Tom Hollander as Rev Adam Smallbone. Photo: BBC/Big Talk/Handle with Prayer Ltd/Mark Johnson
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Praising at the altar of Rev: why does a religious sitcom work so well for atheists?

Rev is most definitely a sitcom about a vicar, and isn’t afraid to get into matters of prayer and the Bible. Somehow, it presents a nuanced view of faith while still being funny.

Narrow proscribed worlds, like schools and church, full of rituals and language and things ordinary mortals almost understand, are the perfect places to set sitcoms. But you’d imagine churchy ones like Rev to be anathema to a chippy atheist, alert for all hidden messages and smug in-jokes and wary that if you played it backwards it might drag you into the light. How the trendies of the church will relish being in the joke not of the joke, I thought (same as I felt about Alan Yentob’s appearance on W1A). I imagined that watching Rev would be like dousing my joyless chips with a holy balsamic. I was wrong.

Rev finished its third series this week, and I think it’s gone from good to great. On the surface it is definitely a sitcom about a vicar. It has running jokes about him not getting his baby christened and one of the main storylines is about raising money to save his ailing church. As happens, over three series we’ve become more invested in Rev Adam Smallbone and the people around him; it’s become much more than a sitcom about a funny vicar, it’s become about humanity. (Do stop me if I ever get too pretentious.) But paradoxically, it’s also the first church-based sitcom to properly concern itself with matters deeply ecumenical. This is sublime sitcom for grown ups, atheist or not.

How do they do it? Well, Smallbone is complex – he’s not just his job. Yes, he’s a man with all the difficulties an individual might face working for the strangest corporation you could imagine, where the bosses wear bizarre outfits from earlier centuries and talk in obscure, deflecting ways almost incomprehensible to the untrained ear. In this series they’ve added the fatigue and tired desperation of a new parent. Plus personality and character traits like being riddled with longing, hope, optimism and inability to operate a spreadsheet. And he’s also plagued by an on-going nicotine addiction, ridiculous colleagues and parishioners with extreme needs and varied intentions.

Then they’re not afraid to play it biblical; that strange corporation is the Church of England, after all. The eponymous Rev is a man of God, and one betrayed by a kiss at that. In one extraordinary sequence, Smallbone treks the streets of east London with a cross on his shoulders, and there’s no attempt either to mock or be preachy. It is dark comedy, its own message resonating with the received symbolism of course; here was a man caught in the turmoil of his own mental anguish. It played out straight and heartfelt; filmic in its scope. And topped with what could have been a risk – the appearance, to the Rev, of God in a tracksuit and greasy beanie, grooving like an Special Brew-ed dad to “Lord of the Dance”.

That the writers can say something potentially contentious – he saw God and it was Liam Neeson! – with a tender touch is a hard act to pull off. It works because we trust them in deep water. They’ve turned situation into a strong story and made it complex, made it mean something, beyond funny. They’ve given us discussions about prayer, about forgiveness and redemption, tackled issues around convicted paedophiles and gay weddings. I mean, in a sitcom, right? And it’s nuanced – as when Smallbone struggles with what we thought were his most strongly-held convictions. In hindsight, his baby not being christened may have foreshadowed all this internal doubt, and we thought it was just a joke.

Yeah, it is funny. The writers are lucky that this particular corporation moves towards change so slowly it’s allowed them to appear very topical. They make jokes about Ottolenghi. They swear and lo, the swearing is rich and funny, and context gives it extra bite. There are bits of physical comedy, and great underplaying. And they play with our social expectations, taking us right in to the familiar warmth of good intentions and rubbish biscuits and then right out to the edges with homeless Colin and Jimmy, who constantly offers all sorts of favours, including sexual, at the vicarage door. Archdeacon Robert being mildly obsessed with telling the tale of being Alex’s unwitting birth partner in a taxi is a thing of beauty. (If you ever saw Simon McBurney in Théâtre de Complicité you’ll have no hesitation in calling him a genius.)

At the end of the penultimate episode of this series, Rev Smallbone’s inner conflict came to a head, and he quit. Without giving away too much, the final episode features a dog funeral, Colin in tears, everyone talking to God and Adam Smallbone coming completely unstuck in some kind of grief. This is not the stuff of comedy, by anyone’s rules. Given that it’s set at Easter, and that they’ve never shied away from religious parallels, you may imagine that “the worst vicar in the world” will rise again for series 4. But as they present that final tableau with all the main characters – Adam’s “crowd of lost, hopeless and annoying people” – gathered togther, you realise why the show works for anyone, religious or not. It’s because that crowd has become community, and being part of a community is something that we all seek.

So let us end today with a heartfelt prayer from Colin: “God bless Adam and his family, even though he’s a twat.”

Photo: Getty
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Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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