Friday, 16 July 2010

Why "Rev" isn't funny

I’ve been trying to work out why I don’t find Rev, the new BBC sitcom about an inner-city parish priest in the Church of England, at all funny.
There’s a serious reason for this, which is that I’ve been hoping it isn’t just because it’s about the Church of England and the hero is a ‘Liberal’, whilst at least some of the villains so far have been ‘Evangelicals’. In other words, I hope it’s not because it’s poking fun at me and my kind.
However, I watched episode 3 last night, without an ‘Evangelical’ in sight, and still found it flat and dull. The one thing I could point out that was just plain irritating was the abundance of stereotypes — the sensible, faithful, and not-at-all-fanatical Muslim woman who wanted to use the church for her Qur’an class (and was quite happy to speak to a strange man on her own in the church), the ‘nice’ church-going family whose father turned up later in a lap-dancing club, the vicar’s wife who is not-at-all-like-a-vicar’s-wife, the slightly creepy archdeacon (actually, that one ...), dumb lay-reader, and so.
But I still felt that couldn’t quite be the problem. After all, Dad’s Army or Father Ted are equally full of stereotypes — but there they are funny.
Then sometime between getting into bed and going to sleep, I realized what it was.
Comedy (indeed, any work of literature) is a production of the mind of the writer. What you see on stage or screen is really their fantasy-creation, and therefore it is an insight into their own thoughts.
Father Ted is the product of people who grew up in an Ireland another comedy writer described as “such a mad country that satire [was] the only way you [could] challenge the madness”, and it reflects the minds of those who found that madness a source of hilarity.
Rev is equally clearly the product of a certain kind of mind. Actually, I suspect it is a mind not at all unlike those of the ‘nice middle-class’ couple in an early episode who are basically attending church to get their child into the church school. And that, I’ve decided, is the problem.
Rev gives us (I am guessing) the perspective of a liberal, white, youngish, urban middle-class mind on the world of Anglican religion. The trouble is, the way that mind sees that particular world is utterly predictable, and therefore not funny.
This review, from someone who does like Rev, says it all:
The other reason I love Rev ... is that ... it cherishes [the Church of England’s] beating liberal heart. [...]
As Canon Lucy Winkett, formerly at St Paul’s Cathedral, once told me, it’s not about expecting people to believe (and I don’t); it’s about being a place where people can bring, should they choose to, the stuff of their lives. It’s about flexibility, inclusiveness and charity, in the best sense of that word.
It was Robert Burns who wrote, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!” Rev is the world of religion seen by the unbelieving white middle-class, telling it like the writer thinks it ought to be. They have a view on this world, but they can’t get ‘inside’ it. Put yourself in their place, however, and you could write the jokes yourself.
Rev is not funny because it written by people who find the subject matter not a source of hilarity but of earnestness. Ironically, as I have said before, Rev is, in the end, a sermon of its own, but it is preaching to the converted. It is BBC England reassuring itself about the strange world of the ‘God-botherers’. There may be a few fanatics — especially on the Christian ‘Right’, but the good guys are firmly in the middle of the road, and they are normal, having sexual feelings and smoking a crafty fag outside the ‘office’ just like you and me.
And if God isn’t too fussed about them, he can’t be too fussed about us, either. Can he?
John Richardson
16 July 2010
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  1. Thanks John, although I haven't seen a single episode and frankly won't bother, it's inspired some great posts from you and for that I'm rather pleased....

  2. Don't think this show is available in Canada, but we have "Little Mosque On The Prairie", which follows the same general outline: funny, winsome, utterly non-fanatical Muslims playing the lovable fish out of water to the suspicious locals. The only troublemakers are the ones who might take religion seriously, and naturally that's the Christian reverend and the suspicious, insular hicks.

    The sci-fi mini-series "V" which aired this past season had a main character who was a Catholic priest fighting in the underground against the visiting aliens. It's an interesting case of the writers who fit your profile: "liberal, white, youngish, urban middle-class" trying to treat seriously a thoroughly alien (no pun intended) culture, and the result was unusual. They got the look of the thing down right, it's just that the interior isn't quite there. You keep thinking, "A Catholic wouldn't be focussed on that," or "A Catholic priest would say THIS..." I wonder if the result was because of ignorance, or if TV writers are so hampered by PC rules that a genuine Christian faith would not be acceptable in a TV show.

