Rev’s Tom Hollander on giving the Church a good name

As the new series of the ecclesiastical sitcom begins, we talk to its creator and star...

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Rehabilitating the Church of England…

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Tom Hollander makes an unlikely hero. To begin with, he is too short. But size is immaterial when you have inadvertently taken on the enormous task of rehabilitating the Church of England on TV. 

For the 5ft 5in star of Rev is not only the creator of one of the least predictable hits of 2010 – but he’s also an actor of such stature that his presence alone lifts a situation comedy about a beleaguered inner-city vicar into a realm far removed from the tomfoolery of Derek Nimmo and Dawn French. You could almost call it transcendental.

When the first series aired, it wasn’t only the 2.2 million viewers who were impressed. Bafta anointed it with an award for best sitcom; Lily Allen tweeted her delight; hundreds of Radio Times readers voted for it in the annual Sandford St Martin Trust award for “religiously inspiring and thought-provoking” broadcasting; and many a clergyman watched the travails of Hollander’s character, the Rev Adam Smallbone, with a nagging sense of recognition. 

One even went so far as to say it was more documentary than comedy, although he was possibly referring to the portrayal of inner-city parish life, rather than Adam’s drinking and smoking, or his sexually frustrated wife. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury announced it to be “really rather good”.

Does size matter?

In the flesh, though, height matters and as Hollander rises from the sofa in the topsy-turvy headquarters of his production company in London’s Fitzrovia and offers his hand he is, well, rather small. 

You are drawn rapidly to a surprisingly wary face that captures your attention with a pair of darkly inquisitive eyes. They seem to be asking, is this chump going to bring up my height? So there’s nothing for it – does he think his put-upon incumbent of Saint Saviour in the Marshes would have been such a success were he not so small?

“It makes me think, ‘How can I stop that question coming up?’ Rev is a comedy and there are comic implications to my height, although I’m not always playing short people. But when I do play short people it’s because it’s funny and useful for the story. Do you think of a vicar as a short person?”

No. But many people think of them as funny, or at least figures of fun, and he did call his creation Smallbone. And much like a petite woman in a kaftan, put Hollander in a cassock and it makes him seem even smaller. 

“Interesting, because he is short, but we tend to cast tall people around him. In episode two of series one there was a line that I regret to say I suggested, where the Rasta character goes, ‘Don’t get so cross tiny, tiny vicar man’, which someone quoted back to me the other day. I was about to get angry but I thought no, I think that may be my line! But I have played plenty of characters where height was not an issue.”

Indeed he has. Hollander was born in Oxford in 1967 to parents who were both teachers. He joined the National Youth Theatre and made his debut aged 14 in the BBC children’s film John Diamond. A degree at Cambridge University and a spell in the dramatic society where, directed by boyhood friend Sam Mendes, he acted alongside a young Nick Clegg, confirmed his theatrical potential, long since fulfilled in the West End. 

However, we mainly know him in a string of television and film performances, most recently as a hapless government minister in In the Loop and as the Duke of Windsor in Any Human Heart. He has form as a clerical impersonator, having played the unctuous Mr Collins doggedly pursuing Keira Knightley’s Lizzie Bennet in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice.

“Rev started as a joke…”

He dreamt up Rev after bumping into a vicar at a dinner party near where he lives in west London. “It started as a joke, an anecdote I heard about the vicar being invited to lots of parties because well-connected parents were trying to get their kids into a church school. 

I was already friends with Richard Coles [ex-Communard, Radio 4 presenter and a vicar in Northamptonshire] so I spoke to him about it. Then I spoke to James Wood [the writer who helped him devise the series]. We spent time with vicars and discovered how interesting it was that they sat right in the middle of society, although everyone thinks of them as marginal, because we are a secular society. But the church is still right at the heart of it, with weddings, funerals and schools.

“You can look at what is going on in our lives through the perspective of the priest, because he has access to everything. Also their lives are full of tragi-comic stories and their beleaguered status seems to chime with our feelings about ourselves as a nation. From looking at the Church of England it’s not so very far to seeing where we are with ideas about England.”

In what way? “Their buildings are falling down and they are having to fight for funds the whole time. They are culturally amenable and accessible so they get a certain amount of abuse. In the 19th century they lived like kings, but now it’s just a series of diminishing returns. Obviously it’s still a rich institution but the priests who work in it are badly paid, doing an impossible job for love, with an enormous amount of people making demands on them. They live through a series of minor crises all the time, in the same way that doctors do.”

What’s so funny about a man in a dog collar?

