East Enders get a man of prayer

by
23 June 2010

In its new comedy of parish life, the BBC has left Dibley far behind, Olly Grant reports

STRANGE things are happening in St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, in east London. In the pews where James Burbage, founder of England’s first playhouse, once sat, a crowd of 20-somethings are swaying in front of plasma screens.

Under the 18th-century balcony, a bar is selling Super Citrus Jesus Kiss smoothies and Hallelujah! cocktails. Next to the pulpit, a rapper with a baseball cap and a micro­phone is riffing: “Love me, take me, Jesus; make me feel brand new,” to a sea of bobbing heads. “Love me, take me, Jesus, our resurrected Jew. . . ”

As you may already suspect, this in fact only a fictional spoof of a Charismatic service — from BBC2’s new TV comedy Rev, which starts on Monday. The series was the idea of the actor Tom Hollander, seen in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice as Mr Collins, and in Pirates of the Carib­bean and the political satire In the Loop. His new series centres on the everyday trials and tribulations of an An­glican priest.

Don’t expect The Vicar of Dibley Mark II. “Dibley was a sort of make-believe, rural idyll, wasn’t it?” Mr Hollander tells me. “This is more drawn from the complexity of the modern context. The multi-faith, multicultural, urban melting pot. That’s where we were putting it.

“And also the idea of old England bumping up against new England. Putting the cassock — such a strange, old-fashioned shape in the modern world — against a world of graffiti, and seeing what still works.”

Mr Hollander’s character, the titular star of the show, is the Revd Adam Smallbone. He is a softly spoken vicar from the countryside who has been catapulted into a gritty, inner-city parish (hence the starring role for St Leonard’s, re­named St Saviour’s for the series). He is well-meaning, but a bit of a candle in the wind, the actor says.

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“I guess you’d describe him as a Guardian reader with an inner Daily Mail reader that occasionally pops out. He swings between being reactionary and being inclusive and forward-thinking, between rage at the world and love of his fellow man. He’s quite a conflicted person, but he’s doing his best.”

He leans forward. “We had quite a lot of discussion about where he was on the candle, actually. High-church? Low-church? Eventually we decided that if he was both Guar­dian and Daily Mail then he would probably be middle-liberal Anglican — though a bit of him would go higher up the candle if he could.” He pauses. “But he can’t, because of the parish.”

Chief among Smallbone’s parish issues is his small but eccentric con­gregation. There’s Colin (Look­ing for Eric’s Steve Evets), a loyal but lay­about drunk. And there’s Adoha (EastEnders’ Ellen Thomas), a sweet-hearted African who is re­nowned in the parish for being a “cassock-chaser” — i.e., she tends to fancy the clergy.

And then there are the external issues. In the opening episode, it is middle-class parents who are faking piety to get their kids into the local C of E school (“On your knees, avoid the fees,” as one pithily puts it). In episode two — which features the above-mentioned rapper scene — it’s an Evangelical pastor who brings huge numbers through the doors, only to turn nasty and at­tempt a church takeover.

Meanwhile, in the background, the cynical archdeacon keeps pres­suring Smallbone to swell the con­gregation and put more money in the collection box.

Meanwhile, in the background, the cynical archdeacon keeps pres­suring Smallbone to swell the con­gregation and put more money in the collection box.

IF THERE is a distant ring of truth to some of these themes — the clergy and regular churchgoers must judge for themselves — that may be because much of it was plucked from real life.

The creative seed was an anecdote that Mr Hollander came across some years ago. A vicar in west Lon­don, he was told, had become something of a celebrity dinner date because members of the then Shadow Cabinet were “trying to get their children into his school”.

“I had heard similar tales from my home town, where my nieces go to school. The stories seemed to be everywhere. So that was the starting point.

“And then we began to meet vicars, and became more broadly fascinated about the predicament of the Anglican vicar today. We have a list of [clergymen] who are credited at the end of the episodes, and these are their stories, really.

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In fact, there were so many that we didn’t have space for them all.”

He cites Mick as one example. Mick is a character who regularly haunts the parsonage in search of money. “Every vicar we met said that happens all the time,” he says. Another is Alex, Smallbone’s straight-talking, slightly exasperated other half, played by the Peep Show star Olivia Colman. She was based on a series of conversations with real clergy wives — women, he says, who admitted to struggling with the open-door nature of their husbands’ career.