  3. Thanks for analysing that John. I think you have it right. As I said in my comment on your previous post, the same question had been bothering me as well. Depressing though that the 'white liberal middle-class urban humanists' can't see any examples in the Anglican church of someone as normal as the intelligent, graceful Muslim woman in episode 3.

  4. I honestly thought "Little Mosque on the Prairie" was a wind-up, but it isn't!

  5. I think it's all-pervading earnestness is its downfall. There's a heaviness to Adam's woolly soul that drags the whole thing down. And the only counter-points to the earnestness are tired sex gags. There's simply no joy (contrast with Father Ted or even Vicar of Dibley - which both depended on plenty of stereotypes).

    Glen, Eastbourne.

  6. John,
    Do you remember All Gas and Gaiters? It starred Derek Nimmo.

  7. John, you've got this absolutely right, thanks
    btw they really do have white sofas and a rapper at HTB!


  8. I don't mind the blasphemy, sex and swearing, but I do worry about those scenes of public smoking.

  9. I've just watched episode 2 again and laughed even more the second time around. And as well as the humour, there are times when it can be quite touching, such as when Darren, the visiting evangelical vicar is demanding that Colin, the rather un-PC, unreconstructed, homeless guy, be banned from the church.

    Darren: Pip is a vital part of our congregation, yeah?

    Adam: Colin isn't vital to anyone, Darren, except God. And if God loves you, Darren, then he loves Colin just as much.

    I'm tempted to say that the less funny you find it, the more you really need to watch it.

  10. James67
    That's not touching, it's silly. I've met hundreds of evangelical vicars, and I can't imagine any of them wanting to ban a "rather un-PC, unreconstructed, homeless guy" from the church.

  11. I've had my own go at diagnosing the problem here:

    Glen, Eastbourne

  12. Ruth, I was referring to the observation made by Adam in that scene, that even someone who isn't vital to anyone else on earth is still vital to God. As a piece of dialogue, it doesn't sound to me like it came from a member of "the unbelieving white middle class".

    I've watched all the first three episodes again this evening and they all get funnier the more you watch them. It's really quite peculiar that I appear to be the lone voice in support of this programme.

  13. James67 - you're not the writer, are you?

    'Rev' cannot raise a laugh from me, and its preaching of wan liberal nostrums is tiresome. It's exactly what one expects from the BBC.
    Have you considered that episode 2 is a liberal defence of sexual harrassment and assault?
    Have you ever met a *female* imam (and obviously born in the UK)? Do you really believe that a (mixed!) Muslim group in Sarf Lundin would meet inside a *church* (replete with crosses and imagery) to teach Islam to kids??? Not even the hall?
    Where was the Koranic recitation that is central to these youth groups?
    Too funny - but for all the wrong reasons.

  14. Guys, at the end of the day, it is somebody's view of the church about which we are passionate. It is somebody's view of the instrument through which imbued with the Living Word and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we hope to co-work and see God's Kingdom come. We have a duty to watch it so that we can engage with it and challenge the view it is promoting.

  15. Mark, I do share my first name with the writer of the programme, but no, I'm not him.

    Have I considered that episode 2 is a liberal defence of sexual harrassment and assault? It seemed to me to be more a defence of Christian forgiveness. At no point in the programme were Colin's bottom-pinching antics portrayed as anything other than wrong. Well, it would have to be that way, wouldn't it? Forgiveness cannot exist without wrongness.

    Now I do have to confess that, living in rural Essex, I've never really had much contact with Muslims, so I have no way of measuring how true-to-life the character Faiza was in episode 3. It did seem reasonable to presume a certain amount of dramatic licence was employed in her character and, indeed, all the characters in the show.

    In the end, I think, you're always going to struggle with a half-hour sitcom if all you do is constantly analyse the realism (or otherwise) of its characters.

  16. 2m people a week seem to think it is quite funny. Whoever said evangelicals are po-faced and humourless?

  17. Anonymous said...

    "Whoever said evangelicals are po-faced and humourless?"

    Well, since you've posted anonymously, we'll never know, will we? ;-)

  18. To be honest i think everyone is looking far too deep into this. It's just a TV show, and it's purely fiction. Take the US series "Scrubs", real doctors certainly don't act like that, nor does anyone believe that they do. The same goes for this show, whether you find it funny or not, it's not supposed to be reality. It's called irony people!