Mumford on Rev: Utterly confusing

Apparently: “Rev is insidious because it’s just so good.” I think I know what Mumford is getting at. Because so many people like the hit BBC sitcom Rev (because its so good), so the logic goes, there is a danger that the show will become the lookinglass through which society see’s the church. This is problematic, Mumford believes, because: “Rev is an outsider’s imaginative construction of an insider viewpoint – a secular take on the sacred.” But its not. It might not be a perfect summary of the best church can offer, but that’s phony kak anyway.

Mumford justifies his assertion that Rev isn’t really about the church by pointing to Colin, the drug addict who never changes. According to Mumford: “There’s never a question of faith freeing him from addiction.” This should be a point well taken, if all addiction was always cured by faith of the right sort. Colin’s starting point is in such a different place, its even a miracle he attends church regularly. Yes, Colin continually lets Adam down over issues of personal loyalty, but is Colin really meant to change, particularly given that this is a comedy and Colin stands in for the one that continually tries but fails in the area we want him to succeed? But to the observer who cares from time to time, there is a glimpse of Colin’s faithfulness, fruit we might not notice because we are too distracted by Colin’s “big problems”.

There are other reasons Mumford thinks the show is from the outside: “An insider view of the church would, by contrast, revolve around the reality of shared faith. From the outset, Rev’s operating assumption is that faith is individual. The Rev Smallbone’s prayer monologues are purely personal. Faith is not something held in common.”

This point is the only one worth considering. But to consider it tempts the genre. The Archers this ain’t. But Mumford is right to point out the prayer monologues (by definition!), the locked-in nature of Adams self in relation to other as atoms. But isn’t that part of the fun? Isn’t the fun exploring the honesty behind how he feels, rather than how we think he should feel? Don’t we often pray the way we think we should pray, rather than in a spirit of what is actually bugging us? Isn’t this what comedy should do?

Honesty is not the paramount virtue of course, but I would rather Adam pray than have the deafening silence between all the characters who, as Mumford rightly points out, don’t share faith. And yet again, isn’t this perhaps a reality for many who darken the doors of an Anglican church each Sunday? Even if they attend an HTB church plant? Its a terribly lonely place to be, church, from time to time. Sure not all the time, but then this would be a sit com and not a comedy.

Moreover, how often are Adams prayers answered? How many times are yours? I think a cursory review of episode after episode shows a link between Adams monologues and subtle plot development that hints at God. In case you have not tried, keep a prayer diary. You might find subtle plot developments in your own life that hint at God.

Mumfords insider/outsider criticism does not end there however, and here is where his points get particularly problematic.

He criticizes the authors over the episode on gay marriage: “Adam, our hero, summons the courage to marry his gay friends in a secret ceremony. ‘God won’t bless our union?’ says his bewildered friend. Adam: ‘God will. Of course He will.’” And thus, according to Mumford: “By coming down on one side, and by pillorying the characters who support the church’s position, Rev again imposes an outsider’s viewpoint.”

The problem is Adam does not marry them [Edit, a friend pointed out that technically he does at the end], not at the beginning anyway, though for all intense and purposes he might as well have. But the technicality is important, because Adam clearly sees the issue as a technicality because he also wants to do right by the church. His is not a gay pride parade, his is what he can offer and still stay within the letter of canonical law (despite feeling embarrassed towards his gay friends). In the end Adam does marry the couple but if memory serves me correctly, he does so because of the intense scrutiny he is put under by the church to see if cannon law was broken. That is to say, is the whole dramatic tension of the episode. So far from being an outsiders view, the episode is very much about the internal tension both of the institutions and of the individuals within it!

Mumford, I guess, cannot imagine himself into the shoes of a vicar who has been asked by his gay friends to marry them. Perhaps the outcome could have been different in the show, but to be honest, neither party was completely happy (Archdeacon, Rev, or gay couple), and Adams rebellion at the end is testament to this internal tension, rather than a condemnation of it.

Nevertheless and going beyond technicalities, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but there are plenty of insiders who would be happy to do what Adam did. This is hardly an outsiders view. But more importantly, and perhaps Mumford was in America for previous seasons of Rev, it was the Archdeacon who was passed over for a Bishopric because of his sexuality. This very same Archdeacon that we all love to hate, the manipulative, from time to time nasty, narcissistic and selfish Archdeacon. I wonder whose really inside and whose out on that point? Nobody.

Finally Mumford makes the most astonishing claim, namely that: “Rev goes nowere near the supernatural…” This a most strange, if not down right ignorant and untimely a claim since in the most recent episode, the penultimate, to the season finale, Adam meets God. In the form of Liam Neeson. But there are other times when as I have previously said, the monologue prayers anticipates, in a literary sense, god speaking.

