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This Country: Rural priest and people — if only

21 July 2023

The TV series continues to resonate in clergy circles. Madeleine Davies asks how accurate it was

BBC/Ian Weldon

The Revd Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), the parish priest in This Country

The Revd Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), the parish priest in This Country

THE esteem in which the Revd Francis Seaton is held by his parishioners is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the reaction to his departure. “If we can’t have him, then I don’t want anyone to have him,” is among the more impassioned responses. It is a tribute to a ministry that, since first screened in 2017, has prompted Anglican viewers to offer their own plaudits.

“What I love about Francis is the way in which he shows how a country vicar is still considered the property of everyone in the village, irrespective of their churchgoing — or lack of it,” says the Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, Canon Daniel Inman, who has observed that Francis “reminds me of half of my deanery chapter when I was a curate”.

Holding the cure of the souls of an unnamed Cotswolds village, “the Vicar” (he is referred to only as this, or as “Vics”) is the creation of Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, and is one of the central characters of their BAFTA-winning BBC mockumentary This Country. Three years after the final episode was screened (Media, 6 March 2020), and as the future shape of rural ministry is the subject of heated debate, it remains a portrayal with much to say about the priesthood and how it is viewed by those who rarely pass through the churchyard gate.

WE FIRST meet the Vicar 12 years into his time in the village and two years, he tells us, into working “actively” on the “effing and jeffing” of the two central characters of the show: Kurtan and Kerry Mucklowe (played by the Coopers), cousins in their twenties who have never left the village and appear to be stuck in an extended adolescence.

Throughout the three series, this relationship becomes the central strand of the story. Will the Vicar persuade Kurtan to return to education and leave the bounds of the parish? How far will he succeed in his attempts to explain the nature of a truly selfless act to Kerry? Will anything ever change for any of them?

As well as regular documentary-style speeches to camera, the show features captions providing the viewer with “facts” about rural life. “In Britain the number of people identifying as religious continues to fall, particularly amongst the young,” one explains. “Despite this trend, the church still plays an important role in many villages through initiatives as diverse as foodbanks and support groups for carers.” Other captions present a series of sober facts about deprivation, which the Vicar builds on, observing the effect of cuts, and his attempts to “get things going again”.

It is striking that, throughout all three series, we never see him officiate at a service. His natural habitat appears to be the rather unlovely squat church hall, where his door is open to those in need of loo roll and a chat. When a visiting priest asks him what he does, he explains that he’s “always keen on new initiatives to bring the community together”, referring to river walks and a “Fly me to the moon” event during which seven children created rockets.

BBC/Jack BarnesKurtan (Charlie Cooper) and Kerry (Daisy May Cooper) in This Country

Generally, it is the Mucklowes rather than the Vicar who raise the subject of God. After Kerry is injured during football practice, he attempts to get her to “bend the truth slightly”, afraid that his failure to obtain insurance for the sessions will have consequences. “What do you think God will think of that?” she asks, prompting the suggestion, immediately rebutted, that “he will forgive us on this occasion.”

Only in the final series does the Vicar mention Jesus, somewhat hesitantly. When Kurtan reveals that he’s intent on wreaking revenge on Kerry for a long-ago misdemeanour, the Vicar seems to brace himself before suggesting: “Think about — OK, I’m going to say this — think about Jesus. He would turn the other cheek.” Faced with a baffled response, he swiftly proffers karma as an alternative ethic. (“Bad behaviour will have its comeback somewhere along the line.”)

He is most comfortable when he is gently encouraging his charges to open up about their chaotic lives and to follow the Golden Rule. “He’s sort of taught me the way of the world, like how to be kind to others and treat people the way I would want to be treated,” Kerry says.


CLERGY viewers suggest that there is something heroic about the Vicar’s ministry. “He embodies Anglican efforts to serve every corner of England long after the youth clubs and libraries have been defunded by the local council,” Canon Inman says.

“He so evidently genuinely cared for these young people,” says the Revd Emily Davis, Priest-in-Charge of Whittlesey, a group of four churches in the fens of Ely. “He wasn’t particularly charismatic or special, but he ministered with such love and care. We were never given the impression that Kerry and Kurtan really had that much to do with the church, but he was able to give them so much time, showed them so much patience, and supported them in so many different ways.”

Curious to know whether he was based on a real priest, Ms Davis laments the gap between the portrayal and the reality, in which he would “probably have had a benefice of 12 parishes or maybe more, and would never have had that much time to give to the village and to those young people”.

