Tom Hollander: Vicars are irritated by the Tories’ notion of ‘big society’

Rev star Tom Hollander gives chapter and verse on boozing in church, Dylan Thomas, suicide and the 'big society'

Tom Hollander leans forward conspiratorially. “I’m afraid I got rather pissed last night,” he confesses, eyes twinkling, a grin full to bursting with mischief. “Drinking in a church felt good, didn’t it? I’m sure it happens all the time.”

Rewind 15 hours. We are in St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch, east London, where Hollander films his role as Rev’s shambling, good-hearted Reverend Adam Smallbone. We sit in the pews, directly behind Mrs Vicarage, the brilliant Olivia Colman, to watch the first new episodes since 2011 of the award-winning comedy. 

There are drinks. Lots of drinks, accompanied by a suitably Biblical buffet of bread and cheese. Bishops and vicars, including Rev Paul Turp from St Leonard’s, are in attendance alongside Hollander, his co-stars and writer James Woods, with whom he created Rev.

We have inadvertently become a propaganda service for the clergy

The verdict from the clergy is overwhelmingly positive, as it has been from critics since the series began in 2010, becoming a slow-burn, word-of-mouth hit. Hollander admits: “We have inadvertently become a propaganda service for the clergy. They think we are doing them a service by representing them sympathetically and accurately.

“The Bishop of Stepney told me last night that we were able to discuss issues in a way that they should but can’t, which I thought was interesting and also quite sad. 

“We look at the relationship between Islam as an expanding force in east London and the state religion of the Church of England. On gay marriage, we show the classic church dilemma of whether to modernise. It is hard for them to talk about without getting polarised, these issues are divisive within the church, whereas we can do intelligent comedy about them and air it in a benign way.”

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Hollander talks of trying to be “topical, relevant and political”. With the church taking an increasingly strong stance against welfare cuts in recent times, can we expect him to cover this in the show?

“It is interesting,” he says. “Whenever the church makes an overtly political statement, everyone jumps on them. When 29 bishops complained about real poverty being created by the welfare cuts, they were attacked by the Centre for Economic Policies [Centre for Social Justice], whatever it’s called, over how they calculated the figures. I thought, really?

“We heard a lot from vicars about how irritating the Tory Party’s notion of ‘big society’ is. They’re asked to take up the slack of the reduced state but the Church does that daily. We don’t cover food banks or poverty, although it’s always there in the presence of [Rev characters] Colin and Mick. It is the one issue I feel is an absence, that I wish we’d done.”

Even when driving in the fast lane into the ditch, it is a glorious drive, you know?

Despite a back catalogue containing everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Gosford Park to In the Loop, following his debut role aged just 14 in John Diamond, Hollander has always had a glass-half-empty view of his career. “I’ve had a word with myself to stop projecting myself that way. I have to snap out of it,” he says with a wry smile. “Rev has changed my perception of myself in a profound way. I’d never have thought I could have done this.”

We are reflecting on Hollander’s career – and our sore heads – in a Soho hotel bar, ahead of a screening of a new Dylan Thomas biopic, A Poet in New York, in which he plays the finest poet of modern times. In the circumstances, a raging hangover seems entirely appropriate.

For the actor, while Rev is his best role and most fulfilling creative experience, it is also the first character in a long career that threatens to overshadow his other work. So the chance to showcase his darker side, as a poet raging against the dying of the light, was welcome.

Rev has made me visible in a helpful way but I need to not become only associated with it,” he says. “Playing Dylan Thomas was a wonderful opportunity to play someone equally vivid. It is a proper big old drama part, full of humour and written by Andrew Davies, for goodness sake – one of our great screenwriters. Lucky me!”

His transformation is remarkable. Hollander put on more than two stone (“not as much fun as you’d imagine”). His voice depicting Thomas’ New York readings is incredibly rich. “This time predates and informs rock‘n’roll. Bob Dylan and John Lennon were obsessed with him.”

Why are we drawn to this idea of the flawed genius? “However tragically and self-destructively, they are living in an uncompromised state. Even when driving in the fast lane into the ditch, it is a glorious drive, you know? There is something romantic about the combination of beautiful poetry and this ugly life.”

Despite his unassuming appearance, Hollander may have more in common with Thomas than Smallbone. He’s shared a hot tub with Lou Reed in NYC, welcomed James Gandolfini to his flat above a shop in London (“I’m still in the same old place”) and “talks about girls” with Ralph Fiennes. Hollander feels a connection with the “poet of youth”.

“He’s very eloquent about lost youth. You sense he can’t imagine getting old or see into middle age, there is a sort of suicide going on. Thomas, these days, would be put in the Priory by his publisher. Look at Philip Seymour Hoffman. People could have – I dare say did – helped.

“But if someone’s going to destroy themselves, no one can stop them. I’ve had enough low periods to have wondered, do you want to go on living? I’ve only glimpsed that mood. I am not giving you a great sudden confession but you can imagine it.”

To actor, add writer. Episode three of Rev (guest star, Dexter Fletcher!) is his first with a solo writing credit – a winning blend of funny, shocking, sad and excruciating. “I storyline episodes and write the odd prayer but never put my head above the parapet. It’s exciting,” says Hollander with a nervous grin. “Writing is a new avenue to stroll down.”

We prepare to watch his compelling performance as Dylan Thomas. “I’m sorry, it’s embarrassing,” he rambles. “You won’t hear of me for years after this, promise.”

The thought of Thomas returns his focus to his hangover. That mischievous grin returns. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ve both done terribly well in the circumstances…”

Rev is on Mondays, BBC2, 10pm. A Poet In New York is on BBC2 in May