The ecclesiastical sitcom about a Church of England vicar is something of a rare beast on television, despite the latent humour to be found in the clergy and its traditions. The generic 'vicar' is a common character in Victorian plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Gilbert & Sullivan's The Sorceror, as well as a staple of seaside postcard-style humour, but on television sending up the clergy only really started in the 1960s, and since then has largely focussed on comedy Catholic priests, rather than vicars. With BBC Two's new sitcom Rev., we are promised something different.
Perhaps the genesis of church sitcoms was the BBC's All Gas and Gaiters (1966-1971 plus a later radio adaptation) depicting the various power struggles between bishops, deans and deacons within a fictional cathedral. As a result, it feels rather like an ecclesiastical Yes Minister. At the time, it was apparently a slightly controversial to show bumbling churchmen, but was soon welcomed by clergymen who felt it gave them a more 'human' public image. It was a big success, running for five series, although only eleven episodes now exist.
Derek Nimmo, the show's star, also starred in two later church sitcoms, both which turned their attention to the Catholic church; Oh Brother (1968-70), in which he played a novice monk, and a less successful sequel Oh, Father! in 1973, in which his character, Dominic, left the monastery to became a Roman Catholic priest.
After this series ended, and as congregations began to dwindle (possibly as a result of The Forsyte Saga, a slightly contentious theory I can't really back up with any hard evidence), the church rarely featured in television comedy series.
Indeed, it was ten years before the 'Catholic priest sitcom' idea was resurrected in LWT's Bless Me Father (1979-1981), a now somewhat forgotten series featuring Arthur Lowe affecting a rather odd Irish accent, playing a senior priest educating a young curate in the ways of the church (in 1950). I've watched one of these. It's not very good, especially if watched with, shall we say, 'modern eyes'.
Following this, there were very few 'funny clergymen' on television, and it was only in 1994 that Richard Curtis's popular series The Vicar of Dibley revived the idea, chronicling the ministry of a female vicar in rural Oxfordshire. While it's now viewed as rather mainstream and cosy, it's often forgotten that it was only in 1992 that female vicars were first ordained in the Church of England, making the original series a surprisingly original premise.
It's just a shame that a lot of the innocent charm of the early Curtis-only episodes was lost when Paul Mayhew-Archer became the co-writer, and by 2007 it was well past its sell-by date, becoming something of a Little Britain-esque mess.
Meanwhile, a year later on Channel 4, Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews' Father Ted was sending up the Catholic church again, this time following the rather surreal adventures of three priests banished to an Irish backwater for various misdemeanors. Much more cartoony than previous religious sitcoms, Father Ted has stood the test of time well, although ended after only three series with the death of its star, Dermot Morgan.
So, with all that history behind them, what about Rev., BBC Two's new sitcom about an inner city vicar?
It is written by Tom Hollander and James Wood, and stars Hollander as the title character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, who has recently moved with his solicitor wife from a rural parish to a struggling East London church. Hollander plays him with his 'bumbling but likable' persona familiar from the feature film In the Loop (2009), as opposed to the Mr Collins character he played in Pride and Prejudice (2005).
On the basis of the first episode, Smallbone seems a pleasant, if confused figure, unclear of his role and somewhat harassed by most of the other characters. In episode one, while having to sort out a broken stained-glass window, Rev. Smallbone is innundated with new congregation members intent on getting their children into a sought-after Church School on his recommendation.
Although played for laughs, this struck me as quite a believable scenario, with the general realistic tone of the sitcom (without laugh track and filmed on location) adding to the vicar's moral dilemma of whether to accept a bribe to pay for the window in return for a recommendation for a church school. According to a recent interview with Hollander, seeing a real example of this was a catalyst for the series.
Indeed, apparently, many of the events in the series are based on anecdotes from vicars working in city churches. Being based in a struggling inner-city church, as opposed to a quaint and picturesque village building also marks it out as a little different. The humour seems quite naturalistic, with few obviously placed 'gags'. This realism was slightly spoiled, however, by the appearance of a stock 'stupid/wacky' character, Colin, who hopefully won't be a regular fixture of later episodes (but obviously will).
I did, however, like the pedantic but enthusiastic lay reader Nigel, played by Miles Jupp, an actor who seems to be turning up in quite a few radio and TV programmes recently since he got his big break in Ballamory. My prediction is he's being groomed to be a household name in two years' time - the next David Mitchell?
Speaking of David Mitchell, his usual sidekick Olivia Colman appears as Rev. Smallbones's wife, and who seemed to be rather underused in this episode, as were several other well-known actors. There was also a reasonable cameo appearance in this episode from Alexander Armstrong, playing a corrupt politician.
My main criticism of it is that I wasn't really sure why it needed to be such a 'late night' show. Without a few bits of isolated swearing, the first episode seemed quite tame, although reading summaries of later episodes, maybe this will change. However, given that the people a religious sitcom is likely to appeal to are often easily offended by "fruitier" language, I was a bit confused by this editorial decision. The moment when Smallbones removed his dog-collar to abuse some heckling builders was quite satisfying, though.
Indeed, overall, I quite liked this programme, or at least thought it showed enough promise to watch episode 2 next week.