The co-creators of British series Rev. discuss the show’s look at faith
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One of the summer’s biggest television treats hasn’t even aired on TV. The acclaimed British series Rev., which has won numerous comedy awards in the United Kingdom, made its way to American shores via unusual means, popping up as one of the “original” series for online-video site Hulu.com. The site gained access to both of the series’ existing seasons, as well as its Christmas special, and has rolled them out over the course of the summer every Sunday. (The second-season finale will air September 2.) The series follows the quiet, small-scale adventures of a Church of England vicar named Adam, as well as those of his wife, fellow clergy members, and parishioners. The series’ look at faith is at once intimate and very funny—an unusual combination in the world of TV, which skews away from this subject matter, for the most part—and it’s rapidly turned into one of the best shows airing on any “network.” The A.V. Club recently spoke with the series’ co-creators Tom Hollander (who also plays Adam) and James Wood (who writes every episode) about the series’ depiction of a God who can never make his presence directly known, why the British are so much more amenable to laughing at priests, and whether the show’s upcoming third series will be its end.
The A.V. Club: There have been so many comedies in the United Kingdom about ministers. How do you see your show in comparison to those shows?
Tom Hollander: There’s a long tradition of vicar shows in which the vicar is a slightly foolish, ridiculous character on the margins of society, because he’s a bit of a weirdo. Our vicar show defines itself by having the central character actually very much like you and I, a normal person with an extraordinary job. So that’s the major difference. It’s based in reality, taken from reality rather than a fictionalized fantasy. The Vicar Of Dibley is a slightly fantastical version set in an unreal, idealized world. Father Ted was set in an exaggerated, horrific world.
James Wood: A surreal world.
TH: Surreal. Exactly. Ours is taken from life, researched.
JW: There’s a great tradition of British clerical comedy that goes back through literature to the 18th century. As Tom says, Father Ted is very funny and surreal, Dibley was great, successful, family comedy, but neither of them were that interested in faith, really, or the church as an institution, and that’s something that we’re really interested in and therefore that feels like a fresher angle on clerical comedy.
AVC: How much research did you do? How many people did you talk to?
JW: We talked to a lot of people. For series one, two or three priests become key consultants on the show, but we met a lot more. And for series two, we put a whole month aside and met, I added them up, we met—
TH: Sixty or something.
JW: Sixty priests in a month. Not all of whom are helpful, but many of whom are very helpful, and then we had four priests who are…
TH: The core of four.
JW: … credited consultants on the show, who read the scripts and help us get the details right. But we met many more priests than that, who come up with little moments or anecdotes or whole storylines, so it’s incredibly researched.
AVC: Was there something you took for the show from that research that you were surprised by or hadn’t thought of before?
TH: Most all of it. Certainly in the first season there isn’t a story in there which didn’t come from research. Maybe the stripper story [in which Adam visits a nearby strip club], but versions of that, they’re all real. So we were struck, when we started researching it, by how interesting the world of vicars was when you just told it straight; that was the crucial thing.
JW: We did get some real surprises, things that I didn’t know until we started meeting these priests and doing the research: the extent to which these priests have to be fundraisers all the time and raise money for their building, in addition to doing all of their pastoral work. I hadn’t realized that the church is financed from the bottom up. I thought it was financed from the top down; that’s not the case. So when we have the Archdeacon constantly putting money pressure on Adam, that came out through research. I hadn’t realized that. I don’t think many people knew that was the case.
AVC: Why do you think shows about this world do so well in the U.K.? They haven’t really taken off in other countries. The U.S. hasn’t had many, certainly.
JW: Well, there’s something about the fact that the Anglican Church and the Church of England is through the culture like it’s a stick of rock. It’s been there from the beginning; it’s part of our architectural fabric; it’s part of who we are. And there’s a rich tradition, a kind of liberal tradition of laughing at our priests, which I’m not sure there is in the States. I don’t know why not. Why don’t you laugh at your priests so much?
AVC: Religion here is such an important part of the political culture in a lot of ways.
JW: That’s true. There has been a little bit of a conflict between the [U.K.] government recently and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but nothing compared to here, really. That’s all separate in the U.K.
TH: I think one thing, other than what James has just said, which was very good, is that the Queen is the head of the church, and the church is a pillar of the establishment, and there’s one church that’s the national church, the Church of England, and you don’t have that here.
JW: You have more choice.
TH: Yours is a much more heterogeneous culture of many different and varied [beliefs], so people pitch themselves against each other, defining themselves by what religion they have, whereas actually in England, everybody is part of it. And also it’s a very inclusive church, which doesn’t ask very much of its congregation, in terms of practice. It doesn’t exclude them.
JW: Laughing at vicars goes back to… there’s stories in the medieval times of people laughing at hypocritical vicars. It’s a very rich British tradition. I suppose there is something in the British psyche that likes laughing at people who put themselves in a position of authority over others. That feels quite an English characteristic. Is that right?
