Britain has a rather unique history of religiously themed sitcoms. More accurately, there is a tradition in this country of TV shows based around the Christian Church, from 1960s favourite All Gas and Gaiters through to the more recent Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted. Scriptwriters and commissioning editors have been repeatedly convinced that there’s great comic potential in ecclesiastical settings, and in most cases viewers have agreed in executive-pleasing numbers.
The latest addition into this somewhat sacred canon is BBC2’s Rev., which has just reached the end of its first series. The show was a surprise hit with viewers and critics alike, and while one or two of the latter group sniffed at what they regarded as a (albeit skilful) retreading of Dibley territory, I regard such a claim as unfair. Rev. is unique for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its depiction of a central character with a believable, three-dimensional faith.
Whereas it was hard to believe that Dawn French’s taboobusting Geraldine was anywhere near as passionate about Jesus as she was about chocolate, Rev.’s Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) regularly bares his soul to the viewer and is revealed to be ultimately faithful. In another television first, the internal monologues of Adam’s silent prayer life are exposed to us as we watch him deal with the daily struggles of life in a busy and diverse urban parish. Not only does this make him a compelling and relatable character, it also creates a plot device in each episode which becomes remarkable when you consider that the team behind the show have no evangelical agenda: more often than not, Adam sees his prayers answered.
More hit than miss
Key to Rev.’s effectiveness, and anecdotally why it seems to have found a resonance with so many real-life ministers, is the fact that writer and co-creator James Wood spent a full year meticulously researching the show, throwing himself vigorously into the life of a real London parish. Beyond that, he has evidently taken great care to absorb modern Christian culture. No stereotypes here then of rainbow guitar straps and clichéd bumper-stickers, instead we have Mystery Worshippers (à la satirical website Ship of Fools), and ‘funky’ Smoothie bars (busted, Holy Trinity, Brompton).
Wood doesn’t always hit his targets of course. Derren, the evangelical minister who invades Adam’s church in an early episode, has Christian viewers groaning in embarrassed recognition with his repeated saying, ‘isn’t Jesus awesome’. Yet his rapid unmasking as a money-crazed tyrant is heavy-handed; we may have an unfortunate number of charlatans in the Church, but the real-life ‘Derren’s’ are usually well-meaning men and women trying to engage relevantly with youth culture.
For the most part though, Rev. is right on the money. Adam is a very modern vicar in the sense of his vulnerability; he is honest – at least with himself – about his own struggles, and recognises his many weaknesses. That Adam wrestles with feelings of insecurity, doubt, loneliness and insignificance both gives his ultimately faithful character great depth, and should act as a reminder to Christian viewers not to deify our own church leaders, who surely face similar struggles to those portrayed here. In one episode, Adam battles to contain his repulsion at hearing a story about his wife’s pre-marital relationship; in another, he becomes rapt with envy when a theological college classmate becomes a media darling. The show focuses very deliberately on Adam’s humanity – the point being that the dog collar doesn’t turn him into a saint. We would do well to remember Adam when we set our expectations of church leaders.
For Christians, Rev. makes for often uncomfortable viewing. The show justifies its post-watershed slot with a smattering of bad language and sexual references, yet there are much more compelling reasons to feel uneasy. The pilot episode’s riff on the ‘on your knees, avoid the fees’ mantra that plagues so many school-linked churches is razor-sharp; the small size of Adam’s congregation despite his inherent care for people is disappointingly accurate.
For a sitcom, Rev. also has some unexpectedly profound messages to deliver, never more than around the Church’s treatment of the last and the least. Colin, the apparently homeless man who is Adam’s default best friend, is accepted and treated as his equal. Even the crazy-eyed Mick, who repeatedly appears at the vicarage door asking for money, is given the time of day. The writer gives Christianity the benefit of the doubt in both cases – Adam’s response to the poorer members of his community is the one that should be expected of all who claim to follow Christ. He might be a terrible preacher – as reflected in his ‘-1’ mystery worshipper score – but Adam’s incarnational example is a challenging one.
Tension and opportunity
Some Christians have chosen to have a familiarly extreme negative reaction to Rev., and certainly if you want to see it through a certain filter, such feelings are understandable. On one level, here is a television show about a bumbling vicar with very little influence, squashed by a semi-demonic archdeacon and distracted by the attractive local headmistress. Yet, while all these elements are present, they are joined by legions of positives: this is also a show about a man who prays continually and asks God to refine him; who loves and serves the poor; who puts integrity ahead of financial gain.
It’s the tensions in Adam’s character that make him interesting, and have thus made Rev. a hit with the faithful and the as-yetfaithless alike. Against the odds, the BBC has made a show about church that has theological and cultural teeth; that’s a suitable backdrop for proper, grown-up discussions about faith and church with non-Christians. If we simply reject it, then we reject a gritty portrayal of the Church which the public has found intriguing.
When Christian stereotypes are generally alive, well, and crushingly dull, and while other shows such as EastEnders choose to portray those of us who believe in the Holy Spirit as borderline unhinged, here’s one programme that’s prepared to show both the rough and the smooth of Christian ministry. Yes, Adam is deeply flawed, but each of the ‘episodes’ of his ministry life follows a formula in which divine intervention drives the story forward. Those stories, though sometimes more drama than comedy, are satisfying, plausible, and could arguably plant seeds of faith. They’ve left many fans, Christian and otherwise, asking one another: ‘Isn’t Rev. awesome?’
This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.