Tag Archives: tom hollander

What Rev is doing right

It’s very rare for Rev to make me laugh out loud – which might seem an unusual admission for what I’ve already described as one of my favourite  comedies currently on British TV. This in itself suggests it’s worth looking more closely at how it works, and why it works so well, despite its fairly low rate of chuckles per minute; it might also suggest that when we like a TV comedy that isn’t always funny, we might want to think more about what comedy is.

Specifically, it's about these people

To begin with the banal; Rev is about people. It devotes a large proportion of time in each episode of its second series, which finished last night, to giving us a good sense of who its characters are, what they think of those around them, what they want, and what they think they want. Knowing what someone is supposed to be like makes it more interesting, and curiously, more plausible, when they do unexpected things: when Colin experiments with alternative forms of spirituality, for instance, or when Mick (admittedly not a developed character, but a well-established comic turn) kicks drugs and shares his secrets, or when Archdeacon Robert openly discusses his sexuality along with his spirituality, both of which have up to this point been kept firmly in the background. All of these moments have emotional weight because, rather than rushing for the comic jugular, writers Tom Hollander and James Wood have taken the time to craft, through subtle detail, a sense of psychological expectation which is solid enough for viewers to accommodate new information, the kind that doesn’t vanish by the time of the next thirty-minute episode. We finish Series Two feeling we know more about these people than we did at the start of it; that the problems and questions it raises will continue to matter at the start of Series Three.

Specifically, this God

But Rev is also about God – in a serious, not a frivolous way. I don’t know, and nor do I particularly want to, if Wood and Hollander are paid-up believers; but as the credits make clear, a lot of ecumenical advice has gone into the show’s creation. It tells, because rather than reducing religion to a series of paedophile priest quips (cf episode 5 of Life’s Too Short), or the brilliant, but perhaps slightly kitsch surrealism of Father Ted, the show gives voice to the debates and doubts about mercy, morality and the treatment of others which have always driven genuine religious reflection. It’s true that the show generally supports Adam’s ministry, though it also shows him as a selfish bastard with very human failings – but by engaging with religion’s role in the world in a serious way, it elevates the inquiries of the Church to a position where they can be endorsed or dismissed from genuine understanding and criticism rather than ignorance.

This is something the best atheist comedians – Stewart Lee being the most obvious example – have also always understood, to the extent that Lee’s Catholic wife Bridget Christie challenges him for it in her own show. She expresses incomprehension at his need to have a deeper knowledge of the Bible than she does, likening it to someone with a hatred of Jeremy Clarkson watching every single episode of Top Gear. But some of Rev’s funniest, and most dramatic, moments come out of this engagement; I’m thinking of the football match in which Adam screams out a pep-talk about the difference between Catholic and Protestant interpretations of God, quoting which might make my point more clearly: ‘But most of all let’s do it for our kind, liberal God, who loves women and gays, and not their vain, tasteless, demanding God who loves gold and supported the Nazis!’

Anglicans: totally fine with men holding balls

Although Rev has been well-received by critics, it doesn’t neatly fit the comedy genre, and I think this is because we’ve come to expect every moment of a comedy show to be in itself comic. It might be more helpful to consider the genre more as an indicator of tone than a contract to deliver a certain type of content; some of the best drama, after all, is full of moments of uproarious laughter (This Is England ’88, of which more next time), but wouldn’t get packaged as dramatic comedy in the same way something like Rev might end up filed under comedy-drama. The obvious point here is that genres aren’t an adequate, or a particularly useful, way to subdivide works of art; but given the criteria that develop around an art-form which we expect primarily to make us laugh, it’s worth remembering that what makes a comedy good or great might not always just be what makes it comic.

 

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Life’s Too Short to Rev Louis Theroux

With that inelegant title out of the way, allow me to apologise for not having written anything in about three weeks – I’ve had quite a lot of work to get through, which shouldn’t really surprise me as much as it did – and to make up for it with a brief, tokenistic round-up of what’s been on TV recently that isn’t Fresh Meat.

Louis Theroux, knowingly summarised as the closest thing to ‘a white British superhero’ by the people at Stuff White Brits Like, surfaced repeatedly in my life in France last year as a stick with which to unfairly beat Americans. Our US friends were of course much more open-minded than the usual cast of characters on the average Theroux documentary – racists, criminals, or just common or garden lunatics – and his recent adventure, America’s Most Dangerous Pets, features a reassuringly terrifying amount of blinkered egomaniacs. Tim from Indiana, for example; a man who announces in front of his wife that he doesn’t trust or respect her, or ‘any human being on this planet’, before demonstrating his understanding of what can be trusted and respected by surprising Louis with a Siberian tiger on a plainly-inefficient leash.  ‘We should probably have talked this through,’ he stammers, presumably less than confident of the efficacy of his famous Socratic irony against a set of sharp feline teeth.