TH: I suppose so; except now the vicar is no longer an authority. That’s our joke. One of our jokes is what used to be a very authoritative position—the vicar used to get a huge house and have a lot of authority in the community; now, they no longer do. Probably the house has been bought by somebody who works in the city. They’re living in reduced circumstances. So it resonates with the feeling that we have about the culture as a whole. The state of the church is an index of the state of the nation. The state of the nation is one of reduced circumstances, and so is that of the church. So that resonates.
AVC: How did you land on the inner-city setting? A lot of these sitcoms have been set in country-type settings.
TH: Because we wanted it to be real. We wanted it to be about the contemporary world. We wanted to put the traditional priest in traditional England and pitch it against modern, contemporary culture, multi-ethnic, urban England.
JW: Part of it as well—Vicar Of Dibley had been so loved and such a hit; it was clearly not just rural, but almost a bucolic show—so partly just to differentiate ourselves.
TH: Find some new territory.
JW: As Tom says, when you spend time with these priests, you realize the breadth of people they meet within society is almost unlike any other vocation. They meet the desperate and the lonely and the lost and the unemployed and the addicted, at the bottom, all the way up through to politicians and the wealthy at the top. Very few people or jobs or vocations necessarily have that breadth. And to get the most from that, you want to be in a city. Because you don’t get that breadth quite as much in the country.
AVC: In some ways, your second most important character here is God, who never talks back. How do you deal with that one-sided dialogue?
JW: [Long pause.] We couldn’t find an actor to play God. [Laughs.] Is he there or isn’t he there? We didn’t want to say either way, and for Adam, of course he’s there. But what you’ll notice in life is—I don’t know whether you pray or not—but he doesn’t reply. So it seems to me that the truthful way to do that is, a priest said to me, “What a prayer is, is aligning your thoughts with God,” so that’s what Adam does in those scenes. He tries to, tries to, align his thoughts with God. And that’s what a prayer is. A prayer is not waiting for a voice to answer from a cloud. So I think in that respect, we’ve tried to be authentic to how most priests have described to me their relationship with God and what their form of prayer is, which doesn’t sound very funny. The trick is then to do that and make it—
TH: Well, it’s because, in a way, it’s just having a bit of a moan. A prayer is a monologue, clearly, in dramatic terms, and in real life, it’s not a dialogue. Or it’s a dialogue with a silent partner.
AVC: What did you find funny about that idea?
JW: I’m not sure the prayers are particularly funny.
TH: Sometimes, they’re funny, aren’t they? Sometimes it’s funny because one has a feeling that’s very solemn about prayer. People adopt a very solemn position, they put their hands together and close their eyes and look very serious and think uplifting thoughts, but often what they want to say is, “I feel really angry and jealous about that, and I wish I didn’t feel so hungry.” We undercut. That’s where we find the humor in it. Sometimes it’s, “I’d kill for a fish finger. Oh no, no, no, I must concentrate.”
JW: At the beginning of season two, the very first scene of season two is Adam on retreat at an abbey, at a monastery.
TH: Oh, there we are. His stomach rumbling.
JW: And he’s sitting there trying to align his thoughts with God and remember St. Thomas Aquinas. Of course, the reality of the human mind is you wonder what’s for lunch. So that’s funny. Comedy of bathos, basically. The contrast.
AVC: He often starts out praying very noble aspirations, and it gradually becomes all about himself.
TH: Yes. We do think of them partly as a moan. God is half a sort of moral witness and half an imaginary therapist. So he’s as much laughing on a couch as kneeling by a pew.
JW: People’s prayers to God, I suspect, tend not to be celebratory of good moments. It’s more about exploring your concerns or worries, so that soon becomes quite self-centered thinking, I guess. Those prayers are written in an instinctive way. The way we script it is, because it’s voiceover, we can actually keep writing them even when the show’s been shot, so they continue to evolve and we find we move them around in the edit a bit, in a way that we don’t with other scenes, and Tom keeps doing variations, so we have a lot of goes at those, in a way that we don’t, necessarily, with the more conventional scenes.
TH: I suppose one thing that’s also intrinsically amusing about them, or should be, is that it works on the basis that, in every episode—one of the ways we try to construct each episode—the vicar is subject to an everyday human frailty, such as jealousy or ambition or sexual inferiority or something, and that’s underpinning whatever else is going on in the episode. And so the prayer is the point where his own personal preoccupation bursts through the surface of whatever else is going on, and often, they are very human, very anxious, and funny. For that reason. There we are. Another terrible answer.
JW: I thought it was a good answer, Tom.
AVC: What are some other ways you try to structure the episodes as you’re writing them?
TH: We try and go, “This is an episode about forgiveness.” We have a personal story, where the priest has his own personal journey, and then we try often to ally that with an issue that affects the church that we are aware of, which we will have discovered from research.
JW: Tom and I storyline each episode together, and we generally find that there’ll be something that excited me, which might have come from research, and is a sort of church institution issue that seems to have wider resonances about British society. So for instance, the episode where the priest can’t run a kid’s trip to the seaside because of the sheer amount of health and safety admin: That’s very much a church issue, but everyone can relate to that in Britain and our culture.
