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Parish life on the small screen

by
11 September 2020

A new history of the Church on television explores how comedy and drama have placed clergy at the heart of social change

BBC/Everett Collection 

Dawn French played Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley, in the BBC series of that name, which ran from 1994 to 2007

Dawn French played Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley, in the BBC series of that name, which ran from 1994 to 2007

THE Vicar of Dibley and Rev can be mentioned in the same breath as the BBC’s two most successful comedies about vicars. There are substantial differences as well as some points of connection. Both Dibley and Rev feature clergy struggling with their pastoral roles and their parishioners.

Beyond the obvious differences of a female and male central character and the contrast between the countryside and inner city, Dibley dealt more with the shock of the new as the rural congregation adjusted to a female vicar, and Richard Curtis’s scripts were timely responses to the ordination of the first women priests, which had come after a five-and-a-half hour debate and an initial vote at the 1987 General Synod.

The comedy of the Church’s divisions registered in Dibley. The series directly confronted the tone and content of much real-life opposition to women priests. An oft-quoted line from the first episode has the new vicar declare “You were expecting a bloke. Beard, Bible, bad breath. And instead you got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom.”

Her emphasis on body and appearance appropriated the way in which female clergy had been objectified and sexualised by their opponents and in the media, such as the Sun headline: “The Church says yes to vicars in knickers”. An aura of comic unreality hung over The Vicar of Dibley, however, with humour coming from broad rural stereotypes and accents. The series itself tended to revel in being old fashioned, down to the more theatrical style of acting and the studio-based production.

The scripts rarely intersected with actual concerns shaping the Church of England, and seldom made jokes at the expense of the Church. Beyond the single issue of the ordination of women, the series eschewed seriously grounding its stories in ecclesiastical realities, suggesting instead considerable nostalgia expressed via an “unthought-about backdrop”.

For instance, being vicar of just one single parish is far removed from the four- or five-point parishes and joint benefices that defined the rural ministry by the time The Vicar of Dibley entered production. Much of the dramatic tension and darker comedy in Rev stemmed from the old and the worn-out aspects of the inner-city Church of England as it struggled to engage with its community.

 

ELSEWHERE on the BBC, the popular series Call the Midwife also placed Anglican clergy and religious in an inner-city setting. Following the memoirs of the midwife Jennifer Worth, whose work recalled the respect that the people in Poplar had for the Anglican Sisters of St Raymund, Call the Midwife dramatises the medical care and the religious devotions of the Sisters.

The Sisters at Nonnatus House coped with a world changing around them. Post-war immigration, multi-racial marriages, adulteries, homosexuals, prostitution, and mental illness are among the social and medical issues converging around the convent. The Anglican Sisters, though, are a respected moral force and place of comfortable resort for the people in the East End.

Big Talk ProductionsOlivia Colman, Tom Hollander, and their screen child as the Smallbones in the third series of Rev in 2014

On screen, a recurring editing juxtaposition is the nuns at prayer with the midwives working, suggesting the mutual importance of the religious lives of the Sisters and the care they provide. Rev, courtesy of Tom Hollander’s scrupulous ethnographic research among inner-city vicars, including the vicar of the filming location, St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, is engrossed with the painful realities of urban ministry.

Its multi-faith and multicultural milieu is distinct from the rural stereotypes in Dibley, and characters in Rev use the correct terminology, from stipends and area deans to canon law and redundancy. A crisis point comes with the vicar’s emotional disintegration, his mental state shattering completely during a Christmas midnight mass, when a drunken congregation and a lost taxi driver reduce the service to a raucous and banal mess.

But Rev is also tinged with a metaphysical intensity, most notably when the titular vicar, the Revd Adam Smallbone, encounters and dances with a tracksuit-wearing man who may well be God, and who turns banal clichés into a spiritually meaningful exchange. The reviewer James Mumford criticised the series for presenting essentially an outsider perspective that disregarded faith or the supernatural: a strange comment, because it overlooked the mystical aspects of Smallbone’s ministry.

The central character in Rev undergoes excruciating personal, professional, and spiritual trials when serving his inner-city parish, in a large old church with a small congregation and largely irrelevant to the surrounding community. The scenario in Rev repeats the main plot dynamic of All in Good Faith (1985-1988), when a country vicar moves to, and struggles with, an inner-city parish. The comedy of Rev is more poignant and much grittier than the Richard Briers’s comedy, with one character calling the parish “heroin alley”.

