The Guardian

Welby decries ‘depressing’ TV portrayal of clergy as rogues and idiots

- Harriet Sherwood

‘The reality is very different – they are hard-working normal people’

Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury

It became an instant hit with viewers for its female vicar, quirky cast of village characters and the gentle fun it poked at the Church of England.

Almost three decades after the first episode was aired, The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French, is still a staple of Christmas specials and fundraisin­g telethons. The Rev Geraldine Granger even made several broadcasts to the nation during lockdown.

But the archbishop of Canterbury has cast aspersions on Dibley’s vicar and other television clergy, saying they are portrayed as “rogues or idiots” whereas in reality they are “hard-working, normal people”.

Fictional depictions of men and women of the cloth have been regular TV fare for decades – from the detective Father Brown, to the hapless Father Ted and his sidekick Father Dougal to the hot priest of Fleabag.

But speaking to the National Farmers’ Union, Justin Welby said he found some portrayals “depressing”. Departing from the text of his speech, Welby said he had “got into” watching Clarkson’s Farm on television during the pandemic.

He told the audience: “Maybe for you watching Jeremy Clarkson feels a bit like for me watching anything with a vicar in it. Either you can’t stand it or you get completely addicted.

“I generally find depictions of vicars on TV to be depressing – they are portrayed as rogues or idiots … the reality is very different – it is actually of hard-working normal people, caring deeply about what they do and working all hours to do it.”

Welby has said that being a parish priest, for seven years in rural Warwickshi­re, was the most stressful job he had done. He was ordained as a priest after 11 years working in the oil industry.

“The hardest work I’ve ever done, and the most stressful, was as a parish priest – mainly because it was isolated, insatiably demanding and I was on the whole working without close colleagues – and that wears people down,” he told the Church of England’s general synod in 2017.

Rev Bryony Taylor, rector of Barl– borough and Clowne in Derbyshire and the author of More TV Vicar?, a book about the fictional portrayal of clergy on television, said characters had become “a lot more nuanced and more rounded since the 70s and 80s, when they were total stereotype­s”.

Scirptwrit­ers used characters “to make interestin­g stories that are going to entertain people. It’s not that interestin­g watching TV shows about nice people going about their everyday work. And people that write TV shows are not setting out to try and make the church look good.”

One of her favourites was the vicar of St Saviour’s in Hackney, played by Tom Hollander in the series Rev, which ran from 2010 to 2014

“He’s quite flawed, and you love him for it really. He’s just trying to get on with the job at hand, and I identified with that guy,” Taylor said.

When the show was airing, Hollander said his character was not “the cliche of a country vicar, partly because we wanted to depict England as it is now – we wanted the complicati­ons of the multicultu­ral, multi-ethnic inner city, where everything is much harder.”

Taylor also highlighte­d a clergyman in the crime drama Broadchurc­h. “That was quite a balanced portrayal. It showed how the church can bring communitie­s together in crisis.”

Another crime drama, Collateral, had a gay female vicar among its characters. “That was quite juicy, although a lot of my colleagues were slightly irritated because the character was very naive and a lot of rules were broken. But it was good to see a gay priest.”

Taylor, the rector of two rural churches, echoed Welby’s comment about hard-working priests. “It can be quite lonely, you don’t have a big team around you and you’re dealing with a lot of expectatio­n. It’s a privilege, but we work very, very hard.”

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 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: DES WILLIE/BBC PHOTOGRAPH: LUKE VARLEY/BBC ?? ▼ Dawn French in her TV role in The Vicar of Dibley. The head of the Church of England may not be a fan
Slightly rogueish? Andrew Scott, left, as Fleabag’s ‘hot priest’ with co-star Bill Paterson
PHOTOGRAPH: DES WILLIE/BBC PHOTOGRAPH: LUKE VARLEY/BBC ▼ Dawn French in her TV role in The Vicar of Dibley. The head of the Church of England may not be a fan Slightly rogueish? Andrew Scott, left, as Fleabag’s ‘hot priest’ with co-star Bill Paterson
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 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: BBC ?? ▼ Tom
Hollander as the inner-city priest in the comedy Rev. He said he wanted to portray some of the hardships of the job and urban life
PHOTOGRAPH: BBC ▼ Tom Hollander as the inner-city priest in the comedy Rev. He said he wanted to portray some of the hardships of the job and urban life

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