It is a point that resonates with the Vicar of St Mary’s and St Peter’s, Bury St Edmunds, the Revd Tiffer Robinson, who spent ten years as Rector of Rattlesden with Thorpe Morieux, Brettenham, and Hitcham, in rural Suffolk. “The most unlikely thing about it was that he only had one church,” he observed on Twitter during a discussion about the show.

“Clergy time is now so much more pressured,” he observes. “If you want to make sure that the churches are there in five or ten years time, to do any social-justice work, you need to make sure they are healthy, and that does require you to spend time on evangelism, on nurture, on keeping the doors open.”

Statistics published in 2020 suggest that, in the most rural areas of England, the commonest benefice structure is between four and and six churches. A Synod session last year revealed that one benefice numbered 29. Population change and falling numbers of worshippers and clergy have, for decades, driven amalgamation of parishes — a process that is now an urban as well as a rural phenomenon.

“Over the past ten years, the numbers of vicars working in rural communities has declined,” a This Country caption read. “During the same period there has been an increase in the number of clergy reportedly suffering from stress and anxiety.”


THIS COUNTRY was filmed in Northleach, a small market town in the Cotswolds, in Gloucestershire, ten miles from Cirencester, with a population of just under 2000. The parish is one of eight in the benefice (St Peter and St Paul, Northleach, with Hampnett and Farmington, Cold Aston with Notgrove and Turkdean, and Compton Abdale with Haselton). At the time of filming, it was served by its Rector, the Revd David Ford, who now ministers in Worcestershire. The aerial shots of the village were taken from the tower of the parish church.

He regards the portrayal of rural ministry in the show as “totally unrealistic”; but, he is quick to add, “that’s not what the programme was trying to do. So let’s not judge it by something it wouldn’t have defined, itself, as an objective.”

A typical day as Rector began with saying the office in Northleach, followed by visiting and preparation for Sunday, which entailed a maximum of three services (“I knew that if I didn’t set a rule like that it would very fast become five or six”). About half of his time was “focused on admin” and “supporting and equipping other people to exercise ministry” — largely retired clergy.

Tiffer RobinsonA real-life clerical scarecrow judge, the Revd Tiffer Robinson

“Managing all those relationships, managing all the schedules, having, in my case eight PCCs — was a bit of a nightmare with annual meetings. Eight churches, all listed, mostly with churchyards, all the finances of that. . . And, of course, there’s the driving. This was nowhere near as large as some in Yorkshire, but it was still 35, 40 square miles.”

He shares Mr Robinson’s assessment of the possibility of devoting so much time to two individuals. While the church in Northleach established a café in the town (one regularly visited by the cast and crew of This Country during filming), and tried to organise community-focused activities, “most of your time is focused on servicing the needs of those who are keeping the church alive.”

None the less, he was struck by how perceptive the programme was in identifying broader underlying dynamics in the Church and, in particular, its relationship with class. “Clearly, you’ve got a juxtaposition here between a middle-class liberal vicar trying to do right by working-class young people.

“Now, that to me is a brilliant portrayal . . . of the core, really challenging, issues that the Church of England faces, and has faced — some would argue has faced ever since the Enclosures.”

The working-class communities of Northleach did have a relationship with the church, he says, through the school and through baptisms and funerals. “But was the working-class community represented in normal church life? No, it wasn’t, on the whole.”

In general, the congregation was made up of middle-class “incomers”: professionals who could afford to live in Northleach and, in the majority, people who had retired to the Cotswolds. “There’s a lot of poverty in a town like Northleach, but, of course, the richer the broader community you live in, the better hid such poverty is,” he says.

Having reflected on the portrayal of a priest, he is curious about how white working- class rural communities might have felt about Kerry and Kurtan.

IT IS something that the writers considered. “We were more concerned that, locally, people might think we were taking the mickey, but we weren’t at all,” Ms Cooper told The Guardian in 2018. “We have so much love for where we’re from. Luckily, people really responded to it. People shout ‘Tomaaato!’ or ‘Kerry!’ out of car windows.”

This Country was born of experience. She and her co-writer brother, Charlie, grew up in Cirencester, and wrote the show around shifts as night cleaners, sharing a mattress in their parents’ home. During their early years, the family were evicted after missing six months of rent. Ms Cooper has spoken candidly about the experience of going to the housing association (“not only so f***ing boring, but you’d feel like dog s*** on their shoe”), and having to leave the family food-shop at the checkout.

