Why Does British TV Have So Many Religious Characters?

Or, vicars and priests and curates, oh my!

Sarah Cords
Aug 27, 2020 · 4 min read
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

One thing I’ve often noticed about British TV is that members of the clergy (vicars, primarily) tend to be portrayed much more often than they do on American TV. Am I right about that? I’m trying to think of an American series other than the Father Dowling Mysteries, starring the truly venerable TV veteran Tom Bosley, but I’m drawing a blank. (Well, okay, The Flying Nun. But that show aired in 1968.)

Which seems a shame, because British TV series about the religious life tend to be some of my favorites, regardless of their genre. Let’s look at some vicar- and even priest-rich Brit (and Irish) series, shall we?

A comedy, and a very funny one at that, this series stars Dawn French as the woman vicar who arrives in the small rural village of Dibley and manages to shake things up in the very best way, as when she introduces herself to the chair of the village board as a vicar with a “bob cut and a magnificent bosom.”

The focus here is on three mad priests exiled together to distant Craggy Island due to their many and various shortcomings: Father Ted “borrowed” funds from his last parish; Father Dougal is decidedly thick, and Father Jack can’t stop yelling obscenities. If that doesn’t sound funny to you, I’m sorry, but I’d have to wonder about your sense of humor. It’s very, very funny, particularly when you throw their also-mad housekeeper into the mix:

Mystery goes medieval. Brother Cadfael uses his specialized botanical knowledge and his penchant for justice to solve crimes. I haven’t actually had a chance to watch this one yet, but I love the way Derek Jacobi rocks that tonsure monk cut.

This British mystery features a Catholic priest, based on G.K. Chesterton’s character of the same name. (Note: Although Chesterton died in the 1930s, this TV version of the series is set in the 1950s.) I’ve only seen this series, which combines both light gossipy British village humor with some impressive crimes, that began in 2013, but there was also a TV adaptation of the same name, produced in the 1970s, and starring Kenneth More.

Grantchester is so many things. A mystery show featuring a detective and an Anglican vicar. A bromance featuring those same two characters. An historical drama set in 1950s Cambridge. And it does all of things well, while simultaneously featuring actor James Norton (in the first four series) as one of the best-looking vicars in all of British TV history.

This is another one I’ve not seen; when, oh when, will I ever get enough time to watch all the British TV that I want to? But here’s what you need to know about this comedy series: Anglican priest Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) is moved from his small, rural parish to an inner-city London church — think The Vicar of Dibley, in reverse.

The second series of this insanely popular comedy drama, created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, featured a prominent storyline in which the main character, known as Fleabag, fell hard for a “hot priest” played by Andrew Scott. SPOILER ALERT: The romance doesn’t end happily; it’s really not that kind of show.

This show does not focus on a vicar, but rather on a thoroughly obnoxious, class-conscious matron (Hyacinth Bucket — pronounced “Bouquet”), her long-suffering husband Richard, and a solid supporting cast of Hyacinth’s decidedly lower-class family members and the neighbors she terrifies. The vicar in this program pops up quite frequently, as Hyacinth is always trying to involve him and his wife in her candlelight dinners and other schemes, but he is most of note for being good-looking. Hyacinth’s man-crazy sister Rose (“our Rose”) is always very happy when “that dishy vicar” shows up.

Well, no, not really, but vicars often seem to pop up in her mysteries. See A Caribbean Mystery, At Bertram’s Hotel, Murder at the Vicarage, etc.

Did I miss any? My true religion is watching as much British TV as possible, and I’m always looking for suggestions!

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Sarah Cords

Written by

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything.” Author of “Bingeworthy British Television.” Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.

FanFare

pop culture conversations

Sarah Cords

Written by

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything.” Author of “Bingeworthy British Television.” Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.

FanFare

pop culture conversations

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