‘Strictly is brutal, but so much fun’: the Reverend Richard Coles gets ready for Christmas
- Credit: Andy Hollingworth
From The Communards to communion, the Reverend Richard Coles has a unique vicar style. As he prepares for a busy Christmas, he talks Strictly, festive music, East Anglia and why he will relax by watching The Walking Dead.
The Reverend Richard Coles has had another typically hectic year. Arguably the country's most recognisable vicar he has again juggled his ecclesiastical duties with appearances everywhere from TV panel shows to literary festivals, culminating in taking to the dance floor of Strictly Come Dancing.
Christmas though will inevitably see him turn to his country parish of Finedon, down the A14 in Northamptonshire, and it will be pretty busy, with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and then a service early the next morning.
But this year he's also hoping to find enough time for whisky and, funnily enough, TV horror series The Walking Dead.
'It's hideous work. But after lunch we get into our pyjamas and watch the telly. I have to have a Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music...although I'm quite into The Walking Dead at the moment and I'm saving some zombie material for Christmas because I love it so much.'
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The Reverend Coles is not your standard vicar. From budding pop star to the Anglican priesthood, the writer, broadcaster and inspiration for BBC sitcom Rev could easily be considered a bit of a maverick, but it's not a title he would give himself.
'That makes me think of Tom Cruise on a motorbike and I don't think I'm that,' he laughs. 'I don't think of myself as a maverick at all. Quite the opposite - I really think of myself as quite conventional but dispersed over unusual territory.'
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That unusual territory started more than 30 years ago when the former member of The Communards and Bronski Beat was making music.
Musician Richard and singer Jimmy Somerville were top of the pops in the mid-1980s. The Communards spent four weeks at number one with a pumped-up cover version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' Don't Leave Me This Way, the UK's biggest-selling single of 1986.
There can't be too many vicars who have gold discs on the wall of the vicarage.
The friendship between Richard and Jimmy Somerville, his collaborator in both The Communards and Bronski Beat, began when they both escaped their home towns (Kettering for Coles, Glasgow for Somerville) for the neon lights of Soho and the idea that in 1980s London almost anything was possible.
'I lived in a squalid flat in King's Cross, Jimmy lived in a squat in Bloomsbury,' he says. 'You could sign on, you could live hand-to-mouth, and I just don't know how people could do that now. There's not room in it for a thousand flowers to bloom I guess, but maybe I'm just old.'
'There was a pungency about the culture in the 80s,' he continues. 'It created pungent music and record companies had the resources and were bothering to sign up new and exciting acts.'
He bemoans the X Factor's 'supermarketed' output. 'Lots of great musicians do come through that but it does produce something which lacks that pungency,' he adds.
'Do you know what?' he says after a short silence. 'I frequently find myself praying for punk. For something to come along and upset everybody and ignite a few fires and behave disreputably.'
Again not words you would expect from a man of the cloth. But anyway, is he not aware of grime? The raw, aggressive, do-it-yourself culture born in London that has since spread from Blackpool to Bournemouth?
'Grime has rather passed me by,' he says, beaming. 'But I'm so glad to hear it's there. I'm more of a Wagner man these days which is grime for the over-50s.'
Doesn't he miss making his own music? 'I don't think there's any need to inflict my efforts on people particularly,' he says, with little enthusiasm. 'I guess part of me would like to have another go with Jimmy really...he was the best singer I ever worked with. And he was just so exciting to work with too.'
He may now be based in his sleepy parish in Northamptonshire, but this is a man who remains far from shy and retiring. He's fresh from starring in this year's Strictly Come Dancing where, unfortunately, he was voted off after just three performances.
'It's quite brutal because it's so much fun,' he says. 'It was like being a kid and playing again with fantastic toys.'
He had already planned an outfit for Blackpool - a cassock for the Argentine Tango, he admits with a laugh.
Despite his early exit, the Reverend still followed the show's progress.
'I actually put 50 quid on Joe (McFadden),' he says, bucking the stereotype of your bog-standard vicar once again.
'Strictly is just so bling. You have clouds coming down from the ceiling and a fantastic band and a really enthusiastic audience.'
Strictly was just the latest on the vicar's varied CV. As a writer and journalist he contributes to the Times Literary Supplement, the Catholic Herald and occasional columns in Woman's Weekly, while he has also published books including his remarkable 2014 memoir in which he divulged with searing honesty his pilgrimage from a pop star life of sex and drugs to a life devoted to God.
He has hosted Radio 4 programme Saturday Live from 2011 appears regularly on the Chris Evans Breakfast show on his 'Pause For Thought' item. And he is rarely far from our TV screens. He reached the semi finals of Celebrity Masterchef and presented BBC1's The Big Painting Challenge, alongside Mariella Frostrup, and has popped up on Have I Got News For You, QI and just this week on Would I Lie To You?
Not forgetting he also won Celebrity Mastermind with his specialist subject being the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson.
His busy schedule has made him a regular visitor to East Anglia too. Amid the glitter of Strictly he managed to make an appearance at this year's Lavenham Literary Festival. He has previously appeared at Southwold and at the Holt Festival in Norfolk.
Last year he spoke in Norwich in support of Mancroft Appeal 300, a project to mark the 300th anniversary of the first ever true peal rung on church bells at St Peter Mancroft Church.
Richard, who lives with his civil partner David, also a priest, in the vicarage of St Mary the Virgin, along with their four dachshunds, Daisy, Pongo, Audrey and Horatio, has visited for pleasure too, having holidayed in Suffolk market town of Clare.
'It was beautiful. Perfect weather. A cottage in the middle of nowhere,' he recalled. 'We just hung out. Had a lovely time. Walks. Thought Clare was lovely. And Bury was a great surprise. It always surprises me how near it is. Boom, you're there.'
Richard also recalls spending boyhood holidays near Hunstanton in Norfolk. He also has a soft spot for Wymondham. David was curate there, and Richard spent three months in the town in between leaving his last parish in London and starting in Finedon.
'Funnily enough, I also liked the house. David's curate's house was a kind of 1970s Barratt Home, but it was just a really lovely house – swirly carpets and Artex were not the décor we would have chosen, but just really liked it there.'
This time of year has got him pondering whether people are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas and the role of religion in people's lives.
'The things I worry about with religion isn't to do much with forgetting Christmas,' he says. 'It's to do with religion being angry and violent.'
After a moment of silence he adds thoughtfully: 'I wish people would connect with what we have to offer more and I think we have to ask ourselves lots of searching questions about why we are no longer persuasive to people.
'I often think people are hungry and we give them a menu they can't read and a language they don't understand.'
Rev Richard on Christmas music
This Christmas sees 55-year-old vicar playing DJ. He's selected 41 of his favourite festive songs, from Aled Jones' Candlelight Carol to Mario Lanza's The First Nowell, for his festive album, The Reverend Richard Coles - Songs For Christmas. 'I was sitting in Five Guys having a burger and Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree came on, which is great. But I wanted to get back to the original story,' he says of the idea. 'I wanted to put together a Christmas album that went back to the stable in Bethlehem and the source of it all. It kind of gets lost sometimes.'
• The Reverend Richard Coles - Songs For Christmas is out now