‘Dangerous? How could this be dangAAARGHHH MY FACE’

But by far the most interesting interviewee is the one who conforms least to type; Joe Exotic, owner of an Oklahoma animal shelter in which more than 150 tigers are arranged around his brother’s grave. Joe seems to have a genuine love for animals, rescuing them from clearly inappropriate enclosures in private homes to live out their already-ruined lives in relative peace (though PETA might disagree). The problem is that in order to fund his rescue programme, he is in the position of having to breed new pets – ‘surplus tigers’, as Louis describes them – to sell to irresponsible rednecks at a tacky roadshow. The show could go deeper into the cognitive dissonance between Joe’s deep affection for his charges and the financial necessity of his collusion in a system that creates their misery; it’s a psychic split of the kind that forms the heart of multiple Shakespearean tragedies. In which case, how much blame do we assign to the thoughtless and frequently unstable owners,  hovering at the edges of Joe’s tale like Macbeth’s witches?

‘To get out and wild or not to get out and wild? That is the question’

I’m discussing tragedy partly because of a conservation I had in August, at an Edinburgh Q&A with Ricky Gervais and Warwick Davis about their new sitcom, Life’s Too Short. My question was about the masterful Extras Christmas special, and for that matter those of The Office, and how its writer handled the script’s gear-shift from comedy to ‘serious’ drama; what interaction he saw between the modes of writing. His response deepened the respect I already had for the thought and artistry that goes into his best work; in brief, that his stories follow the form of a friendship, where all the months spent in joking and banter with another human being are what make it possible for them to comfort you through the loss of a parent. Attending the event with a friend whose father had recently died, we were both moved by Gervais’s answer, and left the venue with a new appreciation of how moving the best comedy can, and ought, to be. (Cf: Fresh Meat, Community). All of which makes it hard for me to review the premiere of that series, recent ill-timed forays into the thorny intersections of disability, language change, and ‘offence’ in comedy aside.

There is very little that is actually offensive about Life’s Too Short, as anyone familiar with what Gervais and Merchant’s writing actually does, outside of media caricatures, ought to expect. Yes, there’s some physical slapstick when a short man falls out of a big car – but the joke is not at the expense of his height, but at the delusions of grandeur leading the character to buy a vehicle so impressively large that it is not suited to his physical needs. Likewise, when the fictional Davis (uncannily, and some have said predictably, like a shorter David Brent) is unable to reach a door-bell, the humour comes partly from the frustration of living in a world not designed for the disabled, and partly from the character gag that Davis is so irritating to the office’s occupants, a fictionalised Gervais and Merchant, that they have deliberately moved it out of his reach. Of course, this is comic cruelty, but the point is that it isn’t the work of an effaced creator setting up inevitable pratfalls; as always in Gervais, we see characters being cruel to each other because of their own flaws and failings; we see characters acting in an offensive manner because of their own inability to learn and adapt to the codes of a changing society (Brent’s unthinking racism, Maggie’s repeated squeamishness) rather than because an unseen author thinks being racist has a pure and simple comic appeal. None of which excuses the obvious misjudgement of Gervais’s own Twitter antics, offensive, ironically, because he fell prey to the same trap as most of his creations.

Warwick Davis, not pulling any kind of face

The problem here, however, is that Life also falls short of the structure Gervais’s own comments in August made clear; the balance between comedy and sadness is, from the start, off-kilter. The character of Davis, like Brent, is unlikeable, but unlike Brent, for the first twenty minutes, says very little that is linguistically or situationally funny, and very much that is sad, depressing, and bleak. There is no comedic stair-rail to lead us down into the tragic basement that appears to have become Warwick Davis’s life, and as such we jump straight into full-on sadness without the jokes and funny conversations that bring us smoothly to an acceptance of its place. To use his own rhetoric, it’s like finding out someone we don’t know has died – undoubtedly upsetting as it is, it doesn’t fit into our own life story, and as such it seems isolated and separate, an end without a beginning or a middle. It’s a sad fact that this kind of discovery is all too easy to move on from. And then Liam Neeson turns up, announcing he wants to become a comedian, and we get ten minutes of deadpan hilarity that could have come straight of Extras. It’s great, and I’ll watch the series for these moments alone, although of course I do still want to see how the tone and balance develop. But at the moment, it’s out of place – it’s great, but it belongs elsewhere.

In which Tom Hollander looks oddly like my sleazy French guitar teacher

Equally out of place (seamless) is Adam Smallbone in the second series of Rev, by Tom Hollander and James Wood; a fundamentally good-hearted Anglican vicar trying to negotiate the moral greyness and godless distractions of the apathetic, secular modern world. It’s a comedy with heart and soul, in all senses, and although compared to Gervais it might seem low-key – a sentence it seems strange to write – the writing is consistently strong, warm and far from pious. It has a core of sadness that comes from the murkiness of ethical reality, of juggling soul and body, work and relationships, belief and doubt. It’s better for it, and, though slightly out-of-sync with the concerns of much recent comedy, I assure you it’s funny too.

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