Rev is back. Another six episodes of Tom Hollander as inner-city vicar Adam Smallbone struggling to make sense of God and the world. And, as usual, the urban clergy of the Church of England (along with a few million others) will be glued to their TV sets.
The clergy loves it because it describes our life to a T. Forget The Vicar of Dibley. Forget Father Ted. Forget even the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells from Blackadder. In the league table of TV clerics, Adam Smallbone is the bomb. It’s “really rather good,” says former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It shows “some- thing of the continuing commitment of the church to run-down and challenging areas. It also shows us someone who prays honestly.”
My own parish near Elephant and Castle in south London feels like a carbon copy of Adam’s fictional parish, St Saviour in the Marshes, set somewhere in Hackney in east London. His 1950s vicarage looks the same as mine. I know the situations. If Dibley is a caricature of the truth, Rev is the truth in the form of a caricature.
Yet when I meet Rev’s co-creator and star Tom Hollander and co-star Olivia Colman in a Covent Garden club, he tells me something I’d prefer not to know. One of Rev’s characters is actually based on me. But not the lovable, kindly Adam. Rather, the slippery, self-pitying, bibulous, untrustworthy and arrogant media vicar, Rev Roland Wise, who does Thought for the Day and writes for the Church Times. Ouch.
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Hollander thinks it’s all too funny. “This is a bizarre experience. You have gone into art then come back as life to bite me in the arse. It’s all very postmodern.” I’m less amused and tell him that I am going to get my revenge by giving the show a bad review.
But, of course, I can’t. It’s great. And what it captures best of all about clergy life is the total erosion of the boundary between what is work and what is not work. “I didn’t realise you really have this open-door policy all the time,” says Colman, who plays Alex, Adam’s long-suffering wife and new mother to baby Katie, with a combination of gentle common sense and decency. The parish vicar is public property. As, absurdly, is the vicar’s wife (or husband) who, as Colman puts it, “is accidentally sleeping with the person who is doing the job”.
The vicar often lives above the shop, or right next to it, continually at the beck and call of a succession of visitors, many of whom assume his gullibility and good will. Much of the humour of Rev is generated by the fact that he knows he’s being conned but goes along with it anyway. It’s a familiar dance; a comedy of misrecognition. The shifty bloke who wants a train fare to Brighton. The smiley middle-class couple asking about the church school. The pious parishioner who projects some impossible holiness onto the man in the dog collar. They don’t see the Adam Smallbone that we, the audience, see. They see the collar. We see the man – bothered, angry, confused, aware.
It’s a different sort of humour to the usual stuff generated by the clergy. Traditionally, this played on the contrast between outward piety and inner human failing, playing on the inevitable hypocrisy of a life professionally suspended between God and man. Adam knows this place, of course. But he wears his failings so honestly, with such obvious humanity, that the struggle to be good is recognised as something noble rather than creepy.
You can tell that Rev was the product of genuine research. It began with a lunch in London between the Rev Richard Coles – he of Saturday Live fame – and Hollander at the Wolseley restaurant in Piccadilly. Coles pointed the Rev team up to Boston in Lincolnshire, where he had been a curate. That was where Rev became real.
“The most inspiration in terms of the on-the-ground real-life incarnation of the vicar came out of that,” says Hollander. “In this coming series we’ve done a story about a prisoner who comes to the church, an ex-con who has to be given succour. There was a knock on the door at the Boston vicarage, and it was this man who had just walked out of Dartmoor prison after 35 years. He was a mass murderer who was suddenly in a world in which he didn’t know anyone. He had never encountered mobile phones. Where do you go when you’re like that? You go to a church.”
Likewise, the story in the first series about Adam getting drunk, losing his faith, then having it restored by giving last rites to a dying woman who had six kids from six different men was also rooted in the reality of church life in Boston. “David Cameron tells us all that everyone has got to put their hands to the pump because they want to cut benefits,” says Hollander, “but the truth is, that is what the clergy do every day of the week.”