Hollander’s alertness to the professional realities confronting inner-city vicars allowed him to build episodes around key changes in the profile of the Church. In one early episode, the tiny, aged congregation attending St Saviour’s is augmented but affronted when the large youthful congregation of an Evangelical Anglican church begins sharing the building.

As is the case with the series in general, the script gains a patina of reality from the use of ecclesiastical buzzwords and terminology. When the younger congregation begins reorganising the interior to shift pews and make a more flexible worship space, Smallbone frets that there is no faculty (a licence from a church court) to allow the changes.

The contrast between the large Evangelical congregation and the shrivelled community at St Saviour’s also ominously presages concerns that pervade all three seasons of Rev. Another reality that Hollander knew and used was the threat of redundancy hanging over many old inner-city churches. As redundancy seems to come closer, Smallbone worries that his church may become “toast”: the “ecclesiastical term for redundancy”.

The Vicar of Dibley, focused as it was on the ordination of women and their gradual acceptance by a conservative rural community, only occasionally touched on same-sex controversies in the Church. Some dialogue hinted that Geraldine’s diocesan bishop was homosexual, and a BBC producer mistook David Horton for a repressed gay Anglo-Catholic.

Rev embedded its narratives in painstakingly researched and painful realities. The series writer and star Tom Hollander, who played Smallbone, assiduously researched the lives and work of inner-city vicars. The result was a series written with considerable empathy for the demands on vicars’ time and emotional well-being, but also acute awareness of the flashpoints of controversy in the modern Church.

 

ONE of these is human sexuality. The vicar of St Saviour’s is straight, but both his archdeacon and Reader are homosexual. The implication of being gay and in orders is forcefully suggested when the archdeacon fails to progress to a bishopric after he reveals his sexuality to an interviewing committee, an incident among others in the series showing the characters’ failed ambitions and dark inner lives.

The series’ most sustained engagement with same-sex relations and the Church came in the second episode of season three (2014), when gay congregants ask the vicar to conduct their wedding. The background to this narrative comes from the diocese of London’s controversial encounter with a church-based gay wedding in 2008, conducted by the Revd Martin Dudley in St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield.

The aftermath of that occasion played out in ways reflected in Rev, specifically in an archdeacon investigating if any breach of canon law had taken place. The preparation was different, however. Dudley thoughtfully prepared the liturgy for the occasion in 2008, making sensitive changes to the language of the 1662 Prayer Book to enable its use for this purpose.

In Rev, Smallbone’s preparation is haphazard, and he produces a hurriedly revised service on the back of an envelope a few seconds before the service starts. Initially, Smallbone insists to the participants that all he can offer is a few prayers in the context of a eucharist, not a gay wedding. By the end of the episode, he has had a change of heart, and found the courage of his convictions and officiates over an actual wedding service for the two men.

The difficult journey that Smallbone, the gay couple, and St Saviour’s take towards performing the wedding service enables the episode to peel away tensions and contradictions. Smallbone acknowledges, when initially refusing to perform an actual wedding service, that, while God will bless their union, the Church of England cannot. Later, having attempted an improvised and compromised set of prayers, his anguish lies in trying to please the gay couple and follow church law at the same time, and failing in both.

Failure of different kinds runs through Rev. The third and final season ended with Adam no longer a vicar, his church declared redundant and boarded up, and his tiny congregation dispersed. Seemingly the triumph lies with the area dean, who is alert to the monetary value of every square foot of internal space in the doomed church, but cannot see its spiritual and community importance.

The failure, though, is qualified. Rev based its comedy on the thoughtful and accurate use of Anglican ritual, culture, and ethos. The final episode follows set days in the church calendar from Good Friday to Easter, and therefore from death to resurrection. The last episode ends with the tiny congregation reassembled on the church porch and holding aloft a Paschal candle.

That Easter service, and the symbolic representation of the light of Christ, ends Rev on a tentatively hopeful note, at least suggesting that a faith community will continue in the 21st century, even if the organised religion has died away.

 

This is an edited extract from The Church on British Television: From the Coronation to Coronation Street by Marcus Harmes, Meredith Harmes, and Barbara Harmes, published by Palgrave Macmillan at £59.99 (Church Times Bookshop £53.99).

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