“That total fear of being left behind — we felt like that for years,” Mr Cooper told The Independent in 2020. “If you’re young and working-class here, it’s so difficult to escape. There just aren’t any opportunities. You see so much about inner city poverty and inequality, but you don’t see anything rurally and it’s so f***ing difficult.”

Kerry and Kurtan were partly based on themselves, but also on a pair of siblings they knew at school. “The girl we based Kerry on would go around punching people, but then she’d do things like make these lovely little snowflake Christmas-tree decorations,” Ms Cooper explained. “She was so proud of them. It made my heart sing.”


WRITING the part of Francis Seaton was pivotal to the creation of the show, it emerges. “They [Kerry and Kurtan] can be brats and do horrible stuff, but having someone who sees the goodness in them was a game-changer,” Mr Cooper has said. Ms Cooper has revealed that he was originally going to be a police officer, “but we thought there’s something lovely about a vicar doing it, because, morally, he feels like he has to save these people, who are completely unsaveable. That’s why they can treat him the way they do, and he always bounces back.”

If clergy viewers have a concern about Francis, it’s that his saviour complex, combined with innocence, could prove a dangerous combination. To watch him race down the community-centre hall to provide loo roll for Len — an older parishioner hospitalised at one point after drinking stagnant water out of a birdbath — is to see him in his element, fuelled by his faith in the potential of seemingly hopeless cases and a burning sense of duty towards them.

“He struck me as having an admirable naïvety that would lead to an early death,” Mr Ford says. “It struck me that he had come straight out of Westcott or Cuddesdon still shaped by the social-action Church of the ’60s and early ’70s — and somehow landed himself in a parish that really hadn’t changed since then.”

BBC/Jack Barnes  Kurtan (Charlie Cooper), the Revd Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), and Kerry (Daisy May Cooper)

For all its humour, a dark seam runs through This Country, most obviously in its portrait of Kerry’s negligent father, Martin Mucklowe. He is not only largely absent from her life, but is occasionally a malevolent presence: he tells her, on one occasion, that he had contemplated smothering her as a baby.

Confronted with this evil, the Vicar suggests at one point that Martin “does try”. His faith in the possibility that things can be resolved through honest conversation — greeted with well-founded doubt by Kerry and Kurtan — is frequently revealed to be ill-founded. In the third series, we learn that his own son, Jacob, has a drink and drugs problem that has culminated in the Vicar’s having to remortgage his home to pay off debts — referred to, in classic Anglican understatement, as “a bit of bother”.

On occasion, Kerry and Kurtan attribute alternative motives to the Vicar’s efforts (“The devil doesn’t come in a cloak and pointy horns, he wears knitwear and drives a Golf”). Kurtan accuses him of “parading Len around like a show pony” after he presents him as a “new man” (“We got him scrubbed up. Change of clothes. New attitude”).

It is fair to say that he is a priest who “needs to be needed”, frequently capitulating to all manner of unreasonable demands. “I’m sure the village can cope without you for half an hour,” Kerry advises, before warning that demanding parishioners are going to be “the death of you” and urging him to switch his phone off. (During a brief period of manning that same phone, Kurtan describes it as a “hotline for wazzocks”.)

Mr Robinson sees Francis as “remarkably patient, and, in many ways, remarkably Christlike”. He appeared to be “the last social worker to leave the village — [he was] there because there was no one else. And there were times in rural ministry where I felt that. There were situations where a need would arise, and I knew that, if I didn’t try to address it, there wasn’t really anything else in that particular context.”

In small communities, there is no “critical mass of need” to establish something such as a foodbank, for example; but individuals still require help. The sort of ministry that Francis undertakes often goes unnoticed, he suggests.


FOR Paul Chahidi, the actor who played Seaton, it is a ministry deserving of celebration. “He is endlessly kind, endlessly tolerant, and almost endlessly patient,” he says. “I felt a lot of sympathy for him, and a lot of admiration, and a huge, huge affection. I think, if you were going to be critical of him, you would say he is perhaps not assertive enough at points — and my experience of vicars is that they are that kind and that patient, but they are probably a bit more assertive.”

From the first skeleton script, he recalls seeing the potential for “a very rounded, human character”, whom he summarises as “long-suffering made flesh”. He also suspects that the script was increasingly shaped by his interactions with the Coopers. “I often try and do the right thing, and end up trying to please people too much in real life: that’s me, Paul,” he says. “The more we went on with the series, the more it seemed to morph into me, which was slightly worrying as well as brilliant. . . I think I’d have blown a gasket way earlier than the Vicar in real life.”

