Saturday, 19 April 2014

REV. review


, 9pm, April 2014

Rev. is one British television's best recent comedies, so this Easter join me in celebrating TV's most lovable and morally confused vicar.

Tom Hollander: putting the 'sus' back into Jesus. (Image: BBC)

I love Rev. Rev. is brilliant. It's promoted as a 'TV comedy', but like all the best series in that category, it's far more than that; like Till Death Us Do Part, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Outnumbered it incorporates social comment, a reflection on the human condition and a memorable ensemble cast of characters and performers. It's most appealing factor, though, is a decent man trying to see the good in everything, but who also has to battle with life's frustrations and his own failings. That's something we can all relate to.

Adam Smallbone, 'from Suffolk', is indeed small of bone and often seems dwarfed by the problems he confronts as the vicar of Saint Saviours in the Marshes church in Hackney (in reality Saint Leonard's in Shoreditch, just around the corner from where I used to work. As a typical lazy agnostic, I never even knew the church was there). Looking like a mildly confused Thunderbird pilot and played subtly and appealingly by Tom Hollander, who co-created the series with James Wood, Adam is the central figure in an 'authentic picture of what it's like to be a frontline urban vicar'.

Most sitcom writers would kill for a line-up like this.
(Image: BBC)

Rev's certainly more topical than The Vicar of Dibley, which, a female minister aside, could have been set any time in the last forty years. Social issues have ranged from a sudden increase in Saint Saviour's congregation because parishioners want to get their children into a good church school – hence the brilliant catchphrase 'on your knees, avoid the fees' – to Adam grappling with whether or not to conduct a gay marriage as his Bishop doesn't approve of same sex unions. Adam himself is no spotless example of virtue and that adds hugely to the gentle humour and drama. He drinks, he smokes, swears, fancies the local headmistress Ellie (even though he's in a happy marriage) and is prone to black bouts of doubt in his Faith. Hollander's performance is all the more effective as he plays it straight.

This attitude extends to the ensemble cast. It would have been easy to go for a gallery of heightened grotesques like Dibley's back-up characters, but Rev.'s are touched by the kind of believable comic surrealism you find in everyday life. This is because so much of the series' content is drawn from interviews with real church ministers. For instance, Simon McBurney's Archdeacon Robert, coming across as a sly cross between Norman Tebbit and Peter Cushing, continually needles Adam over the (small) size of his congregation and lack of financial resources. The show's production team worried that the relentlessly networking and iPhone obsessed Robert would be too over the top, but after the first series went out, the producers met several vicars who insisted that 'the Bishop's attack dog' had obviously been based on their own Archdeacon.

Mick. Enough said.
(Image: BBC)
All the main characters are memorable. The ubiquitous Olivia Colman, as Adam's wife Alex (frankly, I'm surprised she's not reading the news, as she's in nearly everything else on television) is sweet, funny, sexy and keeps going through her faith in Adam's innate goodness, even though that faith takes a battering as the series progresses. Miles Jupp is a joy to watch as the repressed Lay Reader Nigel, jealous of Adam's position and owner of a phantom girlfriend; Steve Evets is perfectly cast as the violent Mancunian down-and-out drinker Colin who is, ironically, the most faithful member of Saint Saviours' congregation; Ellen Thomas clearly relishes her role as the 'cassock chaser' Adoha with an inappropriate interest in Adam's baby, while an unrecognisable Jimmy Akningbola is a revelation as 'Mick'. A strange individual, he turns up at the vicarage door asking for everything from the fare to Southend, to money for giving back Adam's new daughter after he absent-mindedly leaves her outside the local shop in her pushchair.

All of that might might not sound too believable, but, from my own experience of the bizarre situations you can find yourself in after a few ales, not to mention the hair-raising misadventures of my lodger, Rev. completely nails the absurdities of twenty-first century city life.

Archdeacon Robert:Tony
Soprano meets the
Archbishop of Canterbury.
(Image: BBC)
Some people have commented that in its third - and apparently last - series, with Saint Saviours on the verge of bankruptcy and Adam and Alex's marriage under more strain than ever, Rev. has taken a darker path. I disagree: it's just the way things are. Right from the first episode, it was made clear that the Church of England was an institution in decline and being in a relationship with a vicar wasn't easy as he's always on call, so the scenario in the third year feels like a logical conclusion.

That things had clearly changed gear this year could be seen in the episode where Adam joined forces with the local mosque to fund raise for Saint Saviours. It was refreshing to see the Muslim community portrayed as pro-active and open-minded, and there was a bitter-sweet topicality in the Muslims raising more money than the virtually non-existent Christian support, a neat metaphor for the competing religions. Last Monday, though, Rev. approached greatness. George (Nick Sidi) joined the congregation and, as a high flying ex-corporate accountant, potentially offered Adam a way out of the church's financial difficulties. The problem was George was a sex offender; not a paedophile, but a viewer of an appalling '30,000' images of child pornography. However, he'd been to prison, knew what he'd done was wrong and was now in therapy.

Colin: Christianity meets
casual violence. (Image: BBC)
It was compelling the way Rev. handled this subject so maturely and intelligently. Because of highly subtle writing and performing, you weren't sure if Adam was overcoming his natural disgust towards George because of his calling as a vicar or out of self-interest, the reason he didn't tell the church council of Nigel, Colin and Adoha about George's past. Once it was revealed, it was inevitable that the vicar's proposal that George should be appointed as church treasurer would be outvoted, but the irony was that not only were these so-called Christians so unforgiving, but that Adoha, Colin and Nigel are all flawed and dysfunctional in their own ways. The last Adam saw of George was him being chased off the church grounds sporting a black eye courtesy of Colin who, tellingly, thought all 'paedos' were 'sweaty and wore track suits'; for his part, George was glad he'd met someone as apparently non-judgmental as Adam. In art as in life there are no easy answers, but what was especially impressive was that an incredibly contentious issue was handled with sensitivity and realism in what is supposed to be a sitcom. Rev. is clearly not cut from the same cloth as Mrs Brown's Boys.

Third time around, Adam and Alex's marriage is even more acutely bitter-sweet. In trouble for a snog and fondle with Ellie, Adam is thrown out of the vicarage, the cue for some great sitcom moments of him sharing digs with Nigel and Colin. The Smallbone's split, though, remains in your mind due to the way Alex defines her hurt in such an earthily poetic way: 'It's not about the willys and the tits, it's about the hearts, and you've broken mine.'

Nigel: not a man to find
yourself alone with.

(Image: BBC)
As you can see, I think Rev. is something to cherish. Yes, it's a bit of a shame if this series is the last, but, like Fawlty Towers and Spaced, it's quitting while it's ahead and ensuring its reputation will endure. Give yourself a treat and buy the DVDs. The menu on the first series is so funny it'll make you laugh out loud before you even get to the first episode.

And watch out for the nun-shaped salt and pepper shakers and recurring dog poo. Priceless.

Created by: Tom Hollander and James Wood. Director: Peter Cattaneo. Cast: Reverend Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), Alex Smallbone (Olivia Colman), Archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney), Nigel McCall (Miles Jupp), Colin Lambert (Steve Evets), Adoha Onyeka (Ellen Thomas), Ellie Pattman (Lucy Liemann), Mick (Jimmy Akingbola)

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