Rev: keeping faith with intelligent comedy

A witty sit-com about a vicar who is not from Dibley is in stark contrast to most of the BBC’s bland, safety-first comedy output.

David Bowden

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‘Too many sad days’, sang The Pogues once, ‘too many Tuesday mornings’. Gloomy Sundays have been claimed by the heartbroken, Mondays by mass murderers and self-righteous rock stars and Fridays by loved-up Goths, but for the working person Tuesdays are the worst days: you can brace yourself for Monday, but Tuesday is when routine bites hard. Even Craig David wasn’t making love by Tuesday. You can tell BBC2 schedulers agree that everyone needs cheering up, as Tuesday is now the channel’s big comedy night.

The problem is that the line-up sounds all too familiar. It starts reasonably well enough, with The Mitchell & Webb Look – which is a sketch show written by and starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb, stars of hit comedy Peep Show (which was not written by them). Nonetheless it is still entertaining enough viewing, though famous for the hit’n’miss nature of the sketches. They’re a safe pair of hands, Mitchell and Webb, with a clever graduate humour which has been rightly compared to the clever graduate humour of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who during the comedy boom of the Nineties were the posh ying to the Geordie seaside surrealist yang of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. But while Fry went off to lead the Twitterati and Laurie went off to Stateside stardom in medical drama House, Reeves & Mortimer are still doing their Geordie seaside surrealist thing on Tuesdays on BBC2 on Shooting Stars.

In the mid-Nineties Shooting Stars was a quirky breath of fresh air in a climate made up of scripted and stilted panel shows. This entailed refusing to allow big name guests any of the airtime to rehash their prepared material, asking ridiculous questions to which there was no answer and taking a knowingly anarchic attitude towards the eternally false ‘rules’ of the TV comedy panel show. But like any format which relies on being fresh and quirky, it has grown stale. Part of the pleasure of the programme was always the sense that its two hosts – childhood friends – were genuinely having a good time without really caring if the audience was; but now, having returned to the format after unsuccessful attempts to break out of their double-act niche, they seem more and more like a married couple who are only staying together for the kids. It’s reached that sad point for any comedy show where the repeats of old episodes seem funnier and fresher than the new ones, and it’d be better if we were left with happy memories.

Rounding it all off is a repeat of the first series of Miranda, featuring comedienne Miranda Hart. It’s fantastically old-fashioned in format – basically a stand-up routine acted out with a cast of characters, even down to Hart directly addressing the camera – which might explain its popularity; the quality of the script certainly doesn’t. Defenders of the show usually talk about her likeableness as a performer, but you can like people without finding them funny: on screen she falls short. Which is ironic, as most of her routine relies on the fact she’s very tall for a woman and often gets mistaken for a man. It’s all gentle and inoffensive stuff, which is vaguely refreshing in a comedy climate which too often relies on cheap innuendo and vulgarity rather than wit or timing, but you suspect it’s the kind of programme loved by well-meaning, middle-class types who, rather than watch it, are content to read about it in broadsheet articles on women in comedy (She’s a woman! She’s not skinny and beautiful! She’s such a good role model!).

Of course comedy doesn’t have to be original, but this is a comedy line-up which absolutely reeks of the bland, safety-first approach of the BBC’s compliance guidelines – guidelines that are now enforced ever more rigorously post-Sachsgate. The most insidious aspect of these guidelines, that is, the regulation of speech codes, is that it removes the aspect of subtlety: comedy is either safe because it stays within the line, or edgy because it oversteps it. That the line has been drawn formally and entirely arbitrarily by nervous executives, rather than informally through the negotiation between performer and audience, means that both the safe and the edgy are left devoid of wit.

This is particularly frustrating, because another BBC comedy not included in the Tuesday night line-up demonstrates what happens when you have the balls to let a writer be witty. Rev, by James Wood, has that rare hallmark of quality in a comedy series, in that it seems to get better with every episode. At first glance it has a rather unpromising, fish-out-of-water premise: that of a modern-day Anglican priest dumped into the middle of godless inner city London and trying to cope with a cast of wacky parishioners. The Vicar of Dibley but in Shoreditch could’ve been its working title. And the twist is that he doesn’t act like a priest at all: he drinks, he smokes, he profanes, he has sex with his wife and fancies women. The Father Jack of Shoreditch!

But the brilliance of Rev is that its twist isn’t that he’s a badly behaved priest in a godless world: it’s that he’s a priest who actually believes in God. This marks it out from Father Ted – which believed in Catholicism, but not the man upstairs – and The Vicar of Dibley, which was written by the type of secular liberal who really loves religion for its moral values and sense of community but wouldn’t trust the kind of stupid person who thinks that God was real, for Chrissakes. So we see our hero in actual soul-baring (if light-hearted) prayer; we see him burn with envy at the devotion of modern Muslims and show distaste at the trendy evangelicals who don’t worship in the right way; and we see him enduring regular abuse in the streets and being tricked for his acts of kindness. Of course much of the humour is derived from the fact he fails to live up to the value system; but Wood has the wit to recognise that religion and comedy are both about bad people trying to be better than they are. He’s played beautifully by Tom Hollander, who has made a name for himself in comedy and drama representing bumptious characters of failing British institutions (King George V in The Lost Prince; King George III in John Adams; inept MP Simon Foster from In The Loop): here it’s the liberal, secular spirit of the C of E which is in decline, leaving behind only a shouty, rationalist atheism and the unthinking certainties of fundamentalism.

It’s true that Rev is not laugh out loud funny, but it also packs enough melancholy to make sure its sweetness doesn’t become saccharine. Hopefully the BBC will have enough belief in its own judgement to keep faith with Rev.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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