It's a rare treat that television serves us up something that is not only watchable, but funny, poignant and even a bit realistic. Word on Fire blog contributor Ellyn von Huben stumbled across one such gem, BBC Two's "Rev.", and shares her close-to-home impressions.
I have had the privilege to serve as a parish secretary (now actually having a golden sign with my name and the title “administrative assistant”) for almost 11 years. One sees a lot in that position: joy, boredom, sorrow, veritable insanity, the whole lot. And my aim has had to be primum non nocere and take it from there. It’s a job in which no two days are alike and can only be learned gradually and with attention to detail and the demands of the Gospel. Working with a lot of faith-filled people who possess sharp senses of humor helps. And since there has been a strong “The Office” fan base (mostly U.S., a few U.K), we have often joked about what a great sitcom could be based on our daily experiences.
I think BBC Two has, in a way, beaten us to it. Along with watching “The Office” and a bit of “Mad Men” to help me process my days’ events, I have found a most delightful program that rings so true to my work experiences.
We’ve gone off the cable and are relying on broadcast TV (too late to get those discount digital scramble boxes that the government offered a few years ago, I can only wish we had thought ahead) complete with some beautiful artisanal antennas crafted by my son with the hangers we scammed up from my son-in-law who actually sends his shirts out to be done. I have run a “no wire hangers ever” household for decades, so even the antennas were a challenge. As long as we have a few broadcast shows, we are fine. And for other entertainment we rely on Hulu Plus and streaming Netflix.
If we hadn’t been “forced” into this situation, we would have missed out on this gem from the BBC: "Rev." It is with some reservations that I recommend this program. Not so much that it is about a Church of England vicar, but because the BBC’s standards are so different from those in the U.S. Not to say we are so much better — the networks in the U.S. have perfected virtuosity with innuendo and wink-wink type smut. (I’m looking at you, “Two and a Half Men.”) If you wish to avoid the occasional obscenity and bare bum, this won’t be the show for you.
But in “Rev.” I find a very funny, thoughtful and respectful show about a clergyman facing the real everyday workings of his inner city parish. Tom Hollander delightfully portrays Rev. Adam Smallbone, a low-key country vicar who finds himself in charge of struggling St. Saviour in the Marshes in East London; now with not a marsh in sight. Dealing with lagging attendance and poor and struggling parishioners, there are no boring days in this vicar’s life. Hollander, a co-creator and cowriter, has developed a character that is not your stereotypical Jane Austen-style country vicar.
So what is here that clicks so much with me? I am Catholic and work in a well-off parish in an almost bucolic atmosphere. But in the Christian mission, some things are consistent. And each episode of “Rev.”has something that connects with my day-to-day work. Take the pilot (“On Your Knees, Forget the Fees”), in which the vicar must make the final decisions for school enrollment, for instance. It is a poor parish in a poor neighborhood, but St. Saviour’s School is doing well and has a growing reputation as a top-notch private school. The school manual strictly states that enrollment is open to children of “regular and committed worshipers” and Adam is suddenly besieged with an unusual uptick in service attendance in the weeks before school begins (“Why are we doing this — it’s not Christmas?”). And to complicate the situation with the common concern for the church coffers, there is a broken Burne-Jones stained glass window in need of an expensive repair and an aspiring, non-worshipping school parent who is in a position to help with its repair. At the heart of it, as humorously as it is presented, the tragedy of the diminishment of the “domestic church” is laid out for us. (“It would help me to write a good Church referral for you if you did actually come to church.”)
My parish had a staff meeting in which we addressed the growing problem of panhandlers and less-than-legit mendicants who appear at our office. It just happened to take place within days of a “Rev.” episode in which the vicar struggles with his feelings of inadequacy in how he serves the poor people of his parish. (“I’m trying to make sense of what I am doing. What is charity, for example? Sometimes it’s like ongoing Halloween. People come to the door in strange costumes. They get chocolate and then its… next! That’s giving alms, but I feel I’m called upon to do more.”)He invites a recovering crack addict to move in to the vicarage for a few days, a move questioned by several of his close associates and to the great consternation of his wife. It helps me to stay optimistic and good humored when I can see similar (and far worse) woes in a comical light.
Besides seeing the variety of funny, mundane situations played out, we see the Rev. Smallbone as a believable man of God; man who wrestles with his doubts, parishioners and challenges (just trying to get permission from the local council to install a loo in the church — now that is a challenge!) while maintaining a genuine dialogue with God that is beautifully depicted. We are given the privilege to observe the movement of his heart in a way that is believable and neither inauthentic nor cloying. This is something I have not seen before in any TV depiction. (“Are you there God? If so, just a couple of questions. Why do you allow there to be kids who don’t know what World War II is? Why did you send that reviewer on my one bad day? Is that what I deserve? Why is the graveyard strewn with litter? Why do Nazis always live til they’re 96? Why are there no more bumblebees? Why do African women get raped every day by boy soldiers going to get water for the starving village”?) How often do we see a truly funny sitcom in which the Jesus Prayer spontaneously and reverently appears; in which we are let in to the heart of the protagonist as he lives with and for God each day? I can’t think of any other.
The daily tasks, bureaucracy, sorrow and tedium are so...real. OK, so we’ve not had a chasuble inadvertently delivered to some Rastafarians — yet. But different Christian Church, same Christian travails. There are occasional digs at the Catholics, though in the end I’ve decided the dialogue is true to life, and to excise it would pinch less for the Catholic viewer but would diminish the authenticity. And there is no skirting around the fact that the Church of England has had its own problems of abuse, and is likewise bogged down in elaborate bureaucracy for safeguarding young people – a simple seaside excursion to take 15 of the schools most difficult and deserving children to see the White Cliffs of Dover involves not just the usual permission slips and chaperones, but also the securing of a child advocate approved by the diocese to accompany the children and a meeting of the cynical Archdeacon with the “Safeguarding Management and Risk Assessment Panel Group Officer.” Endless red tape as another of the wages of sin.
Each episode, no matter how rough the subject may be, does not fail to contain the most moving seed of truth. The final episode in Season 1,”Ever Been to Nandos?”, is hilarious and quite coarse as it depicts a spiritual crisis that the vicar’s wife refers to as one of his “little wobbles,” and ends with an offer of grace that cut to my heart. I am just not the lachrymose type and Ifelt my eyes become a bit cloudy as the vicar snaps out of it and whispers the words of Isaiah: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
As a Catholic looking for light entertainment, I have found a show the “gets” some of the work that my comrades and I face on a daily basis, and helps me to return the next day feeling shored up by a laugh in a way that even my beloved “The Office” can’t provide. It is made clear in the first episode that Vicar Adam has come to St. Saviour’s because his predecessor “scuttled off” to Rome. Wincing and laughing along with the Church of England poses no conversion temptations for me. If I could propose a future plot line (and I am happy to now see that there will be a third season to look forward to) or my own fan-fiction, Rev. Adam Smallbone would be a great addition to our fold should he, like St. Saviour’s vicar before him, feel the call to ‘swim the Tiber.’
Ellyn von Huben is a contributor to the Word on Fire blog.