A higher calling: Hollywood's A-list flocks to join cast of Rev

It was the surprise hit sitcom of last year, awarded a Bafta and praised by figures including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now the BBC sitcom Rev, about a hapless inner-city vicar, is attracting Hollywood A-listers to the cast for its second series.

Ralph Fiennes, last seen as Lord Voldemort in the final Harry Potter movie, is joining the cast for the new run, which begins next month. Other guest stars include Richard E Grant and the actress Sylvia Sims, 87.

Fiennes is to play a "senior clergyman" called Ralph who advises the main character, the Reverend Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander, about how to extricate himself from a "sticky situation", a BBC source has revealed.

Fiennes is understood to have been personally recruited by Hollander, an old friend, who persuaded him to sign up to the second series of a show which attracted more than two million viewers for each episode in series one and was one of the highest rated new comedies in the history of BBC2.

Grant will play a city banker, Marcus, while the Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville returns to take on the role of the smarmy Roland Wise.

Sims, who starred in the classic war film Ice Cold in Alex opposite Sir John Mills, plays Joan, an elderly parishioner who moves into the nursing home neighbouring the church.

The glamour of the new cast list is a far cry from the first series, which opened with very little fanfare last year but which attracted a legion of passionate fans, including Britain's top vicar, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams said the series was "really rather good" and revealed "something about the continuing commitment of the church to run down and challenging areas."

Reverend Smallbone is beset by doubts about his faith and finds himself attracted to the headmistress of the church's primary school. He also has to deal with a congregation of misfits including Colin (Steve Evets), a drinker, and the cassock-chasing Adoha (Ellen Thomas).

Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, also praised the show, which he said showed that "at last the BBC has moved beyond The Vicar of Dibley".

However not everyone agreed. Pete Broadbent, the Bishop of Willesden, said the series was "a load of wet liberals working out their angst about CofE and not being very funny".

Collecting the South Bank Show Award for best comedy last year, Hollander said: "We wanted to define ourselves in opposition to the cliché of a country vicar, partly because we wanted to depict England as it is now.

"We wanted the complications of the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic inner-city, where everything is much harder."

New faces in the congregation

* Amanda Hale (The Crimson Petal and the White, Spooks) is Abi Johnston, a talented young curate who comes to train at St Saviour's. But her brilliance soon breeds insecurity in Adam about his own abilities as a priest.

* New teacher Adrian Bower (Teachers, Mount Pleasant) joins the church school – he's hugely inspiring and the kids love him. The problem is, he's an atheist.

* James Purefoy (Resident Evil, Injustice, Camelot) plays Richard, somebody Adam never, ever thought he'd get to meet – making for an uncomfortable surprise encounter.

* Geoffrey Palmer plays the vicar's wife Alex's Dad, who comes to stay at Christmas – the busiest time of the year for Adam and the worst possible time for a house guest.

* The new series will also feature performances from Hugh Bonneville, Richard E Grant, and Sylvia Sims.