The Depression of the Rev

Rev should be the answer to our prayers. So why is it so damn gloomy, asks Liz Nickels


The MostlyFilm bunch are in the main a godless lot, so it has fallen to me, the group’s one True Believer (albeit one of the woolly Church of England type that favours lady vicars who wear stoles with Nelson Mandela embroidered on them) to review Rev, the BBC’s churchy comedy that recently finished its third series on BBC2.

In this last series, we saw the Reverend Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) undergo trials and torments as he cheated on his wife with the headmistress, failed to help a reformed paedophile, was rejected by his faithful congregation and saw his beloved church close down – perhaps forever.

At the end of what turned out to be a retelling of the Passion story, Adam found himself hefting a large cross up a hill and meeting God in the form of a tramp played by Liam Neeson.

As a Christian, especially of my ilk, this kind of trendy (albeit a tad heavy handed) undercutting of religious stereotypes is always welcome. And generally I find it hard to dislike Rev. I’m afraid I laughed sneakily at the portrayal of an uber-evangelical preacher (played by Darren Boyd) in series one as a hardhearted despot, while Adam’s warm, open interactions with people of other faiths and liberal views on gay marriage warm the cockles of my faithless Anglo-Catholic heart. Plus, you get the odd spot of liturgy, from the Book of Common Prayer no less – bliss.

But while Rev should be lifting me to the Delectable Mountains, after watching each episode I find myself floundering in the Slough of Despond. In short, it depresses the fuck out of me.

This is not because, despite the serious subjects it covers, it lacks humour. Rev has been described as ‘a comedy without jokes’, while according to A A Gill, Rev‘s humour is ‘so slight and polite that it knocks before telling a joke’. But the comedy suggests that Adam’s life, like Job’s (and Jesus’), is one celestial joke. It’s not quite Highway to Heaven territory – God isn’t there in the background, teaching Adam a lesson each episode. But in many scenes, whenever Adam experiences a small spiritual moment it immediately gets undermined. At the end of the final episode of series three, Adam and his tiny band of faithful repeat the most joyful part of the whole Easter liturgy – the Paschal Greeting. ‘Christ is risen!’ calls Adam. ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen indeed!’ is the reply. Except that it doesn’t end there. A neighbour, upset at being awoken so early in the morning, adds his response: ‘Bollocks he has!’

Could this be because faith simply isn’t funny? Faith (as opposed to religion) and comedy have always had an uneasy relationship. People search in vain for really good jokes in the Bible. CS Lewis had something to say about this (CS Lewis had something to say about everything). The Screwtape Letters purport to contain advice from a senior demon to an underling on how best to turn a human from Christ (the Enemy). Humour, says Screwtape, is one of the best tools a demon can use.

‘Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing grace of life. […] But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.’

Personally, I find it very interesting that the two biggest self-identified Christian comedians, Tim Vine and Milton Jones, favour a quick set-up, quick-release form of comedy rather than anything that engenders fellow feeling, bathos, or allows some parts of humanity to be mocked by others (for good or evil). It would seem that anything that may touch their faith is off-limits (although Vine has talked quite openly of his faith elsewhere).

For me, Rev proves that faith and comedy are two opposite sides of the balance; inject humour into anything and its flippancy destroys faith; while faith inevitably submerges humour with a black puddle of gloom and self-analysis.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has commented on Rev, saying that ‘while it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t truly tell the whole story. […] It doesn’t depress me quite as much as you might think.’ While I’m glad Justin’s able to keep his pecker up, for me, any further viewing will have to be followed by a visit to the local happy-clappy and a few verses of Shine Jesus Shine to restore my spiritual equilibrium. Meanwhile, Tom Hollander has suggested on Radio 5 that the series will ‘pause’ although a spin-off film may not be out of the question. I doubt, however, if we will be seeing Rev goes Large in Marbella any time soon…

4 thoughts on “The Depression of the Rev

  1. (If you’d come in at the right time at a recent real-life event peopled by people from this parish, you would have found people reciting the Lord’s prayer.) So I wonder if it’s because I had this completely godless upbringing, at home and at school, that people-believing-in-god is one of my favourite genres and this series of Rev was far and away my favourite programme this year – but it’s popular with religious people and has all those vicar advisors, so perhaps it’s nothing to do with that. I think it’s maybe the idea of people pressing away at a sort of thankless niceness (though I suppose if you are religious you think it’s the opposite of thankless). But the undercutting of the religious moments, the ‘bollocks he has’ parts in fact ground it for this atheist religiophile – it’s like saying, no it is still the real world, but look, there’s Jesus. The last episode was an out and out downer, though, and came so soon after the most perfect scene they’ve ever done, the last Ralph Fiennes Simon McBurney one.

    1. Thankyou for commenting veal :))

      Yeah it is the prog atheists love to love, like Pope Francis, and I’m cool with that, and also Giles Fraser loves it, and as you say ALL those vicar advisors!! but I am mostly with Justin. it is interesting you had that reaction to the ‘bollocks he has!’ scene. The thing is you get the general religious gloom, ‘why does God let this happen’ type stuff which is fine and very par for the course for the C of E. Then you get the general public in Rev (plus ALL the kids of the supposed sought-after school) being utter c*nts to Adam, and not in a poor sinners way either. And that scene for me was the epitome of that. I’m not sure why I dislike it so much; I think it is glibly making Adam more saintly while disregarding everyone else’s spiritual struggle. You get some humanity from the Romans and Pharisees in the Passion, but not so much in Rev.

  2. “I think it is glibly making Adam more saintly while disregarding everyone else’s spiritual struggle.”

    Oh I see, this makes it make sense to me. When it appeals to atheists (or this one anyway) I believe it’s very much for its actual godliness and not the melancholy/amusing wisdom on the state of godliness. Like one gets weepy standing in churches in Italy because of that collective dedication to beauty for a higher cause much more than one person’s vision or struggle. I think I’m trying to say that it isn’t the *lost*ness of the hope that seems to make Rev so appealing.

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