The actor Tom Hollander tells Jasper Rees how his C of E sitcom on BBC Two wowed the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It doesn’t often happen that a new sitcom is born perfectly formed. Such was the case with BBC Two’s Rev, featuring the ideal sitcom protagonist, being very nice, very put-upon, a shepherd of men whose decency is thwarted from all sides by the forces of mayhem and worse. The Rev Adam Smallbone may seep wetness like an identikit Anglican padre, but he also has a penchant for fags, booze and the local headmistress and, unlike the Vicar of Dibley, he preaches to a multicultural inner-city flock.
Rev is born again tonight – when a second series begins. This time it’s on celestial clouds of glory. The sense is that it can heal the sick, make the lame walk and bring straying multitudes back to the path of righteousness. That at least is the anxiety of its star and co-creator, Tom Hollander. His career was already replete with notable moments on stage and screen (In the Loop, Any Human Heart, Landscape with Weapon at the National), but it has moved onto a higher plane now he’s in a dog collar.
“We went to Greenbelt Christian festival for research purposes,” he says. “Somebody came up and said, ‘I am a priest and I was having a crisis of faith. I was about to give up. Your show restored my faith.’ ” There have been other affirmations. Even from the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Hollander sat next to after a show at the Old Vic.
“He said, ‘Thank you very much for episode six.’ He said he thought it was pitch-perfect.” Said storyline finds Adam having a crisis of faith, only to be called to minister the last rites. “You would clearly think that would suggest he finds being Archbishop of Canterbury quite uncomfortable,” says Hollander. “And why wouldn’t he?” The cast have been invited to drinks at Lambeth Palace, twice. The first time they couldn’t go as it was the day before filming began on series two. They are going tonight instead.
Hollander’s feelings of unworthiness have found expression in episode one of the new series, which finds Adam falsely hailed as a hero after accidentally bringing down a mugger. “That story came out of a feeling of embarrassment at the extent to which people loved our show. It was like, ‘I haven’t really done anything. I didn’t mean to.’ ”
The idea for Rev arose from whispers he heard on the party circuit of Notting Hill Tories sucking up to the vicar to get their children into the local C of E primary. Hollander and his co-creator, James Wood, did further research. The result was a show that tells the unvarnished truth about working in the modern Church of England – the fear of causing offence, the leaky roofs, the doubt. It may even be too frank about the realities. “A woman came up in Waterstone’s and said, ‘Thank you. I used to be a vicar and your series confirmed all the reasons why I gave up.’ ”
Each script is fact-checked by a posse of priests with whom Hollander and Wood did their original research. Further opinion was elicited from 20 vicars at a round-table forum in Salisbury before making series two.
“We asked, ‘What did you like about the first series? What did you not like?’ There’s always someone who finds the Archdeacon [a sinister and ambitious figure in black leather gloves played by Simon McBurney] OTT and implausible. But there are also people who have said, ‘Did you base it on my archdeacon?’ ”
The BBC was nervous about recommissioning Rev until it knew it would find a congregation. Now that it has, presumably it will run and run, especially if the Church obliges with juicy real-life plot-lines such as the one currently playing out at St Paul’s. Hollander, who at 44 radiates a seductive mixture of sharpness and diffidence, is aware that the role may represent some kind of promised land.
“The danger with playing a part that defines you is that it swallows up everything else. I wonder whether you get these moments in your life and it behoves one to recognise them and squeeze everything out of that particular sponge. Nothing else is as fulfilling as playing a part in which you are able to have a significant say in the creative process all the way through. How many actors get to do that? It’s extremely rare.” And there endeth the lesson.