Last Night's TV - Rev, BBC2; A Century of Fatherhood, BBC4

They're not rolling in the aisles yet
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The Independent Culture

It is odd, or maybe not so odd, that religion has inspired considerably more comedy than serious drama on television down the years. Some of us are old enough to remember Derek Nimmo twitting around in Oh Brother!, and since then the mitre has been carried by, most notably, Father Ted and The Vicar of Dibley. Into this canon – no more ecclesiastical puns, I promise – now comes Rev, featuring the ever excellent Tom Hollander as the Rev Adam Smallbone, the mildly harrassed new vicar of an inner-city London church, St Saviour in the Marshes.

Last night's first episode wasn't bad, which might not seem like sophisticated critical analysis, but actually it's more valid to say what Rev wasn't than what it was. Opening episodes of new sitcoms are often wince-inducingly poor, striving too hard and too soon to get laughs, before there has been any opportunity for character development. For the same reason, critics can be ill-advisedly premature in waving downturned thumbs. I can recall one hapless fellow writing, on first seeing three Irish priests holed up somewhere called Craggy Island, that such surreal nonsense represented a new low in British television comedy. For years afterwards, whenever there was a new series of Father Ted, his quotes were carried ironically along with all the lashings of praise from his peers who had, sensibly, waited to see how the thing unfolded. And I might as well add that the hapless fellow was me.

So, to reiterate, the first half-hour of Rev wasn't bad. Hollander makes a convincing clergyman, and there is a breezy confidence about the dialogue. Of course, times have changed, both in television and the Church of England. There is some graffiti spray-painted on the wall of St Saviour's reading "Vicars Luv Cock", and the words "shag", "fuck" and "wanker" all loomed large in episode one. I expect that some viewers, expecting something altogether different, switched swiftly over to the news. At any rate, the Nimmo years have never seemed so far away.

Still, Rev is sharply observed, especially for anyone who has ever coveted a place for their children at a sought-after C of E primary school. I recognised a good number of people I know in the steady stream of late arrivals at a Sunday service, all trailing a child in the hope that a sudden show of Christian piety might yield a school place.

It is a common practice among the metropolitan middle classes, and was neatly lampooned here, particularly in the form of the local MP, the arrogant Patrick Yam (Alexander Armstrong), who thought that a single hurried appearance in Rev Smallbone's congregation, and a promise of a wealthy corporate benefactor for the Window Restoration Fund, would be sure to bag a place for his son.

It nearly did, too, until the redoubtable headmistress opposed the idea. These establishments always have redoubtable headmistresses. I used to know one who ran a highly regarded church school in north London, and would sit imperiously behind her desk vetting prospective parents. "Child's name?" she once demanded of the parents of a five-year-old. "Eleanor," said the mother. The headmistress wrote it down. "And parents' names?" she barked, looking at the father, who felt so intimidated by the occasion that he squeaked the names of his own parents. His wife looked at him askance. "Er no, actually the parents' names are Jane and Brian," she said. That was me, too.

And so to the second instalment of A Century of Fatherhood, which examined the seismic impact of the Second World War on Britain's fathers. As with the first documentary in this fine series, the researchers did a marvellous job finding contributors, among them an old Yorkshireman called Cliff Shepherd, who in 1939 had just become the parent of a little girl when the RAF claimed him for the rest of the war. "Well, to leave Thelma, it broke me 'eart," he said. "We loved each other so much."

Even more poignant, though, was the story of Sonny Leigh, whose first child, Pamela, died in front of him in the Blitz – "now she's a little sunbeam" – and whose wife then suffered two miscarriages before the war was over. All this sent him over the edge, and when he returned from the war he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he was surrounded by so many profoundly disturbed patients, such as ex-bomber pilots pretending to be aeroplanes, that he resolved to get better. Eventually, in 1957, his wife gave birth to a healthy daughter, Linda. "I could've jumped over the moon," he said, and I gave a small, moist-eyed cheer myself.

It was precisely because of the strains of war that the divorce rate in 1947 hit an all-time high, but there was also a baby-boom, and by the time those babies reached their teens many of them were beginning to rebel against what their fathers considered to be the values they had fought to preserve. It's not easy to chronicle how parenting evolved in the 20th century, but A Century of Fatherhood manages to do it compellingly. It was especially heartwarming to hear the story of Frank Davies, a Mancunian who returned from a Japanese PoW camp a physical wreck and assumed that he would never find a woman to marry him and give him children. But he did, and discovered that the privations of the PoW camp had equipped him for the demands of fatherhood. Apparently, when you and everyone around you has suffered dysentery, changing nappies is child's play.