Meet the Real Life Rev.

by Gerry Lynch last modified 20 Mar, 2014 11:47 AM

Salisbury-based Bishop born during World War One helped shape script of hit BBC sitcom.

Meet the Real Life Rev.

97 years young: Bishop John Cavell remains a great conversationalist with a wonderful fund of anecdotes.

Few people will see any connection between the approaching 100th anniversary of World War One and BBC’s sharp-eyed clergy sitcom Rev., which is about return to our screens.

One Salisbury resident, however, who was born at the height of that first, terrible, global war, has had a significant influence on the development of Rev.

Bishop John Cavell is a living embodiment of the phrase ‘97 years young’. A great conversationalist with a wonderful fund of anecdotes, he was asked for advice when scriptwriter James Wood and lead actor Tom Hollander first thought about making a sitcom based on the life of a vicar.

“I’ve known James for over 50 years”, Bishop Cavell said, “and I’ve known his parents for even longer. I prepared his mother for Confirmation when I was a vicar in Cheltenham in the 1950s, and later conducted his parents’ wedding. Then I conducted James’ wedding as well!

“When James was first thinking about a comedy series about a vicar, he came down to Salisbury to see me two or three times with Tom Hollander, the actor who plays Adam Smallbone, the vicar in the series.

“As I was already in my nineties, I thought they should meet younger clergy, so I arranged for them to meet with different groups of people here. Although Rev. is set in the East End of London, Salisbury has had quite some influence on it.”

Having been a parish vicar for several decades, and with all the experience of a long life, what does Bishop Cavell think of Rev.?

“I think it’s very good indeed”, he replies confidently. “In the middle of all the absurdities that make up a situation comedy, suddenly there are moments where one thinks, ‘Oh yes, that’s true!’ It’s obvious that a lot of the humorous incidents in the scripts have come from speaking to working parish clergy.

“I was particularly struck by the episode where the church has been vandalised by youths, and the local MP offers to help find money for repairs that the small congregation couldn’t raise themselves. Later, the MP asks to get his child into the church school even though he doesn’t live in the parish.

“After wrestling with his conscience, the Vicar tells the MP he can’t pull strings on his behalf, and of course the offer to help financially is withdrawn. It’s a very true to life situation.

“It’s noticeable in the series that the Vicar nearly always does the right thing, sometimes at real personal cost, although usually only after debating with himself for a while. I think Tom Hollander, the actor, has been much moved by playing the Rev.”

Bishop Cavell has seen a lot of changes over 74 years in ordained ministry. He entered Holy Orders in 1940, at the beginning of World War Two, and his first months as a young curate in Croydon’s Addington Estate were at the height of the Battle of Britain. Addington lies only four miles from what was Fighter Command HQ at Biggin Hill, so bombing was just part of life.

“As well as that, the estate, which was part of a huge slum clearance scheme in South London, was only part-finished when the War broke out and construction stopped. We had to make do without all sorts of amenities which were delayed for many years. We didn’t have an adequately sized Church or even hall to worship in.

“Later, I worked for a mission agency and then as a parish vicar in different parts of Southern England. I spent 10 years at St. Andrew’s, the Minster Church in Plymouth City Centre – that’s where my ministry most resembled the inner city priest's life which Rev. portrays.

“I was made Bishop of Southampton in 1972, and spent 12 years there before retirement. For 11 of those years, I was also Bishop for Prisons, a very important role which goes unnoticed by many in the Church and wider society.”

Bishop Cavell retired to Salisbury 30 years ago, living firstly at Harnham and later, after he had to give up driving, in the Cathedral Close. Less than three years off his centenary, he remains mentally sharp, engaging company, and a regular worshipper at the Cathedral.

The new series of Rev. begins on Monday 24 March, showing at 10 pm on BBC2 as well as on iPlayer.

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