Last summer, a matter of weeks after the first series of Rev came off the air, its co-creators, the actor Tom Hollander and the writer James Wood, were invited to do a Q&A session at Greenbelt, Britain’s largest Christian festival. Safe in the knowledge that a second series had been commissioned, they took a camera and Olivia Colman (who plays Alex, the long-suffering wife of Hollander’s Reverend Adam Smallbone) with them, just in case they might be able to film some footage that they could use at a later date. But within minutes of their arrival it became quite clear that this would be impossible. ‘Tom might as well have been Mick Jagger,’ Colman laughs. ‘He was mobbed.’
A stealth success, Rev generated an average of two million viewers a week and quickly became BBC Two’s highest-rating new comedy. An intelligent British sitcom in the manner of Peep Show and The Thick Of It, it follows the life of the Rev Smallbone, a hapless figure with a good heart, as he takes on the challenges of an inner-city east London ministry at St Saviour in the Marshes and all the grim realities that come with it.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo (of Full Monty fame), this was entirely different to any twee, bucolic picture of a Christian calling that might have been painted in the past. Gritty and urban, with a sophisticated vein of dry humour running through it, Rev’s greatest achievement was to give a real, human face to a modern man of the cloth. Critical praise for its gently comic tackling of pertinent issues – from the middle-class stampede for church school places (‘On your knees, avoid the fees’) to the terrifying lack of ecclesial funds – was unanimous. Even Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, publicly declared it ‘really rather good’.
Within weeks of the first series ending, Rev, which went on to win the 2011 Bafta for Best Sitcom, had been recommissioned. Less than a year later, the case is assembled on the pews of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, London, trying to stifle giggles as Cattaneo reworks a Christmas table scene into a pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
This is the culmination of the Christmas special, which Wood has co-written with Sam Bain, one of the award-winning writers of Peep Show. Even Geoffrey Palmer, the veteran of British comedy, is here, in all his grizzled glory, for a one-off appearance as Hollander’s father-in-law. The other faces are reassuringly familiar from series one: Miles Jupp (who plays the perniciously ambitious lay reader, Nigel), Simon McBurney (the smoothly sinister social-climbing archdeacon – ‘Can’t stop. Off to Chris Hitchens’s book launch’), Steve Evets (Colin, the hard-drinking lovable lost soul), Ellen Thomas (cassock-chasing church matriarch Adoah).