Rev: ontological despair and Louis MacNeice

A sitcom that dares to explore moral issues, use words like ‘ontological’ and have its lead character recite lines from a Louis MacNeice poem?  This has been the excellent six-part series, Rev. which recently finished on BBC2.   The Rev Adam Smallbone is played by Tom Hollander, who devised the series with writer James Wood.  He is a Church of England vicar, newly arrived from a sleepy rural parish to the inner-city world of St Saviour’s in east London.

Every day throws up a moral conflict, explored sensitively and without cheap laughs in the excellent script. Everyone is welcome at St Saviour’s and Adam can’t turn anyone away, even if they are clearly lying, mad or just plain annoying. From parents, including the local MP, who hope that by attending church just once they’ll get their children into the local school judged best, to Colin, a lonely, lost soul who is Adam’s most faithful parishioner, always on hand to listen as Adam despairs.

As well as a cracking script that provokes chuckles rather than uproarious laughter, the acting is superb, from Hollander himself, who seems a natural portraying what an incredibly difficult job it is being a good, modern, city vicar, to Olivia Colman, no one’s idea of a conventional vicar’s wife,  who does her best to support him, but she has her own career as a solicitor to worry about.

The series was filmed at St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch, where the vicar says the portrayal is spot on. His Sunday morning services draw about three dozen people and he struggles to raise the £75,000 needed each year to keep the church running. Right now, it has 42 broken windows. Earlier this month, he had to go to B&Q to buy new handles for the 1740 doors, after thieves stole the brass originals. The church has to be locked when not in use otherwise people steal the fire extinguishers and sell them on the street for a tenner.

Hollander, who devised the series, is full of admiration for the vicars he met during his research. ‘One imagines vicars praying and offering consolation to people, but what you don’t imagine is the sheer amount of bureaucracy and the competitiveness. They’re quite hilariously bitchy about each other, like any community’.  The series has been compared to the Vicar of Dibley, but unlike Dibley, or Father Ted, the central focus of Rev is belief and ritual, and topical issues like the upsurge of evangelicalism , the waning influence of Christianity in increasingly secular Britain, the ordination of women, openly gay clergy and conversion to Catholicism.

I’m not a Christian, not religious at all, but this series spoke to any one of us about the doubt and despair that can undermine personal certainties, whether theological or political.  Hollander has said:

‘As a young person, it’s much more fun disproving the existence of God and saying: ‘Yeah, man, there’s no afterlife and that’s it.’ I think if you can keep that up, it’s quite impressive. My own experience is that as you get older you get a little more frightened and nervous and things become more uncertain and you see people going through really tough stuff and life tends to become slightly more complicated. Friends, loved ones or yourself go through terrible times, so there are moments where you might need something else, and the church – even if you don’t believe in God – does offer, should offer, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance. All very useful tools for getting through life.’

Euan Ferguson, in his Guardian review following the first episode, commented:

Adam drinks too much, and soon meets the rag-tag regulars, from the devout to the desperate to the borderline criminal, and discusses them in cheerily humanly bitchy fashion with his solicitor wife, played by the ever-splendid Olivia Colman, who makes him take off his dog-collar before he even dares to come into the bedroom, which we’d never really thought about before, but you would, wouldn’t you? Soon, too, he meets the new breed of churchgoer, the parents, the moneyed mean, flocking there after a rumour that the related faith school is about to get a fine Ofsted report.

Nominally, this opener was about a broken stained-glass window, but that’s like saying the Great Gatsby was about a party. Even the broken window, incidentally, has character. We never need to see it, just its boarded-upness, but Miles Jupp as Nigel, the worryingly intense bearded polymath of a parish assistant, tells Adam of its Burne-Jones influences, of its strange “fauvist brutalism but with figurative depictions of the mentally ill”, and you sort of know just the mad kind of mid-Victorian artsy window it was, and probably well broken. But that’s just the window. It’s really about, of course, the tensions within the church today: the need for everyday hypocrisies, the money worries, the secular appetites, the consequences for more mainstream British religions of rising Islamophobia, and, nicely, the continuing relevance of everyday kindnesses, even of the church itself. And, of course, the schools issue, turning the building into a pantheon to hypocrisy on the part of both church and parents.

For me, the final episode was a triumph, full of great comedy but also deeply moving; it reminded me – particularly in the quiet and tender closing scene – of that magnificent final episode of Blackadder on the Western Front.

After a terrible review of one of his sermons on a Christian website, Adam has a crisis of faith. In the pub he tells Colin  he is ‘Experiencing a large amount of ontological despair.  Do you know what I feel like? A remnant…of an illusion that people used to believe in’.  Colin’s response is peremptory:  ‘Adam, why’re you being such a dickhead?’

Adam despairs:  ‘I know deep down, of course, that if God made his existence clear and irrefutable it would overwhelm us and deprive us all of free will and independence, but right now, just for once, I feel like being overwhelmed, because I am underwhelmed by everything else – the thoughtlessness, the carelessness and neediness of everyone else.  If I’d have been in charge of creation, I think I’d have kept the flowers and the waterfalls and the butterflies…and Louise Redknapp.  I’d have left out the malaria, AIDS, cancer and dementia.  Quite frankly, I think I’d have done the whole thing a fuck sight better.’

Later, we see Adam plumb the depths, drinking himself insensible at a Vicars and Tarts party in the church (yes, really) before being picked up by the police, who have been searching for him so that he can minister to a dying woman.  Adam tells the police officer he isn’t up to it:  ‘I’ve been having a bit of a crisis.  I’m not sure I’m strong and able.’

