TV should do the clergy a service

Vicars have always been bumbling idiots or psychopaths on television– so thank heavens for Rev, says Gerard Gilbert

Richard Dawkins and his fellow neo-atheists are pushing against an open door, if television's portrayal of religious people is anything to go. In TV drama and comedy they're either crazy or a clown – a megalomaniac psychopath or a bumbling idiot, or, if aged over 60 (think Dot Cotton or Ena Sharples), a Deuteronomy-quoting Victorian throwback. Anyone more youthful embracing religion is likely to have an ulterior motive – either to build a sinister cult, as with Brookside Close's very own David Koresh, Simon, or as a cover for darker traits, as with current EastEnders born-again nut-job Lucas Johnson.

Lucas, played with swivel-eyed intensity by Don Gilet, finally faces having his dirty secrets revealed this week (pivotal episode 1 July) when the E20 kids start digging up the sapling beneath which the loony preacher has buried his wife's ex-husband. He has already dispatched his own ex-spouse with a garden rake, and drowned his son's dog in the canal because it was sniffing around the tree. No guesses as to which murder provoked the largest number of complaints. Yup, the water-logged pooch.

If the godly have only one use for soaps, comedy has a different purpose for them – especially the Church of England variety. From the 1960s onwards, with All Gas and Gaiters, in which Derek Nimmo played a dithering curate, and Dad's Army, with its effete vicar played by Frank Williams, Anglican priests have all tended to the cosy side of comic – a stereotype cemented by Richard Curtis, first by creating Rowan Atkinson's word-mangling vicar in Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral, and then, following the 1992 changes in the Church of England that allowed for the ordination of women, with The Vicar of Dibley.

Mind you, jolly, down-to-earth and mildly progressive Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) was a positive role-model compared to the deranged Catholic priests of Craggy Island – Father Ted being a rare excursion away from the Church of England. You will search the airwaves in vain for psychotic Muslim clerics or comedy rabbis.

Recently, after an acquaintance built up over the course of a birth, a death and a marriage, I've made my first vicar friend. One day, when I get to know him better, I'd like to ask him about the real joys and frustrations of his job being the nominal religious figurehead for a community, over 99 per cent of whom think he is (at best) an irrelevance to be wheeled out for weddings and Christmas carols.

Obviously faith (and doubt) is largely an internal business not easily given to dramatisation, but the realities of being a priest in a secular world deserve a rather more thoughtful probing, as indeed they are about to be. Rev, a new sitcom by James Wood, stars Tom Hollander as a country vicar who is appointed to a church in London's East End. It could be described as an inner-city The Vicar of Dibley, except that it takes its subject rather more seriously – as the long list of consultant clergymen (including Radio 4 regular Richard Coles) attests.

I've seen the first two episodes and they are refreshingly intent on finding comedy in the real issues facing the modern vicar. Hollander is as good as ever in the lead role – and there is a strong support cast that includes Peep Show's Olivia Colman as his wife and Alexander Armstrong as a pushy middle-class dad only attending church because a school attached to it has an excellent Ofsted report. James Wood writes intelligent, largely punchline-free comedy that probably won't attract Dibley's adoring millions – indeed, his last sitcom, Freezing, was dismissed by some as only being likely to appeal to "metropolitan types", and shamefully I have to put my hand up and say that I enjoyed it. Either way, Rev doesn't deserve to end up like the church it portrays – sparsely attended by oddballs and those with nothing better to do.

'Rev' starts on BBC2 on Monday 28 June

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