TV review: The Minster offers us a peep behind closed church doors

The team who make the Minster tick. Stone carver Martin Coward, head verger Alex Carberry, outreach worker Helen Moore, dean Vivienne Faull, superintendent of works Rebecca Thompson, head of police Steven Wilkinson. Photograph: BBC / Anna Louise Crossley
3 Apr 2014 @ 10.02 pm
| News
The team who make the Minster tick. Stone carver Martin Coward, head verger Alex Carberry, outreach worker Helen Moore, dean Vivienne Faull, superintendent of works Rebecca Thompson, head of police Steven Wilkinson. Photograph: BBC / Anna Louise Crossley
The team who make the Minster tick. Stone carver Martin Coward, head verger Alex Carberry, outreach worker Helen Moore, dean Vivienne Faull, superintendent of works Rebecca Thompson, head of police Steven Wilkinson. Photograph: BBC / Anna Louise Crossley

The Minster (BBC1, Sundays)
Rev (BBC2, Mondays)

I walk past York Minster at least once every day, and it’s a place I’ve never taken for granted. Perhaps Constantine’s haughty gaze keeps me on my toes.

I love the way the Minster changes with the seasons, golden in summer, almost ethereal on a misty November evening, like something from an Atkinson Grimshaw painting.

It makes The Minster (BBC1) essential viewing for me and doubtless thousands of others in these parts.

The Sunday afternoon programme provides us with a “privileged peep”, as Lloyd Grossman used to say in Through The Keyhole, into “the story of one year in the life of the Minster”.

I’ve observed before that there’s something very appealing about seeing your own doorstep on the television, especially when it’s presented so attractively.

Part of the pleasure is the familiarity, things we recognise and people we know. Isn’t that our neighbour’s van? Haven’t I seen that stonemason in Coffee Culture?

They are not the most sophisticated of observations but I dare say we’re all guilty from time to time.

The Minster provides entertaining and occasionally heart-warming insights into the herculean task of keeping the show on the road at England’s largest medieval building, including snapshots of the activities of everyone from volunteers, vergers, choristers and masons to the Minster’s own police force.

A few years ago, another fly-on-the-wall Minster documentary featured someone telling Canon Glyn Webster (now the Bishop of Beverley): “I got a pork pie for epiphany,” an observation worthy of Alan Bennett.

We’ve had nothing to match that so far, although the first episode did feature verger Iain Kelly swinging up and down on the bell ropes.

What is it with vergers? One of the most fondly remembered images of the William-Kate wedding at Westminster was of the verger doing cartwheels along the aisle.

Perhaps it’s just the exuberance of having a joyous and uncomplicated religious faith.

Tom Hollander as Adam in Rev. Photograph: BBC / Phil Fisk
Tom Hollander as Adam in Rev. Photograph: BBC / Phil Fisk

I’ve always been interested in the way church people are portrayed in literature, film and television, perhaps because as a teenager I was attracted briefly to the idea of becoming ordained.

I have absolutely no doubt that the church would have been happier and more fulfilling place for me than newspapers, but alas it is no place for atheists.

Things have generally moved on from Jane Austen’s day, when vicars were portrayed as buffoons getting married to sensible, plain girls of little income.

So it was good to see Rev (BBC2) again.

The Rev Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) is no buffoon. He’s more of a decent, albeit faintly comical figure, fighting a losing battle against a mad world.

The first episode of the new series was a winner. A joke about drug money going into church funds was done with brilliant economy and a rich and various set of potential comic story lines has been set up, full of promise for the weeks to come.

The handsome and unnervingly witty Imam Yussef (Kavan Novak) at the local (and of course thriving) Mosque will doubtless be a thorn in Adam’s side.

Yussef made a passing quip about Christianity’s “three Gods” which, unsurprisingly, failed to amuse Adam who thinks he’s a bit smug.

Christians throughout the ages have puzzled over the Holy Trinity and all that one-in-three, three-in-one stuff. It’s an obvious target for mockery by someone from another faith.

I’m always a bit on edge when the saturnine and cynical archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney) is on screen.

He’s not a man you’d particularly want as a friend or an enemy, and there’s an element of danger about him which reminds me of the terrifying Bishop Brennan in Father Ted.

Adam is a new dad, and has a tiny and distinctly oddball congregation. Life’s not going to be any easier for him than it was in the previous series.

He reminds me of a young and energetic but rather guileless midfielder who has never quite got the ball under control.

Let’s just hope he’s allowed to come out ahead of the game in a few skirmishes.