Richard Coles: My journey from pop star to celibate vicar

As a pop star turned vicar who inspired the character in 'Rev', Richard Coles would be forgiven for wanting to draw a veil over a past of drugs, mendacity and sex in car parks. But his new autobiography lays it all bare

Patrick Strudwick
Tuesday 14 October 2014 02:27 BST
In dog we trust: Richard Coles with one of his pets at his Finedon vicarage
In dog we trust: Richard Coles with one of his pets at his Finedon vicarage (Charlie Forgham Bailey)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the drawing room, a grandfather clock tick… tocks. Through the window into the neat vicarage garden, birds tweet amid the fruit trees. And here, in the painted shed in which we are slumped on cushions drinking tea, a wood burner smokes, glimmering, in the corner.

Against this backdrop, the Reverend Richard Coles – Britain's most famous vicar, former pop star with The Communards and beloved Radio 4 host – is inhaling a round of sandwiches while enthusing about the joys of dogging.

"I was very much healed by the experience of anonymous sex with strangers in lay-bys," he says. "This might stretch my credibility to the point of knicker-elastic twanging, but I really was. There were moments of profound intimacy with people who were dying to be intimate. Dying for it – just being close and being able to be vulnerable and express longing."

Plus, I offer, there must be the wholly welcome breeze. Coles laughs. "It's like a picnic!" he says, reaching for the lemon drizzle cake.

Richard Coles is not like other vicars (presumably). Aside from being the inspiration for Rev, the BBC sitcom, sex is everywhere in his new, deliciously scandalous, quite devastating memoir, Fathomless Riches. Sex and drugs and God and death abound – pop to pulpit via the Aids crisis, a suicide attempt, and endless free-loving. It is hard not to wonder what his parishioners in Finedon, Northamptonshire, will make of it. One hopes they would at least admire the restraint deployed in resisting the temptation to call it How's Your Father? Or indeed use "From Dogging to Dog Collar" as a tagline.

Service with a smile: Richard Coles in his church
Service with a smile: Richard Coles in his church (Charlie Forgham Bailey)

"We've all parked in lay-bys, Patrick," he says, with a sigh that sounds as if he's blowing on wet nail varnish. To be fair, many of the racier anecdotes are not his, but his then lead singer's, Jimmy Somerville. And the nocturnal cruising came later, after rock stardom, after drugs, as he returned here, his home county, converted, before reaching for the cassock.

"It is a joyful irony that exactly the point where you'd think I'd finally consider myself hors de combat when it came to sex was when I actually started having more than ever," he continues. "But I'd got out of the habit of self-loathing. In the love of Jesus Christ I discovered I was not so loathsome nor so special as I thought I was." In the garden, his handsome civil partner David Oldham, 37, also an Anglican priest, is hanging washing on the line and holding up a pair of Coles's pants. Slate grey, rather roomy, boxer briefs – the undergarment of the sensible, gay vicar. My guess would be M&S.

Coles and Oldham do not have sex any more. They met in 2007 when Oldham approached Coles after a sermon. "He said, 'Do you want a fag?'" They went outside to smoke, Oldham came round for lunch soon after that, Coles entirely unaware of his intentions until later that day when the younger priest texted him: "Don't you get it?" With that, Coles got it. They fell in love. "We just fitted together."

The sex "wore off", an experience not exactly rare among couples. "But that coincided with some clarity about the Church of England expectation of clergy in same-sex partnerships – to live in a celibate relationship – which I think is nonsensical, but nonetheless…"

So their celibacy is both organic and convenient? "I can't pretend it's always been easy. We live a perfectly intimate life, but that degree of intensity is not something we share…" Drifting into thought, he suddenly remembers he's talking to a journalist. "I can't believe I'm saying this." It must be a huge sacrifice, I suggest. He pauses and sighs. "I don't experience it as that." But there must be times when you still want it? "Few and far between – I'm worried about putting my hip out. I'm 52, give me a break!"

My interest, however, is less prurient, more political. Honestly. How dare the Church of England impose on certain employees edicts about physical intimacy? "There is nothing creditable in the Church of England's position on gay relationships," he agrees. "I don't support it."

In a way you do, though, I say, by adhering to it. "I don't think I do, actually," he says, almost disguising his irritation. "There are moments when I hear Church people say things and I think, 'Can I really be a public representative of an organisation that does this?' But much better to fight and win that fight."

A while later, he concedes that "there are times when it distorts my relationship with David, which is the most important thing to me – a feeling that in some ways we collude with a homophobic institution. That's really not pleasant. I also know that I am a part of the Church and I accept that that involves sacrifice."

What, then, should be done to rectify all this?

"The Church should repent of its hostility to homosexual people and beg forgiveness for its treatment of the gay community." Such bigotry seems so contrary to Christ's teachings, Coles says, that "you cannot be a Christian homophobe".

He is clear, too, on Christian responsibility to combat HIV/Aids. "In areas where HIV is still lethally rampant, the Church should be giving out condoms. It's a no-brainer. I don't see anything salutary in making it harder for people to protect themselves from HIV in the interests of doctrinal position."

The virus has far more personal resonance for Coles than for most. In the mid-1980s, when The Communards were at their commercial zenith, when "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" were huge international No 1s sparking worldwide tours, fame and wealth unimaginable to a small-town former chorister, Coles's friends were dying. Taken quickly, often in agony, sometimes blinded, mothers' screams from bedsides, many only just learning their sons were gay let alone hours from death. And all unthinkably young.