As somebody said, the insider advisers who help the writers, it is their churchmanship and experience that inform the tone of the show and perhaps it is that what Mumford really has trouble with, since his churchmanship is likely different. But then he should have said so rather than usurping the right to the pulpit of what church life looks like for-himself, because apparently: “Believers who hate the church love how [Rev] lampoons everything they want to change.” Quite right Mumford, if only you loved her a little more as she is, you might find Rev a little less insidious. But then that too would diminish the need for comedy, which if it is to be any good, must be insidious though not pernicious.

If its pernicious, somebody has to explain to me a little more clearly how.

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Writing for The New Statesman Stewart Lee ask ‘Where are all the right-wing stand-ups?’, but is it really about right and left? Reagan seems to be an exception

Stuart lee organised and presented the Resofit...

Stuart lee organised and presented the Resofit, a benefit event for Resonance FM at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m an unadulterated fanboy of Stewart Lee. The ‘alternative’ stand-up comic is a cultural worker who might be classed in the high-art of stand-up comedy if the concept didn’t somehow seem a little absurd (Though it is true that at least one of his shows has been published in book format by Faber, with full post-modern annotation explaining the context or chronology of the given  paragraph, and I mean almost every paragraph. It reads like watching the DVD with Lee’s voice over commentary… well perhaps he is an intellectual comic.) In a recent article in the New Statesman Lee asks where all the right-wing stand-ups are, noting that while right wing writers can be funny, stand-up is different.

The African-American stand-up Chris Rock maintained that stand-up comedy should always be punching upwards. It’s a heroic little struggle. You can’t be a right-wing clown without some character caveat, some vulnerability, some obvious flaw. You’re on the right. You’ve already won. You have no tragedy. You’re punching down… Who could be on a stage, crowing about their victory and ridiculing those less fortunate than them without any sense of irony, shame or self-knowledge? That’s not a stand-up comedian. That’s just a cunt.

I agree with Lee, if the definition of right-wing is, as he defines it:

Ultimately, the left will lose. Big business will pollute the planet, capitalist culture will kill off the arts and humanities, schools will all be privatised, libraries will all close, social mobility will cease, the gulf between rich and poor will grow and everything beautiful will die. The left may note little human rights victories – gay marriage and the odd bit of better pay – but the machine is rolling inexorably forwards to crush it.

Yes, these are categories often associated with some forms of right-wing politics (most of the time caricatured out of proportion), but they can just as easily be associated with Labour politics in the post-Thatcher years. As for human rights, well those were pioneered by capitalist Americans (in the form of the Universal Deceleration of human rights) against the stonewalling perpetrated by communist Russia.

Here is where I think the categories of left and right stop being meaningful. I mean, since when did right-wing politics want everything beautiful to die? As for social mobility, that is the stated aim of every middle Englander supporting the Tory party. Ok its hyperbole but I think the power dynamics that underpins what Chris Rock is talking about isn’t about left and right, as much as Lee would like to see himself as a neo-revolutionary (aren’t we all now when confronted by the faceless screen of ‘the computer says No’?).

Assuming that the right-wing has won, might Stewart Lee be buying too much into the myth perpetrated by Francis Fukujama’s End of History and the Last Man, in which that neo-conservative lays out his thesis that after the fall of communism humanity has reached its zenith in the liberal democratic settlement? The great enemy communism has died, capitalism has prevailed and liberal freedom is our final lot. Even if this thesis was true, and its quite questionable since emerging economies and global politics and religion seem to contradict Fukujama’s conclusions, I can still think of a ‘sometimes’ stand-up comic who contradicts Lee’s rather colourful concluding line ending in the provocative c word.

Ronald Reagan is this example. It is clear that Reagan could be as self deprecating as his jokes could be sharp about others, and telling jokes from the position of power as President is not an easy feat to pull off, nevertheless his target–as Chris Rock would have it was to punch upwards. His enemy and the nub of his joke was oppression and deception in the form of the effects of totalitarian left-wing communism.

A great 12 minutes can be found here:

So I think the categories don’t quite fit the bill. Right and left don’t mean what they used to. If capitalism will steam role over the arts, then so will left wing ideology in form of socialist realism (even if now quite iconic, but that’s because its context is now free from oppression). No I think the categories that Lee should pay more attention to are appropriate form and freedom. Stand for the little man who is being steamrolled over by the state or big business. Stand against banking systems which don’t allow a manager to make a decision based on human interaction. Stand up and protest the defacement of human relationships through systems put in place which take away relationships and replace them with company policies. This is a type of humanism I think Stewart Lee represents, be he as he may be, a left wing stand up comedian.

I’ll leave you with this one:

“The party apparatchik comes to visit a farmer who, it is rumoured, went to church every day. He asks the farmer whether this is true and the farmer responds affirmatively, saying he goes every day and bows before the crucifix to pray. ‘Would you worship the great Party leader in the same way, comrade?’ asks the apparatchik. To which the farmer responds: ‘If he was up on that cross I might.’

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