The first week of Eastertide seems a fitting time to reflect on a rare example of modern TV drama which deals in detail with religious life.
I was led towards Rev. by serendipity. I happened to hear the actor Tom Hollander one morning on the radio in 2010, talking about his new BBC2 TV series about a Church of England priest and about the real-life situation which had led to one of its comic episodes: how middle-class parents in London sometimes exaggerate or even fabricate a Christian faith in order to qualify their child for inclusion at a well-regarded Church of England school.
Rev. credits a number of Anglican clerics as advisers, which may be one reason why its three series have been so good at dealing with the many parts of contemporary British life which intersect with Christian faith and practice. For example, the clash between traditional church liturgy and superficially more attractive and popular evangelical groups; the temptation to use secular commercial methods to spread the Gospel message; the population shifts to the suburbs and the consequent emptiness of city centre churches; the ageing and reducing congregations; the annual popularity blip of church-going at Christmas; the occasional move of Anglican priests to the Catholic Church; the unconcealed homosexuality of clergy and laity; the relationships with Islam; the regular visitors to the churches which are often their neighbourhood’s most striking buildings for cultural and community rather than for spiritual gatherings.
In the 1980s, Channel 4’s Chance in a Million was enhanced by having, in its lead roles, Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn, two actors who were more associated with theatre drama than TV sitcom. One of Rev’s strengths is perhaps the best TV comedy cast since then: Hollander, Olivia Colman, Simon McBurney, Steve Evets, Miles Jupp; plus guests like Alexander Armstrong’s venal MP, Hugh Bonneville’s clerical media star, Ralph Fiennes’ bishop, Dexter Fletcher’s born-again contemporary artist.
Hollander’s character, Rev Adam Smallbone, is an entirely believable flawed representative of the modern church, struggling to meet the expectations of religious superiors, loyal parishioners and agnostic wife, and often seen to crack under the strain.
James Wood’s scripts are a rich enough blend of comedy and social commentary to work on a smaller budget, but extra pleasure is definitely provided by St Leonard’s Shoreditch, London, a great 18th century church, playing the role of Smallbone’s own St Saviour’s in the Marshes.
Rev. takes religion and its role in modern Britain so seriously that you feel a little surprised, if relieved and gratified, that its audience has grown sufficiently large for it to have reached its third series.