Ten Live Tweeting Commandments: Part Two

This is going to make a lot more sense if you read Part One. I think I can only number it 1-5, but we all know it’s 6-10, right?

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  1. Another historical experience live-tweeting might allow us better to imagine is the role played the early modern repertory company. Some of the pleasure of the Marathons involves an increasing identification between certain readers and a certain kind of role, which is reinforced by the ongoing Twitter commentary about the aptness (or otherwise) of the casting. Over three years of play-readings, I have found myself repeatedly given the parts of flustered young gallants and thundering kings: our esteemed organiser, Dr Martin Wiggins, is by this point indelibly associated with sorcerers, clowns and Welshmen.

    It’s possible that this is only relevant to those present in the room, but given that many tweeting in from afar have some personal familiarity with the performers, they are also often responding on the basis of accumulated associations. Seeing readers play related parts in quick succession allows links to be made and theories to be expounded with regard to the original casting: it also helps us vividly understand the joke of Polonius playing Julius Caesar. Something of the necessarily reactive, improvisatory quality of early modern acting — reading cold, delivering your lines with the motivation of a genuine response to a cue you might have never heard before — also comes across in this method of engagement.

    https://twitter.com/WestDane/status/611107381842440192

    https://twitter.com/adambcqx/status/614753275963961346?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

  2. Live-tweeting is a lot of fun for those involved in it, but also potentially alienating for those who want to engage with the reading process in a different way. Though I heard no explicit complaints during the #dekkerthon, it was clear that not everyone reading the text was comfortable or interested in engaging with the Twitter feed, and of course, nor should they have to be. Does this imply any kind of gap opening up between digital and non-digital approaches to the humanities? If so, does it point to any deeper divides which contemporary scholars who work heavily with digital and social media ought to be aware of, and what are the possibilities for bridging the gap between these different varieties of engagement?

    [THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]

  3. Following on from the above, it’s clear that live-tweeting tends to prioritise certain experiences of the play over others. Not everything we get in the room from reading the play is summarisable; not every line is equally quotable without its context. Put bluntly, knob and fart jokes play better on Twitter than abstruse Latin references, and as such they’re correspondingly more visible in what becomes the digital record of the play.

    The more obscure the play, the more problematic this might seem: the impression that we give of any text we read is undeniably a skewed and a reduced one, however hard we might try to offer more traditionally scholarly material. That said, is anyone going to read a bunch of live-tweets about The Welsh Ambassador who isn’t also more than averagely likely to go away and read The Welsh Ambassador? And if not, does this pose any ethical problems?

    On the other hand, it does mean this happens:

    https://twitter.com/notrockyhorror/status/613302155781537792?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

  4. As Eoin Price has noted in his great post about reading the tweets without participating in the room, there is a marked resemblance between live-tweeting the early modern practice of commonplacing. When we tweet these texts, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we’re doing, and who it’s for: the audience in the room, or beyond it? Are these tweets our own records of the text, a kind of intellectual crib of the lines we enjoyed or wanted to remember for own research, or are they a way of enticing potential readers? Should we aim to tweet in a way that clarifies the throughline of the play, giving a flavour of every scene and plot development, so that a reader can follow the entire narrative? Or should we (as in practice, I think we mostly do) tweet at particular flashpoints, underscoring the lines or moments that have had the most comic or dramatic impact? (As a side-note, it’s obvious that the plays that have the most people tweeting about them produce the greatest amount of content, and that the most popular plays to attend are probably the ones of which readers already have a background awareness: is this self-reinforcing, and is this a problem?)

    It’s worth reflecting on whether we tweet primarily to summarise, to offer commentary, or – and this is no small thing – to express and share the pleasures of discovery these unfamiliar texts produce. And it’s probably worth asking if going about this task with any kind of self-consciousness about its academic value or otherwise is likely to stymie the fluidity and surprise which makes it so exciting to be a part of, even if that might make it somewhat less edifying to read at home.

  5. A final point which underlies much of the above: comedy is easier to live-tweet than tragedy. As such, when we do live-tweet a primarily tragic narrative (as, for instance, Shirley’s The Cardinal), the questions above might be especially pertinent: what are we hoping to convey? Will we inevitably focus on the comic elements of the tragedy, or does the absence of obvious jokes make it easier to foreground the dramatic poetry (something I sometimes fear is a casualty of the pithy format)? On the one hand, this suggests some plays aren’t going to benefit from live-tweeting as a method of response. On the other, it’s an endemic problem that early modern comedy is far less highly valorised in academia than its tragic counterpart. A lot of what we turn to Twitter for is making people laugh. If that’s what these plays are doing to, and the medium helps us to rediscover that, perhaps it’s no bad thing to put them centre stage. That said, I’m looking forward to a time when my own timeline is no longer filled with the word ‘whoremonger’. In that respect, I’m glad this comes but once a year.

    https://twitter.com/notrockyhorror/status/746299173520162816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

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I’d love to know what anyone else, involved in the Marathons or otherwise, thinks about the pleasures and perils of live-tweeting early modern drama: do comment below if there’s something you’d like to add. You can find all of the #dekkerthon tweets here yourself, and all the Shirley Marathon entries on this much more clumsily-integrated website which I cobbled together last year, when I refused to simply lie down and take WordPress’s refusal to play nice with Storify, with predictable consequences. I haven’t gone as far back as the Heywood Marathon for most of these points, largely because it doesn’t have its own site, but you can find everything posted under that hashtag here. Martin’s blog on this year’s marathon is here. See you all next year?

