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Tom Hollander: "Famous people don't hear the word 'no' enough"

The Rev actor talks about playing a vicar, believing in God and attending university with Nick Clegg

Had you had much experience of the Church of England before working on Rev?
Only as a child. My parents were good friends with our parish priest in Old Marston, Oxford. I think there's an archbishop of York in the 19th century on my mother's side - who were moderately churchy. My father was ethnically Jewish but his family converted to Catholicism.

How did the idea for the show form?
I'm afraid it started as an acting challenge - I played a vicar before [Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice] and that worked, and then I heard about church schools and wondered what it was like to be a vicar, surrounded by people who were clearly lying. I'd also recently hit 40 - and a lot of people hit 40 and realise the way they've been living in their twenties and thirties isn't sustainable. All the stars were in alignment and the more we talked to vicars, the more interesting it became. There's not many things you can't look at through the viewfinder of the Anglican Church.

Were you surprised by what you found?
The fact that many vicars have periods of agno­sticism was a big surprise. In the periods of my life when I've had least contact with the Church, I've always assumed a belief in God is a solid thing, but clearly it's a relationship; it has good days and bad days. For me, faith is more about aspiration than complacency - the smug satisfaction that other people find distasteful.

And that charge of smug certainty is now levelled at atheists.
There's an egotism at work in atheism: putting yourself at the centre of things. Intellectually, it's so easy to disprove the existence of God - a five-year-old could do it - so it's far more compelling, for me, to think there might be one. And far more beautiful to think that the known universe is an act of love. There is a machismo to strident atheism that I find irritating in adults. They sound like teenagers who've just worked out their parents aren't perfect.

Do you feel a responsibility to the Church?
For Rev, I applied acting principles to the subject matter; that it should be truthful to life and compassionate. That's a very highfalutin way of putting it; acting is also just showing off for money and wearing funny clothes.

Do you feel that vicars are in an impossible position? No one wants a "trendy vicar".
That's definitely a stereotype that makes people feel uncomfortable - someone who's put on a baseball cap to mask his essential unworldliness. But you do want your vicar to be sufficiently "in the world" to understand what everyone's preoccupations are; it's hurting the Catholic Church that they are not.

Does religion affect your political feelings?
I was sufficiently Christian by the time of 9/11 that when I saw George Bush and that face of incomprehension and stupidity broadcast all over the world, I thought: there's a moment here when a huge decision is going to be taken, and is anyone saying "turn the other cheek"? Yes, 3,000 people were killed in those towers and it was appalling, but how many more people were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan who don't have a cinematic epitaph - they just died at the side of the road, covered in dust, like a dog. Killed by someone who was operating, essentially, a PlayStation from the Pentagon.

Do you consider yourself a political person?
Not really. It's just that it's a New Statesman interview, so I'm giving it my best.

Do you vote?
Yes. I exercise my democratic right and feel grateful I'm not in a dictatorship but I don't really feel [politicians] are in charge any more, or that they particularly know what they're doing.

You were at Cambridge with Nick Clegg. Would you have gone if tuition fees were £9,000?
I was a complete chancer, academically. The fact I was there was wonderful, and the fact it was paid for by the state was extraordinary. Now it seems unfair. Sometimes I go, "Crikey! My contemporary is Deputy Prime Minister, and what should I have achieved? My bedroom is still messy and I haven't had any children."

What is it like, being recognised in the street?
People behave differently to TV stars and film stars; it's to do with the scale of the medium. Film stars get hushed awe, TV stars get slapped on the back. Neither is good for you. Famous people don't hear the word "no" enough.

What's your local church like?
They've stopped having music, presumably because there's no one to play it; they've got no heating. There's a sign on the door that says: "In the winter months, services will take place in the library." They're having a hard time.Even as an atheist, I find that sad. If you're in the mood for the melancholy of the decline of Old England, the Church is as good an index as any, I suppose.

Are we all doomed?
My answer to that depends on whether I've had enough sugar, or enough sleep.

Defining Moments

1967 Born in Bristol and raised in Oxford. Went to the Dragon School, then Abingdon
1981 Is awarded the lead role in the BBC dramatisation of John Diamond aged 14
1985 Enters Cambridge to read English. Appears in Cyrano de Bergerac with Nick Clegg, directed by Sam Mendes, in 1988
2009 Takes the lead in the film In the Loop
2010 First series of Rev, which he co-creates with James Wood, is shown on BBC2
2011 Rev is recommissioned

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.