How Rev went from sitcom heaven to bleak hell

“This series has become Ken Loach meets The Vicar of Dibley,” says Alison Graham

There was a warning before a recent episode of Rev: “This programme contains themes that some viewers may find upsetting.” Now, whenever I’m alerted by someone I don’t know that something I haven’t seen my disturb my equilibrium I rub my hands and demand, “Bring it on!”


Actually, I’d seen the episode, the one about the City accountant who offered his free services to vicar Adam Smallbone in an effort to sort out the financial mess that could result in his church’s closure. The “upsetting” theme was the revelation – and this was all very low-key – that the kindly accountant had recently spent time in prison for downloading images of child abuse.

Horrible, of course, but why the thought that Rev’s treatment of the subject, which explored the nature of forgiveness and redemption, should make any sentient, thoughtful adult run screaming into the street was absurd.

The bigger point here is that this warning preceded Rev. Lovely, lovely Rev, a heart-warming sort-of-comedy, albeit one with an edge, about Adam (Tom Hollander), the vicar of an inner-city London parish trying to make the Church of England vital and relevant to his flock and to himself. At least it was, once. Oh Rev, what’s happened to you?

This last series of Rev has become Ken Loach meets The Vicar of Dibley. It ends on Monday after two episodes that left me a weeping husk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I love Adam, his wife Alex (Olivia Colman) and the rag-tag bunch of parishioners, and my faith has been broken.

Last week Adam – suspended from the job he loves after a silly and ill-advised
 snog with the comely local head
teacher – was debased and despairing. Clearly he was having a breakdown as he picked up a heavy cross, and in a parody of the Easter story, toiled through the streets where he was abused and insulted. The episode ended with Adam unravelling dramatically and meeting God on a green hill (far away).

This week, thoroughly worthless in his own eyes, Adam sinks deeper into hopelessness. He’s adrift. There are other Rev fans at Radio Times and we all feel that this is just too sad and too much. This isn’t what we want from Rev and it isn’t what we want from Adam. Though Rev has always hinted at bleakness, it’s never succumbed and been lost to it. And boy, is Rev bleak.

The Rev-lovers of my acquaintance and I feel it lost its way when Adam kissed Ellie in episode three, an episode that was written by Tom Hollander. Oh dear, I wish actors wouldn’t do this; I wish they would act and leave the writing to others. Remember when actor Alan Alda became far too involved behind the cameras in the mighty M*A*S*H and it became a drearily humourless anti-war polemic, stripped of its delicate subversion?

Actors are of course close to the parts they play, but they might want different things from a character – maybe the chance to show off their acting abilities. (Hollander doesn’t need to do this, he’s great, his hapless, tender Adam is the reason why I watch.) But this is an irrelevance to anyone watching. We know Adam and he would never have kissed Ellie. He might have been temp- ted, as he once was at a vicars and tarts party, but he would never have given in. He just wouldn’t.

Still, it happened and the train of events gathered momentum to the point where Adam is ruined, degraded and humiliated, rejected by nearly everyone who once professed to love him. NO! Rev devotees don’t want this; we watch Rev because of its kindness and its imperfect view of an imperfect world. We don’t watch to feel despair and helplessness. It might be trying to be grittily realistic but real life is too realistic for most of us and we welcomed our half-hour escape into a different, gentler world. But that’s all gone now.

A distressing cliche

My colleague David Butcher got you talking a few weeks ago when he denounced TV’s most hackneyed clichés. I’d like to add my contribution: detective dramas centred on historic abuse at children’s homes. I’m not saying dramas should keep away from difficult subjects, but perhaps the time has come to look for another plot just in case something so horrible in reality becomes simply routine TV drama fodder. Endeavour, Belgian thriller Salamander, Inspector George Gently and Silent Witness have included these stories and so does Welsh drama Hinterland (Monday BBC4). Really, drama people, it’s time to shift the focus. 

Rev continues tonight at 10:00pm on BBC2