What did he know before all this research? “I was a chorister. James Wood, who co-writes the show, was also a chorister. Church and school. Lots of wearing of surplices and singing Once in Royal David’s City. I knew the ceremony looking pious up at the holy end, but I certainly didn’t know all this daily life stuff.” And for those who think
it’s just a bit, well, made-up, I offer this story. The other day I was returning home, walk- ing down the alley by the side of the church, when I was greeted by the sight of a middle-aged woman who had obviously been caught short on her way home from Tesco. Shopping bags by her side, she was squatting, face screwed up. The alley is narrow, and there was no way of us not acknowledging each other. What to say? “Good afternoon”? “Would you like me to get you some paper?” Sorry, that’s too much information. But this is the stuff out of which Rev is made. Put on a clerical collar and trouble seems to seek you out. But what the dog collar usually does is efface much of the humanity of the person who wears it. It’s a testament to the power of the character of Adam Smallbone that the collar soon disap- pears from view.
But even so, I do wish he had just a bit more backbone. This series sees him fretting about having to do a gay blessing. And when I chal- lenge Hollander (just a little unfairly) about his views on the recent bishops’ letter drawing attention to the link between benefit cuts and increasing poverty, he mumbles something just on the affirmative side of noncommittal.
“When I heard about the bishops’ letter, I thought to myself, ‘Why didn’t we do the food- bank story?’ But we didn’t,” says Hollander. “Suddenly the life of the Church has become more visible in the media and is moving quite quickly, with female bishops and the sudden change of Archbishop. So it’s harder for us to try to second-guess what’s going to happen.”
This is what Rev doesn’t quite get, perhaps because it is hard to play for laughs. Because inner-city clergy deal with the daily consequences of poverty, they inevitably get sucked into the political. Rev suffers under the moral illusion that you can be there for the poor and vulnerable without asking how and why they got into that condition. It depicts the clergy as kindly but politically inert. Some are. Most are not.
But this neutered figure is exactly how the English have traditionally preferred their clergy and their religion, at least since the English Civil War. It was a reaction to the years of bloodshed that had people butchering each other in the name of God. In the English imagination, it’s better to have a weak-minded, kindly priest, even if that means he’s slightly foolish, than a strong-minded certain one. Those sort get people into fights, and, in the 17th century, that meant piles of bodies. Better for the clergy to be figures of fun than figures of fear.
Which I suppose is why I have a soft spot for the more brutal charms of the Archdeacon – played just perfectly by Simon McBurney – the ecclesiastical fixer with his black leather gloves whose job it is to keep the otherworldly Adam focused on the money and the size of his congregation.
The idea of the Archdeacon as some sort of church bulldog is a standard ecclesiastical cliché, the stuff of vestry gossip throughout the church. He (or she) has to be the tough-guy enforcer so the Bishop can be all sweetness and light. The Archdeacon does all the dirty work. Or, to put it more kindly, it’s their job to focus on the practi- cal necessities of keeping the church show on the road. Left to the likes of Adam, all the money would be donated to charity and the church would end up a carpet warehouse. That may be more Christian but it’s also a recipe for disaster. Again, this mismatch between reality and aspi- ration is perfect material for comedy.
What Rev shows, however, is that there is indeed a unique spirituality to be had from the very English religious diffidence of Adam Smallbone. It’s not just the domain of the oily Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice (who Hollander played, of course, in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation), though he is a classic of the genre, if only in his total lack of theological intent. Neither Collins nor Smallbone are going to pose you any embarrassing questions about your faith, or break the English dinner party rules and ask if you are saved. Both are too polite.
But whereas Collins uses the status of his office for the purposes of self-promotion, Small- bone cares deeply for his parishioners, even if he still remains just a little bit embarrassed about using the God word. This hesitancy, captured brilliantly by Hollander, full of nervous tics and awkward smiles, is uniquely English.
But, as Rev also shows, there is something heroic about it, too. And the more so now that the status associated with the job has become a thing of the past. In series one, Adam is greeted by a daily chorus of sniggering builders mooning him as he makes his way to church to pray every morning. I know those sniggers. Eventually he takes off his collar and gives them a few choice
words of Anglo-Saxon. Oh, how I have wanted to do that! Instead, most of us put our head down and pretend not to notice. At the end of the interview, Hollander, Colman and I go outside for a fag. He asks me how I have been since I left my role as canon chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011. We discuss church music. We start to sing the Easter Exultat together. He is extremely vicarly. It feels like a little bit of the character has attached itself to Tom Hollander. More role reversal. Adam Smallbone, I’d have you as my vicar any day.
The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is a columnist for The Guardian and is a contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.