The complete Rev collection.
When my daughter Chloe returned from a visit to the BBC as part of her media course, she brought home an in-house magazine. It mentioned that the BBC had commissioned a new comedy series, tentatively called Wing and a Prayer, that was all about how a rural vicar was struggling to adjust to life in cosmopolitan London. What made it particularly unusual – and a brave decision – was that plenty of input from real urban vicars went into its storylines.
With this lucky break, I was the first journalist in the Christian press to get the story and over a year or so, I followed it through filming, scheduling delays and a sudden transmission date.
Here are the three separate items that I culled from my interview with Tom: a double page spread for the Church of England Newspaper CEN 10 Rev TH; a more concise piece for Christianity Magazine in their ‘Q and A’ format (immediately below) and under that, the text and images for Oxford’s R Magazine, with a local angle.
Tom Hollander has played a few nasty characters in his time, whether the criminal Macheath in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the selfish Leon in Freezing or the petty tyrant Lord Cutler Beckett in Pirates of the Caribbean.
But now he’s become likeable – at least for his first creation, the BBC2 series Rev. He talked to Derek Walker about making the show and his roots in Oxford.
Clearly pleased to be on the decision-making side of his profession, he told me, “It’s an amazing feeling to be behind the camera as well as in front of it. All of this was a huge education for me, seeing how a television programme gets made.”
The original idea for Rev was his own. The stories he had heard about getting into church schools intrigued him, even more so when a friend invited him to be godfather to one of his children. In their university days that friend had proudly disproved the existence of God by pure logic, but two decades later he was hoping to get a church education for his child.
This inspired Hollander, who envisaged a film, in which a vicar publicly accuses his parishioners of hypocrisy and then has a breakdown. But it is one thing to have a creative idea and another to write a script, so he teamed up with writer James Woods, who found a better format for the concept.
“We’d done Freezing together and that had been great fun,” Hollander explained. “He’s quite close to a couple of vicars, as am I. I did most of the initial research – because James was writing something else – and then fed into him.”
“Initially I was faking it – but I was enjoying it, even though I was faking it.”
Hollander threw himself into research, talking to every vicar he met and going to church wherever he was, an experience he described as “very interesting. Initially I was faking it – but I was enjoying it, even though I was faking it.
“I was going to a tiny little church in Norfolk with ten people in it; then in Paris for the weekend, rushing into Notre Dame for evensong; going to high church, low church, evangelical, Catholic, all sorts. I found going to church a lot very consoling for some reason, so I’ve started to really enjoy it.”
This research has led to a revolutionary vicar sitcom that radiates authenticity, eschewing laugh-a-second lines in favour of seeing the humour in the real situations that clergy find themselves in.
Hollander agreed, “Tonally, it’s a comedy drama – a dramedy, as they say in America.”
His character, Revd Adam Smallbone, is an Anglican vicar promoted from a sleepy rural parish to south London, where he struggles with the job. The press release called it “a series that shows what an impossibly difficult job it is being a good, modern, urban priest.”
While television certainly owes the clergy a more realistic image of the range and skill in the work they do, that hardly makes for entertainment. I asked Hollander how he walked the mountain ridge of realistic comedy without falling down the valleys of hagiography on one side or parody on the other.
“We square those things in many different ways,” he replied. “I think the phrase ‘impossibly difficult’ is a bit exaggerated. It’s the trials and tribulations of an Anglican vicar in a contemporary urban context. He gets to be several different people across the series. He’s sometimes quite wily, sometimes quite angry. Sometimes he’s quite irresponsible.
“Certainly I would be thrilled if people found food for thought in there. We’ve been very careful to try to have some and for it not to be just getting laughs. In every episode there are some very serious themes, which we were keen to preserve right from the outset. ”
The humour is sharper because the setting is urban and Hollander sees that as crucial to the way the series works.
“There’s everything here in London. The whole world’s represented – different communities, different religions. So you can have a look at all of them, because a vicar somehow gets a free pass to move around the whole of our society. As a character, you can get him anywhere.
“We’ve done one series, but I’m sure there are enough stories to go on for years, if one was so inclined, because it’s such a fertile area. Also, they are ones you can tell from so many different angles, because vicars do seem to be very much in the centre of the community still, from what I know, and people’s lives pass through the church. Even though we think of ourselves as living in a secular society, the church is still very much a part of our culture.”
To put the show together, Hollander had to unlearn his memories of church from his youth and re-engage with clergy as fellow dedicated professionals – although the warmth of his church memories from growing up Oxford have still bled though into Rev.
“I was a chorister at school and we used to go to church quite a lot when I was a kid – St. Nicholas Church at Marston. Paul Rimmer, the vicar there, was a wonderful man, a great friend of my parents, much loved. He was very charismatic. Village life very much involved the Rimmers and the Rimmers’ house and all the fun there was to be had there.”
Hollander moved from Bristol to Oxford when he was one, so his earliest memories are of Old Marston and capture the spirit of ‘seventies boyhood: walking through cornfields with his friend; playing in the elm trees that grew at the back of his house (before Dutch Elm disease got to them); “the drought year” 1976 and punting in Oxford with his Dad.
Had he stayed in Bristol, his life may have been unrecognisable, as his career was born early in his teens in Oxfordshire, where he attended the Dragon School and then Abingdon School. He was surrounded by ambition at both and landed a leading role in a BBC TV series, John Diamond, aged only fourteen.
Enjoying the attention – and being picked up in a car and paid for something that was fun – meant that there would be no way back from acting.
When he got to Cambridge, he auditioned for nine plays and got nine parts, including two lead roles. His old friend from Oxford, Sam Mendes, had graduated a year earlier and was good for crisis management advice.
Hollander remembers, “We were doing this play; I was overwhelmed by the size of the part and we were only 19. I was getting very panicky and he said, ‘Don’t think of it all at once, think of it as lots of bite-sized challenges and then it’s manageable,’ which was a very mature thing to say.”
He also acted with Nick Clegg, but – in a truly political and somewhat Boris Johnson-like answer to my question about Clegg’s acting – Hollander simply commented, “I can’t remember Nick Clegg’s acting – we did one play together and he was terribly nice! He was a lovely chap; I think he was probably a good actor. He’s a very decent chap.”
But for all the places he has been since his career took off, he finished our chat by telling me, “I love Oxford and still think of it as my home. Every time I go there I feel I ought to live there. One day, maybe…”