There are plenty of dramas about doctors but fewer comedies. Vicars, though, are different. Is there something inherently funny about a man in a dog collar?

“There is certainly something inherently funny about men wearing dresses, but we set out not to make Adam Smallbone a comedy character. In a way he’s the straight man of the show and that’s why we have been welcomed by the church because, unusually, we don’t make the priest appear ridiculous. His predicaments are ridiculous, but he’s not a stuttering, hand-wringing stereotype of a vicar. We have tried to create someone who is as ordinary as you or I, a sort of everyman in an extraordinary environment.”

As someone who grew up in a rectory where on returning home from school you might have to edge round a full urn from the crematorium left in the porch or share your supper with a tramp who’d come looking for drinking money and ended up with a plate of fish fingers instead, I recognise the strangeness of a clergyman’s existence colliding with the reality of everyday life.

“People we have met in the Church since have said, ‘Thank you for making us look normal.’ Because they’re used to being treated as weirdos, the moment they start talking about faith or a belief in God, people start to behave as if they have got the plague.”

The God dilemma

Does he believe in God? “I believe in the idea of God now. Since doing Rev I believe in what the idea of God represents, but I can’t say anything more concrete than that.” Does he go to church, other than to check out he is getting it right? “Occasionally, yes. It began mostly to check if I was getting it right but then I was doing it so often it became a habit. 

Since we stopped shooting I look forward to poking my nose in without it being work. I went to Brompton Oratory a couple of years ago and watched a Latin mass where they were facing the altar, clouds of incense and all that. It was very powerful. I thought if there was a supernatural presence, I’d find it more convincing that he spoke a language I didn’t really understand.”

It all sounds a bit smells and bells for Adam Smallbone. A bit too High Church, perhaps? “I don’t know. I refuse to be pinned down. I wouldn’t be evangelical: I find that a bit embarrassing. I do like the drama. The thing is, if you say High Church it sounds somehow snobbish. But if you say Catholic there’s no class associations. I prefer the billowing smoke you get across the Channel.”

Some might say that a comedy about the Church of England is too class-ridden full stop. Earlier this year, the controller of BBC1, Danny Cohen, announced that there should be less middle-class comedy on his channel. Perhaps fortunately, Rev is a hit on BBC2. But can comedy be too middle class? 

“What is there to be defensive about? It’s not To the Manor Born. Clearly the audience for Only Fools and Horses wasn’t only working class, nor is the audience for Coronation Street. A comedy about a vicar is not excluding anyone. Because of my natural accent I’m likely to be cast in costume dramas, but as a vicar I can be in a completely contemporary story because I sound educated yet you can put me in an urban, gritty context. That’s what saves Rev from any charge of being exclusive.”

“I was living like a teenager…”

Hollander isn’t married and there’s no partner he will speak about and no kids, although half a dozen god-children lurk in the background. In fact he shares a god-daughter with Nick Clegg. Did they stand round the font together? “I don’t think there was a font. In fact I don’t think Nick was there. I think we had a sort of naming ceremony in Kensington. A slightly non-religious christening.”

His life doesn’t leave much room for children of his own, although he sounds like a man who is grappling with middle age. “Certainly as an actor, as a bloke, it’s pretty fun until your mid-30s, when you start to feel like an overgrown kid. 

“You don’t live by the rules everyone else does. You get up late, there seem to be lots of opportunities to get drunk and you have more sex than people who are doing proper jobs. But then as you get older you start to think, ‘I’m living like a teenager.’ There is a dignity issue for actors, male actors in particular, as they get older. Your powerlessness becomes increasingly problematic.”

Time, perhaps, for a pause for reflection. Is it any coincidence he created Rev in his 40s? “I’ve certainly got more interested in religion as I’ve got older and that is to do with my own awareness of the fragility of my own existence. Life has a way of making us look silly, so you have to think beyond the limits of your own capabilities. A scientist can tell you about stuff that is clearly measurable, but for stuff that’s in the realms of hope, fear and speculation you’d be better off with a priest.”

If work all dried up tomorrow, would he think about a job in the church? “No, it would be hard to take myself seriously, wouldn’t it? The congregation would be going, ‘Hang on a minute,’ and looking around for a camera. To go from a fictional vicar to a real vicar would be very strange. I don’t think I want to go pro.”

Somehow it sounds like a less than wholehearted denial. Stranger things have happened, such as the BBC making a hit comedy about a believable priest. As the Rev Adam Smallbone would no doubt be the first to tell him, God moves in mysterious ways. 

The second series of Rev starts tonight at 9pm on BBC2.

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 1 November.