm