Comedy Vicars (Part 1)
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
In my kitchen cupboard I have three identical novelty mugs that are emblazoned with a variation of the well-known domestic catchphrase, Keep Calm And Drink More Tea Vicar.
They were gifts from parishioners and perhaps they affirm what people tend to associate vicars with: pastoral visiting; a melody of cakes and cucumber sandwiches presented on doilies; sitting on the chaise lounge drinking tea from the best Royal Doulton (with ‘hand-painted periwinkles’ if you’re lucky) with pinkie finger in mid-air.
It all seems so refined and respectable. Every member of the household must be on their best behaviour; a mute, reproachful look will convey that an embarrassing comment has been made. The vicar must not be given the wrong impression.
I laughed out loud during an episode of Coronation Street a few weeks ago that suggested the idea that appearing respectable around vicars is still alive and well. The sad news is that David's wife, Shona, has been left with brain damage after waking from her coma following a shooting. She has no memory of him and her behaviour is unpredictable and, at times, inappropriate. Not quite prepared for her erratic behaviour he comments to a friend that he was expecting he behaviour to be something 'like swearing in front of the Vicar.'
Just imagine what might happen if a member of the clergy should hear someone swearing! Pursed lips, flared nostrils and curling of the eyebrows?
In their song, The People Upstairs (1932), The Western Brothers complain that one of the frustrations of having to rent out the upstairs room is that, ’the woman is so common when the vicar comes to tea: she’s standing with a bottle there for everyone to see’.
A fellow member of the British Music Hall Society told me that he has very fond memories of appearing, as a teenager, in an amateur revue company in Bath where he played a vicar (there were three vicars on stage) and sang the song, The Parson Of Puddle written by Greatrex Newman of The Fol De Rols. It’s a song about ‘the high little, spry little, feel rather dry little Parish of Puddle’ and in one verse, the parson tells the story of a school outing when all the teachers were:
cooling their features.
With something that fizzed in a glass
One said “Don’t you think
You’d like something to drink”
[and the Parson replied]
Yes, I should like a small Bass...
-ket of strawberries
With cream and some tea.
Strawberries and tea are normally served if the vicar is a guest at a Mothers’ Union or The Women’s Institute. The songwriter and pianist, Peter Skellern (1947-2017) – who was ordained himself just only four months before his death – appeared on the television series, The Good Old Days in the 1980’s as the Curate of Slushford-on-Creek, the Reverend Septimus Meek. With his lamb-chop sideburns and dressed in cassock, full collar, panama hat and round spectacles, he sang about his obligation to attend the mothers’ meeting with afternoon tea being served. The chorus goes:
And the Vicar and I will be there,
For we are an industrious pair,
The mothers of course at the meeting will be,
At twenty past two they'll be handing out tea,
And a silver collection is taken at three,
So the Vicar and I will be there.
But its not just drinking tea out of dainty china cups that the clergy are associated with. There are other idiosyncrasies that are commonly perceived to be attached to the persona of a clergyman such as being upper-class, a bit soft around the edges and wet behind the ears, grey-haired, having buck teeth and a slightly effeminate manner or voice, wearing half-moon spectacles, preaching with sententious rhetoric and being completely out-of-touch with the modern world.
When I was at secondary school I was involved with the production of Duffy and the Devil. I was on the light and sound team. But it was during the during dress rehearsal that I created an impromptu role for myself as backstage dresser and voice coach. This was because I felt that my fellow pupil, playing the role of the Parson, wasn't presenting himself in the correct way. He didn’t come across as being very ‘clerical’. So, I quickly fashioned a full, white, clerical collar and preaching bands out of a white plastic bottle and some old linen. Rummaging through the stage box of props and materials, I was able to procure a grey wig and a pair of round-rim steel-wire spectacles. Costume complete, I then encouraged him to clasp his hands, lean his head to one side, and interject – with fruity tones – phrases such as, ‘My Child’ and ‘Good Heavens’ into the script. Although I wasn’t aware of the television series or character at the time, my portraiture of the typical clergyman was, near enough, like the unctuous Reverend Mervyn Noote in All Gas And Gaiters.
As well as drinking tea and speaking pious platitudes, vicars are also portrayed as being very easily shocked, especially at ribald or salacious references and, of course, innuendoes.
There are a number of great comedians and actors from the television and stage that have lampooned the clergy in this way and Dick Emery is one good example. In one sketch, Bad Language At The Vicarage, the vicar’s daughter invites one of her teaching colleagues for tea at the vicarage. The young gentleman lifts the lid off the silver platter and says, ‘crumpets’, at which point the toothy vicar drops his china cup on the floor in a state of total shock.
Another of my favourite vicar-shocker scenes occurs in the film Gert & Daisy’s Weekend (1942). Gert & Daisy (Florence Elsie Waters and Doris Ethel Waters) volunteer to escort some East End evacuees to a country house. During a soirée for the local village elite, Gert & Daisy get up and sing a ‘story of a maiden’s charms’ who ‘stands with snow all ‘round her and a baby in her arms’. It’s during the chorus that the vicar, sat respectably on the chintz sofa, reacts with raised eyebrows and open mouth:
Only a lady whats drifted,
Only a wandering child…
Deny if you can,
It was all through a man.
She’s a Lily,
But only by name.
Frankie Howerd, Derek Nimo, Rowan Atkinson, Frank Williams (who played the Vicar in Dad’s Army) and many more have also poked fun at the clergy in their roles and sketches.
The actor Ben Stock is a regular Music Hall performer and has appeared regularly with the Players’ Theatre, The British Music Hall Society and The Paper Moon Theatre Company. I saw him perform at the Charring Cross Theatre (what was home to The Player’s Theatre and before that Gatti’s-under-the-Arches) some years ago where he performed a brilliant routine of an animated and slightly effeminate vicar who is still shocked as he tells the story about a young girl at the church-hall dance: Whoops! Let’s do it again. You can see a clip of him performing this at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Players’ at the Leicester Square Theatre via the Players’ Theatre website.
Thomas Hewitt is an actor and a good friend of mine. We have been friends since we worked together as vergers at Southwark Cathedral: a role that involves detailed preparation and a degree of creativity for the presentation of the sacred drama that we call the ‘liturgy.' A couple of years ago, I went to see him perform in Austen the Musical (by Rob Winlow). I was amazed at the way he adroitly communicated a whole range of emotions and mannerisms in each of the different characters he played. My favourite character was the impassioned and earnest Reverend Samuel Blackall who spoke with comical ‘preaching pitch’. Discussing this role with him after the performance Thomas agreed that the vicar’s tone of voice had to be just right:
‘He [Reverend Blackall] is a bit of a creep and lacks subtlety with Jane Austen in his pursuit of her. I used a lot of flamboyant mannerisms in my portrayal of him, very camp. The main thing was finding his voice. The embodiment of the character followed the voice. With a certain voice, you can play with the text a bit more. I’ve been using a very RP voice but at a slightly higher pitch than normal. It allows you to bring more comedy out of the character.’
Thomas told me that he used a few comedy vicars for inspiration:
‘The Reverend Timothy Farthing from Dad’s Army was always softly spoken and very funny.
Father Ted was always a favourite of mine and the queen of comedy Vicars, Geraldine Granger. Mix them all together and add some Carry On films and you have Reverend Blackall.’
Roy Barraclough, Anthony Roye, Henry Moxon, Peter Tuddenham and Windsor Davies have all played the role of the comedy vicar in the television series Nearest & Dearest.
In the episode of Get up them stairs, Nellie Pledge (played by Hylda Baker) invites the vicar (played by Anthony Roye who also played a Vicar in television series The Mallens) to the house because Walter and Lily discover that there are not legally married and she wants him to marry them secretly. The person who supposedly married them was not a vicar at all: ‘That Pastor? He was an impostor?, Nellie enquires. In an attempt to appear respectable, Nellie puts on her posh voice and address the vicar as ’your dividend’ and then later on as ‘your ignorance’. The vicar-shocker scene goes like this:
Nellie: ’Very nice of you to come Vicar. I know you must be busy with all this sin about….She’s a nice girl. It’s him! He’s ruined her!’
Vicar: ’She’s been ruined? By a man?’
Vicar looks horrified
Nellie: ‘Day in and day out, for twenty-four years, as regular as clock-work’
Another horrified look from the vicar
Vicar: ‘Miss Pledge, how can I help you?’
Nellie: ‘We’d have to keep it quiet you see. Could we nip into the vestry one night after the pubs close…could you do me a quick service?’
Vicar recoils in fear and shock
Vicar: ‘Miss Pledge! I’m a married man!’