TH: And then that is allied with our personal journey for Adam, in which he’s feeling that he’s being falsely praised—he finds himself inappropriately praised—for something he didn’t do. Which was sort of an in-joke that came out of the success of the first series, where we thought that we were being unjustly thanked by members of the Church of England for everything we were doing for them, and all we tried to do is make a half-decent TV show. So that led to the plotline of episode one of the second season, in which he’s an accidental hero.
JW: We do research and will come up with all these storylines and try to pair them up, so you have perhaps a more spiritual or theological storyline working with or resonating with a more practical one.
AVC: Have you decided for yourselves, as the writers and actors, if God exists in the universe of the show? Or does that not matter?
JW: For me, the show cannot and should not answer that. It can ask the question, but how could we, how dare we answer that either way? I suppose we could say “no.” There’s a certain type of writer that clearly states that God doesn’t exist, but for me, personally, I think it’s much more interesting to ask the question and leave it open, and if you’re looking to do a sincere program about a priest’s faith, to come up with the answer “no” would be perfectly cynical, quite a brutal thing to say, as much as you may want to say that, but I personally don’t believe that.
TH: But we are also conscious and careful to allow the possibility of the presence of God in it, without answering it. Most episodes contain a moment where there is a certain moment of grace, where something wonderful happens. Sometimes, it’s just a coincidence. In episode two, season one, Adam is saying, “Please dear God, can I fill the church, I’m about to be shot down,” and the very next thing that happens is the evangelical man walks in and fills the church.
At the end of episode two, season two, when Colin is baptized, that’s played completely straight, and you see what’s done for Colin. Whether God exists or not, the act of engaging the idea of God has done something for that character.
At the end of episode six, season one, when Adam’s been on an alcoholic bender and attacked everyone that he loves and behaved appallingly in every way, when he finds himself engaged in giving somebody the last rites on the verge of their death, he’s elevated by doing that in the name of something greater than himself. And that act, in itself, is edifying. So we are interested in that, and none of that requires us to know whether God exists or not.
JW: Good answer!
JW: No, but for a lot of it, very precise details.
TH: Sometimes, yeah.
AVC: Adam’s marriage starts out sort of matter-of-factly, and you gradually get to see more and more of that marriage. How did you come to that, to say we’re not going to make this a main focus of the show, but it will become one over time?
JW: It’s not really a conscious decision; it just evolved. That’s one of the things you discover. These shows, as you write them, they sort of reveal themselves to you, and you discover them as you go. I think one of the things we’re most proud of with the show is that depiction of a modern marriage and uniquely, a priest and a vicar’s wife.
TH: And discovering how brilliant Olivia Colman is.
JW: Olivia Colman is such a brilliant actress.
TH: We’re thinking about doing a third season [after this interview was conducted, the show’s third season was confirmed. —ed.], and to be honest, all the actors in it, we were so lucky in the casting of it. There’s so much talent there that we’re going, “How can we use Adam a bit less and every other character a bit more, without changing the nature of the show?”
JW: One of the big tests on this show is for every episode that Colin is wonderful, everyone loves the Archdeacon, everyone loves Nigel, you’ve got the head teacher… giving all these great actors enough to do is a challenge every episode. But a nice one.
TH: So going forward, we’re going to try to explore that.
AVC: It would be so easy to make the character of Nigel really broad. How do you keep that from being too much?
JW: Miles [Jupp] is very good at not being that kind of… there’s a certain kind of performer that could have taken that character and that dialogue and gone broad with it, so that’s a credit to him and a credit to Peter Cattaneo, the very brilliant director that navigates the comedy and emotion and sincerity wonderfully. And also, I suppose just with the writing. We do sometimes give him some broad stuff, but not much. Most of that is because we give the Archdeacon the kind of broader, comic stuff.
TH: There’s a range of styles in there, aren’t there? Every episode has a different… there’s a kind of graphic equalizer of comic styles, and the Archdeacon is at the most extreme at one end, and Colin is at the most naturalistic at the other end. Nigel is toward the Archdeacon.
JW: I think people believe in that slightly singular, pedantic churchgoer, the nature of that character’s pedantry and love of theology. There are guys like that out there, so in that respect, he’s not a broad, comic construct. They really are out there. People recognize that and know them in their own world. They’re not exclusive to the church, those people. [Laughs.]
AVC: With the possibility of a third series, would you ever want to plan a definitive end for the show, or would you always want to have the possibility of more?
JW: I thought I had planned a definitive end for the show with the end of episode six, season two, which is what we call the ambition episode, where all the characters gather in the church at the end, having had their ambitions thwarted. Colin has lost his job. The Archdeacon won’t be a bishop. They all gather, and I thought that was going to be the end, and then the BBC very kindly gave us a Christmas special to do [Laughs.], so we moved on to that. I would very happily come up with an end if we could come up with the right one.
TH: We keep thinking this is the end of it. Each time we thought, “Well, we won’t do any more than this,” but unless you actually kill the characters, I suppose they can always have new life.
JW: When we start working on season three, we will contemplate a season end that feels final. Whether we do it, and whether it’s any good is a different matter. But we’ll talk about it, won’t we?