‘You’re not strong and able?  This woman’s in great pain.  She’s been hanging on…she wants release.  Now are you her vicar – or not?’

Then Adam recalls: ‘I heard the voice of the Lord say, Whom shall I send and who will go for us?  And then I said, Here I am.  Send me’. Isaiah 6 – it was read at my ordination.’

He goes in to the woman.  The tableau of dying woman, husband and vicar is beautifully, quietly filmed, just Adam’s whispered words of absolution.  Later, outside on the balcony with London a myriad lights in the windows of apartments and tower blocks and a siren wailing, the officer offers him a swig of brandy:

‘I’m fine, thanks.’

Sam Wollaston wrote in his Guardian review of this episode:

It was the best so far, a rousing finale. Tom Hollander pulled out all the stops, giving us a beautiful portrait of a man in a crisis, spiralling downwards towards ontological despair. His drunken dancing, at the vicars and tarts party, was a joy. A bad dance done well is one of life’s treats, and this was up there with David Brent’s. Should be a YouTube hit.

[Rev. is] not fantastically funny: one to make you chortle rather than guffaw. But then sitcoms just aren’t very funny any more… But Rev is – was – written with a smile, beautifully observed, and true … And the characters are great: the sleazy archdeacon, drunk Colin, Mrs Vicarage and, most of all, Rev Adam himself. Hollander is simply lovely in the role; it would be a shame if he was killed off after just one series.

In an earlier episode, Adam recited a few lines from a poem by Louis MacNeice poem.  Upon investigation, this turned out to be ‘Fanfare For The Makers’, a poem which appears in The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 as the Epilogue, where it is explained as being an extract from ‘Autumn Sequel’ (written in 1954), but omitting lines 8-105.  Strange –  did MacNeice authorise this cut-down version?  I don’t know; but, having read the longer original, I think it makes a far better poem in its truncated form:

A cloud of witnesses. To whom? To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.

To all the things we are not remembered by,
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not notice when we die,
Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.

So fanfare for the Makers: who compose
A book of words or deeds who runs may write
As many who do run, as a family grows
At times like sunflowers turning towards the light.

As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
As sometimes one man’s kindness pervades

A room or house or village, as sometimes
Merely to tighten screws or sharpen blades
Can catch a meaning, as to hear the chimes

At midnight means to share them, as one man
In old age plants an avenue of limes
And before they bloom can smell them, before they span

The road can walk beneath the perfected arch,
The merest greenprint when the lives began
Of those who walk there with him, as in default

Of coffee men grind acorns, as in despite
Of all assaults conscripts counter assault,
As mothers sit up late night after night

Moulding a life, as miners day by day
Descend blind shafts, as a boy may flaunt his kite
In an empty nonchalent sky, as anglers play

Their fish, as workers work and can take pride
In spending sweat before they draw their pay.
As horsemen fashion horses while they ride,

As climbers climb a peak because it is there,
As life can be confirmed even in suicide:
To make is such. Let us make. And set the weather fair.

Life affirming…though I am puzzled by the reference to suicide in the penultimate line.  ‘Autumn Sequel’ is written, like MacNeice’s earlier work from 1939, ‘Autumn Journal’, in the form of a journal, with many names and references to people he knew. At around the same time he wrote ‘The Suicide’, which must be about someone he knew, and seems also to assert  that a ‘life can be confirmed even in suicide’: ‘This man with the shy smile has left behind/Something that was intact’.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, whom I am not in fact
Conducting, was his office all those minutes ago,
This man you never heard of. These are the bills
In the intray, the ash in the ashtray, the grey memoranda stacked
Against him, the serried ranks of the box-files, the packed
Jury of his unanswered correspondence
Nodding under the paperweight in the breeze
From the window by which he left; and here is the cracked
Receiver that never got mended and here is the jotter
With his last doodle which might be his own digestive tract
Ulcer and all or might be the flowery maze
Through which he had wandered deliciously till he stumbled
Suddenly finally conscious of all he lacked
On a manhole under the hollyhocks. The pencil
Point had obviously broken, yet, when he left this room
By catdrop sleight-of-foot or simple vanishing act,
To those who knew him for all that mess in the street
This man with the shy smile has left behind
Something that was intact.

Before I discovered that ‘Fanfare’ was written in 1954, I assumed the reference to ‘the blackout and the raids’ meant that it was one of the poems MacNeice wrote during the Second World War in London, like ‘Prayer Before Birth’:

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety,
would blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Somehow, I think I sense the soul of Adam Smallbone in this stanza from Autumn Journal (1939):

None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,
Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all
Deceits is to murmur ‘Lord, I am not worthy’
And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.
But may I cure that habit, look up and outwards
And may my feet follow my wider glance
First no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the others
And in the end—with time and luck–to dance.


One thought on “Rev: ontological despair and Louis MacNeice

  1. Prayer After Birth (Acknowledgements and Apologies to Louis MacNeice).

    I am now born: please hear me,
    Let not the debt collectors,
    Or the rights protectors,
    Or the seditious insurrectors come near me.

    I am now born, comfort me,
    Else I fear that the human-folk may:
    With clever lies debase me,
    With bad science un-race me,
    And with strong drugs erase me.

    I am now born: please bestow me,
    Among the dancing grass, babbling brooks,
    Swaying trees and singing rooks,
    Undiminished bright light of grace and truth,
    To restore me.

    I am now born, with lullabies lull me,
    With warm cuddles mull me,
    With deep love sustain me, and,
    With silence, not gainsay me.

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