Nellie: ‘Yes I know. That’s why I thought you’d know why I want it doing quickly’
All the vicar characters in Nearest & Dearest were old, well-educated and slightly pompous. This, along with other stereotypical vicar scenes on stage and screen, has undoubtedly shaped peoples perception and attitude towards the clergy over the years. I know this to be true because quite often when I meet up with couples preparing for marriage or to have their children baptised, they often say with some surprise, ‘you’re not at all what we expected you to look like…you seem normal’. When I ask them what they were expecting me to look like, I am usually presented with the old-fashioned stereotypes mentioned above. There have been two occasion where I have been approached in a pub (drinking a pint!) and asked if I was in fancy dress or a ‘real vicar’. When I tell them that I am a bona fide clergyman they responded, ‘but you’re normal’. Since I was ordained six years ago, the refrain, ‘I am normal’, has become my clerical cri de coeur.
But clerical satire based on the odd, goofy and out-of-touch vicar goes back further than television and radio to the Music Hall.
The English Music Hall and radio comedian, John Foster Hall (1867-1945), took on the role of the aloof Anglican Parson in several recording for Columbia Records (1915-1933). He was known as the Reverend Vivian Foster, ‘Vicar of Mirth’. Inserted at random points in his sermons was his well-known catchphrase, ‘Yes, I think so’. In fact, one of my first 78 records that I bought from Harold Moores record shop (which was situated on London’s Great Marlborough Street but sadly no longer there) was, The Parson Addresses His Flock. With the rising and falling contours of his preaching voice, he ponders,
We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.
Foster Hall also played the ebullient and harmlessly eccentric vicar, The Reverend Dimbleby, in the film This Week Of Grace (1933). With his overzealous laughter and inane grin, the vicar affirms to himself, several times, ‘Yes, I think so’.
My favourite ‘sermon’ by the ‘Vicar of Mirth’ is The Parson In Defence Of Parsons. Again, sermonising with characteristic rising and falling inflections, stretched-out vowels and emphatic cadences, he reflects on what for him is a typical day around the parish:
I was descending the stairs and heard my cook singing Annie Laurie. I called to her in the kitchen and said, ‘I'm so happy you are glad in the early morn’.
‘It’s not that sir. I'm boiling you an egg. Two verses for soft and three for hard’.
Well, i’d no sooner sat me to my breakfaaaaast and knocked off the top of my egg and removed the contents – which had spurted onto my waistcoat because it was a two-verse egg – when in came the housemaid who is the same lady as my cook.
In the London play The Private Secretary (1883) Charles Henry Hawtrey (1858-1923) played the Reverend Robert Spalding which was a caricature of an Anglican vicar who was rather partial to currant buns. The play became a film in 1935 with Edward Everett Horton playing ‘a timid and dim-witted clergyman’ who is ‘duped into helping a playboy avoid his creditors, inherit his uncle's fortune and get the girl’.
In 1891, George Robey made his debut as an onstage vicar. In his book, My Old Man, former Prime Minister, John Major writes that Robey appeared,
..in the guise of a clergyman suffering from a marked reduction in social status: dishevelled, cassock unbuttoned, wig slipping from his bald plate, a red nose implying a sip or two too many of the altar wine, and exaggerated half-moon eyebrows showing a permanent state of surprise.
Dr Edward Madigan is a historian at the Royal Holloway University of London and specialises in religious and military history. He argues that, ‘the prim and proper cleric was the perennial straight man of the pre-war stage and press cartoon’. In his book, Faith under Fire, he refers to historian Dr Hugh Cecil who argues that, ‘the majority of ordinary soldiers derived their notion of a clergyman from the music halls’. Madigan believes that the stereotype vicar had an impact on the army chaplain who would not only be made fun of but would not be taken very seriously by the troops.
Although recent television series featuring vicars (Rev, Broken and more recently A Vicar’s Life) have done much to dispel the myths of the toothy, posh and slightly odd vicar, the comedy vicar routines and sketches from the music hall through to radio and television have left, it seems, an indissoluble image in the minds of many people. The personality characteristics of the clergy, our ministry and way of being are trammelled by the portrayal of the traditional comedy vicar. But, I close by echoing the words of the Reverend Vivian Foster, ‘Vicar of Mirth’, in The Parson In Defence Of Parsons:
Pity us poor parsons... after all ,we’re just ordinary people...yes, I think so.
Here I am – a Vicar playing the comedy
Vicar – at the Club for Acts & Actors in Covent Garden, London 2018.