“They’d talk about people wan­der­ing upstairs and helping them­selves to things, or people coming in off the street and using the loo without asking. One person I met said she was ‘irritated by her hus­band’s godliness’; that it went to his head sometimes and she had to ‘bring him down a bit’. We’ve put a lot of stuff like that into the show.”

Another predicament that struck Mr Hollander was the financial struggles that some of the clergy face. Peeling wallpaper and a general air of decay were two reasons why St Leonard’s was chosen as the back­drop. A grand church with an im­posing history (“‘When I grow rich’ say the bells of Shoreditch”), the building has since fallen on harder times.

“Tatty, knocked about, and still not in great condition despite huge amounts of money being spent,” is the assessment of the real Vicar of St Leonard’s, the Revd Paul Turp, who was happy to embrace the series because he felt that it re-flected modern pastoral life in ways that are rarely seen on TV. (He was allowed to see copies of the scripts.)

“I can put my hands up and say that every episode contains some­thing I have experienced in one form or another,” he says.

Mr Turp also thinks there is a kernel of seriousness about Rev that surprise many people. What might have been one extended joke at the Church’s expense, he says, contains unlikely depths. Viewers bracing themselves for another one-dimensional “comedy vicar” can relax.

“I can still remember Derek Nimmo [in the 1960s TV series All Gas and Gaiters]: wimpish and wet, with a significant lack of theological intelligence. We’ve moved on from that. You never saw Derek Nimmo weeping for his people. But Small­bone does. Quite literally. What you have in this series is a Church that loves people — regardless of how poor, stupid, or inadequate they are — because it’s the Christlike thing to do.”

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Thus each episode features prayer scenes, little narrative devices that unpack Smallbone’s thought life, but aren’t, in fact, played for comedy. “How did I get into this?” he asks God in the first episode. “I’m sup­posed to walk with the broken, aren’t I? And why have you given me this huge, crumbling building to deal with? It’s such a burden. . .”

Pathos, says Hollander, was a key part of the brief. “We always wanted the series to have moments of real compassion and total seriousness in it. So every episode has bits where there is no joke. We wanted to make a show where you could have one or two serious, deep, thought-provoking laughs rather than 25 ‘hamburger’ laughs.”

Pathos, says Hollander, was a key part of the brief. “We always wanted the series to have moments of real compassion and total seriousness in it. So every episode has bits where there is no joke. We wanted to make a show where you could have one or two serious, deep, thought-provoking laughs rather than 25 ‘hamburger’ laughs.”

AND how about Mr Hollander? Does he ever pray? He looks con­templative. “I probably thank my lucky stars more than I thank God,” he says. “The difference between prayer and an inner stream of con­sciousness, a random monologue with yourself, is sometimes quite obscure. I’m sure everyone prays. It’s just . . . who are they praying to?

“There’s a yearning for there to be something for one to direct these feelings to: something supernatural, or super-real, beyond us. Something else. But I don’t know if it’s a man with a white beard or a sort of fate. I haven’t worked out the answers to that yet.”

But he admits that filming the series has been something of a spiritual eye-opener. Pre-Rev, he was a “twice-yearly” sort of churchgoer — “familiar with the Church in a way that many people are; aware that we live in a Christian society without paying much attention to it”. But the research seems to have rubbed off on him.

“I went to church a lot while we were researching the show, and I’ve been missing it,” he says. “I should keep going.”

He thinks for a second. “I had a couple of moments which were really quite beautiful, actually. The Sunday after Christmas, I went to church in a tiny village in Norfolk. And I heard a very old vicar deliver the most beautiful sermon. It was just thoughts about how to live. He wasn’t asking us to believe in any­thing that wasn’t completely acces­sible.

“He was just a man, articulately and beautifully giving us some pointers on how to think about our lives, and come to terms with our­selves. And in a beautiful building, full of people who were terribly kind to each other, with the sun-light streaming in. And I thought: ‘This is fantastic. . .’”

Rev begins on 28 June at 10 p.m. on BBC2.

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