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.”

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.