His preparations for the role did not entail detailed research into clergy life: “I really just played the man rather than the job. And it was so beautifully written and delineated I felt that all I had to do was play the scenes truthfully and root it in a reality and not play it for laughs — play it as straight as possible and, wearing a dog collar, the rest would do its work.”

But in the background were several connections to Christianity. Growing up in a mixed-heritage home — his Iranian father was raised as a Muslim, but was later “verging on atheist”; his English mother became a Roman Catholic — he experienced both RC and C of E schools. He recalls his interactions with priests as being “always actually very positive”.

These included both the Revd Lindsay Meader, Chaplain to the West End Theatres, and the Revd John Partington, who, before he retired in 2019, was a team vicar in the South Cotswolds Team Ministry. Mr Partington conducted the funeral of Mr Chahidi’s father, a “wonderfully mixed, culturally mixed service” that included Persian poetry from the Sufi tradition and readings from John Donne.

“It was absolutely beautiful, and, to me, that was the embodiment of the best of the Church of England, which is something that is broad and tolerant and inclusive and welcoming to people of other cultures,” Mr Chahidi says. “And, believe me, that was in a village only ten miles away from Northleach, and it had many of the same issues — because I spoke to him — that were portrayed in the series.”

There will always be a role for a Vicar in British drama and comedy, he suggests, speaking of the clergy’s “strong presence in virtually every community”. They generally serve as “the straight person, or the foil that roots it all in something real and sane.” Without this anchor, the risk is that “it just looks like a flight of fancy. And it can, if you are not careful, become a comedy that is cruel, and I think you have to have a humane character that kind of draws strands together.”

Since This Country was shown, clergy around the country have been in touch to express affection for his portrayal, which has left him “hugely flattered and grateful”. Since moving to Muswell Hill, in north London, he has got to know the Curate of St Andrew’s, Alexandra Park, the Revd Andy Coates, for whom he is full of praise.

“Honestly, I felt like I could see bits of the Vicar in him . . . that patience and that openness,” he says. “It just reinforced my admiration for the community work that churches do, often when people fall through the cracks, and everyone else is not there for them. . . When it’s done in the way I’ve seen it — which is non-judgemental and all-embracing — that’s the best side of the Church; and I’ve seen that, and I feel that that is what was being portrayed in the show.”


THIS COUNTRY concludes with the Vicar’s preparations for a move to a gritty new parish in Bristol (“It’s all just smackheads and knife crime . . . and Clifton Suspension Bridge,” the Mucklowes warn). A scene in which he assumes that a neighbouring vicar’s mention of a needle exchange refers to needle-felting suggests that a steep learning curve could be in the offing.

A diocesan dashboard might not record his time in the village as a resounding success: the Scarecrow Festival of the pilot episode raised £342. “Thank you for whatever it is you do — ’cos I still don’t really know,” Kurtan tells him. But, without spoiling the final episode, Seaton’s faith in the potential of his parishioners proves not to be misplaced. “One thing I have learned from the Vicar is that, sometimes, the thing you want isn’t necessarily the right thing to do,” Kurtan says.

Some of the best scenes in the show point towards a reciprocity in the relationship of the three; in my own personal favourite, he beams as Kurtan, newly accepted on a GNVQ course, dances around his office to happy hardcore music. His delight at their approval — he’s a “legend” — is palpable.

The frequently bleak portraits of life in the village are set against a glorious backdrop of painterly still shots of the rolling hills. At the end of Season One, Kerry and Kurtan are seen with their arms outstretched, silhouetted as an enormous white-yellow sun sinks behind the hills. “We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she proclaims. “This is our country,” he responds.

Having spent ten years in rural Suffolk, Mr Robinson is full of affection for his time there (while still harbouring doubts about whether he made the right call in his own time as a scarecrow judge). Kerry and Kurtan’s reaction to the Vicar’s departure was “eerily familiar”, he says. “I found leaving my last benefice very traumatic, and so did they. . . People who have been in the church for decades know that vicars come and go. The people that you have engaged, they don’t.”

Whether or not Kerry and Kurtan will maintain their connection to the church in Francis’s absence is impossible to say. It is more likely, perhaps, that he will return to them. As Kurtan puts it, “I just hope they realise what they’ve got.”

This Country is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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