The worst was the first, Mark Ashton, a "very close friend", briefly a lover, and currently being portrayed as the lead character in Pride, the film about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Ashton died swiftly in 1986. He was 26. "We discovered Mark had died while we were waiting to go on stage for the Spanish Top of the Pops to sing 'Don't Leave Me This Way'," he says. In Fathomless Riches, Coles writes that Somerville took the call from a mutual friend: "He… listened, and then wailed, a howl of grief."

Nearly 30 years on, the grief remains. "When Mark died, I just could not believe in a universe that made sense of any kind," he says. "It was profoundly shocking." His eyes glisten, sentences fragment. "The loss… what would he have become?… what would the world have been like with Mark in it?... Such an inspiring person… I loved him."

He looks down, and then at his book. "When I was writing about the years that HIV was having such a catastrophic impact, there was a huge amount of grief that had…" He stops again. "Had taken its toll and I hadn't really revisited it."

Coles and Somerville had been friends before forming the Communards, but their relationship was souring during this period, chiefly from the bizarre pressures of fame. (The madness of which is wonderfully illustrated with one line in the memoir: "Did I buy a speedboat?"). Screaming rows and petty jealousies amid this deathly, diseased landscape eroded their bond. And, during a European tour, Coles fell ill with shingles, common in the immuno-suppressed. "I went and had a blood test, rejoined the tour and then got in a fight with Jimmy and said, 'Look, I'm HIV positive'."

Coles then told friend after friend, witnessing the devastated reactions as they came to terms with the inevitable. He grimaces at the memory, ashamed. It was a lie. And like the virus, it spread, out of control. It would be five years before Coles confessed. His oldest friend never spoke to him again. "I lied to get Jimmy off my back," he says. "But the harder part to admit was that there was a dark glamour to being HIV positive, there was this drama and I was drawn to that."

Throughout his book, the unlovely honesty is bracing, a lifetime's confession. Our Anglican priest seeks absolution. "I wanted to dispel the myth of my own loveliness, because it ain't true," he says, his chocolatey baritone voice rising and thinning. "HIV/Aids played a big role in my need for the Church, and experiencing the extraordinarily devoted, patient care from Christian people during that period. But what I'd left out before when talking about this is my own shame. Shame was one of the drivers that brought me to God, because I needed to be forgiven."

For what? "Oh... selfishness, silliness, wildness, taking shitloads of drugs, being irresponsible. And lying about being HIV positive was a big thing."

He describes, too, his descent into pills and thrills after the break-up of The Communards. But was he an addict? "I was addicted to the experience of taking drugs," he says, "not to any particular drug. I never needed treatment for addiction, I needed to get treatment for depression."

Finding God, in 1990, helped. He went to Mass at St Alban's, Holborn, and describes in the book a Damascene conversion in which, when a chime rang out: "I was pierced to the soul at that moment… a shutter was flung open, and light flooded in and I could see."

I think he was simply hollowed-out, desperate, scratching for something, anything to fill the echoing chasm. Drugs only work for a while. It did not matter that in the end, what worked was a sky fairy. It never does. No one finds God through happiness. In the emptiness and the darkness, the altar candle lights and warms.

It helped him to accept his shame and the various shadows in his character, informing much of what would follow. The moral ambiguities in the Church became manageable. Forgiving became possible. When we discuss other 1980s gay pop stars and I mention Boy George chaining up and beating a young man, Coles replies: "We've all done terrible things." When I mention the Catholic Church's unforgivable protection of child-abusing priests, Coles countenances that, for him, the scandal was "overshadowed by my experience of the benevolence and kindness of priests".

Was there sexual abuse at his public school? "There was talk of it at my school, not experienced by me: masters who were considered to be too hands-on with people. That was commonplace."

We return to shame. For Coles, it took hold in childhood. "Growing up realising you were gay in 1970s Britain was like being a paedophile now – it was a life that seemed to offer only disgrace and that was very wounding for me."

It was in his late teens that he took an overdose, chiefly the result of being unable to consider any future in being gay, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. What does he wish he could say to himself then? "That it will be all right," he says slowly, tenderly. "I don't know if he'd have heard." For his parents, he says, it was "agony".

He was also "tortured" by his appearance: lofty, beaky, speccy would be the unkind description. "I remember being so moved when I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame – this misshapen, monstrous thing. I so identified with that."

The awkwardness partially shackled him until his forties, and, I suggest, saved him. Had he slept with more people in the 1980s… "I'd be dead now," he interrupts. "I've thought that, that my sexual timidity saved my life."

Now in middle age, avuncular and at ease, his geeky version of handsome is not lost on young men. "You enter a new category of desirability for those…" who have a daddy complex? "Somebody winked at me in the street the other day – a great big gay wink, which was delightful, but what am I going to do about it? Nothing!"

One hopes that Jimmy Somerville would still do something about it. For years after The Communards, they drifted apart, but how are they now? "We're in the best place we've been in for a long time. We're in touch by email and have a very sweet, revived relationship."

The first description of the Glaswegian in his book ("a charge, like electricity, that would switch off streetlights") touches because it is so loving. "I do love him," he says, smiling. "I always have."

Music is but background to Coles's life now. He plays from time to time in a local band called the Cupping Melons, which is the closest he is likely to come to heterosexuality. And after everything, the grief, the fame, the chemicals, the infuriating Church of England, and calls from parishioners at 2am, his only wish now, as the autumn years approach, is, finally, for some peace.

"I'd like to retire and live in Scotland near the sea, with David and the dogs, never answer another email, and sort of pootle around." He stops, eyes half-closed, transported. "That's what I'd like to do. I want to look at the sea."

'Fathomless Riches', by Richard Coles (Orion Books £20) is published on Thursday

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