 

The Break

The Break 

‘s what raises you
	and places you above
the life you’re leaving, severed
	from the one you live;
what hurls you forth
	and holds you to the light;
whatever makes you into someone who’s made it,
and ‘it’’s the break, and what comes afterwards.

The break’s a falling-off
	that isn’t flight;
is where you score the line decisively,
where change asserts its edge;
is where the present stops being itself,
	the past becomes a cliff;
is what divides, on
	either side, ‘What if’.

It’s where we wait
		until
		     whatever’s next;
is the white spaces in the text;
	is what’s suspended between page and pen
before the leader signs the law;
	is where we pause;
		is where we start again.	

Fresh Meat’s Poetry Problem

VOD: Oggs. More poetry for you.

OREGON: Right. I’ll get the wheelbarrow.

— Fresh Meat. Series 4, Episode 4.

On Thursday night, I went to the London launch of Magma, a poetry magazine with a rotating editorship which devotes each issue to a chosen theme. The theme of Issue 64 was ‘Risk’, and guest editors Jon Stone and Dom Bury raised an interesting question: to what extent can any poetic technique or manoeuvre in the Arts Council-cosseted, privileged, decadent West be considered risky? On the other hand, doesn’t writing in a genre as maligned and mocked as contemporary poetry bring with it the inherent risk that no one gives a fuck what you have to say?

I’ve been thinking recently about something Jon wrote in response to a snide, belittling article the Sunday Times published on T. S. Eliot winner Sarah Howe, and the backlash it inspired from poets and feminists:

The crux of the problem with Oliver Thring’s condescending profile of Sarah Howe in the Sunday Times is that journalists don’t know how to approach poetry. They struggle to say anything intelligent or intelligible about it, so they mostly talk *around* it, rooting around for journalistic cliches in the life of the poet or the decor of their flat. The poetry itself has to fit a superimposed narrative template, of which there are very few: ‘Old, oblique sage-poet is national treasure’, ‘Young/black poet is introducing new generation to poetry’, ‘Young/black/female poet tackles political/personal issues’. If you’re young/black/female and aren’t transparently addressing (to the point of name-checking) personal and political issues in your poems, the journalist is all but rudderless.

And I’ve been thinking, especially, about Fresh Meat, the Channel 4 dramedy about the intellectual and emotional growing pains of six students at Manchester Medlock University whose fourth and final season is about to come to an end. A running thread of season 4 sees the establishment of the Oregon Shawcross Poetry Prize. Like the Student Union President herself, played by Charlotte Ritchie, the Shawcross Prize is a mix of blatant egotism and misguided good intentions. But it also allows Fresh Meat, much more perceptively than Oliver Thring, to talk *around* poetry for a variety of other storytelling purposes. In so doing, the Shawcross plotline is extremely revealing about the contested cultural position of poetry today.

webanxfreshmeats4e4
Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) defends her investment

Oregon initially turns to poetry, and the funding of a major prize for contemporary work, as something that will look good on a Fulbright application, making the candidate’s CV ‘basically bomb-proof.’ What kind of poetry the prize might favour or encourage isn’t clear at this stage, except that it will ‘inspire and energise all of us’: this is poetry as prestige project. This kind of blanket assertion of the value of poetry, David Clarke suggests, is what makes it so culturally suspect:

Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade.

The second episode of the series, scripted by Tom Basden, declares the £20,000 Shawcross prize ‘the most lucrative poetry prize in the UK.’ This is technically at least half-true: the Edwin Morgan Award also gifts its winner a cool £20,000, but this is awarded on the basis of a full collection and only Scottish writers are eligible; the T S Eliot has also recently risen to £20,000. As such, the Shawcross represents the richest pickings a single poem from the UK as a whole can reasonably hope for. This particular cash bonanza is apparently instrumental in reviving a dead form. ‘I’m bringing poetry back. Hard,’ says Oregon proudly: poetry as good cause; poetry as charity case.

fresh2bmeat-4
Rosa (Ayda Field) is unimpressed

When the financial implications of this are revealed, however, the response of university administrator Nas is a resounding ‘Oh fuck.’ Not only can the University not fund poetry to this extent, it’s not even something it ought to countenance. Doing so would entail cuts to areas of investment which are, it is heavily implied, of far greater worth, either due to their popularity or their necessity to quality of life: these include both mainstream and disability sports, and the campus’s Nightline service. Former colleague Rosa lays out the choice in Penelope Skinner’s third episode:

You took away their special minibus. The one that takes them from the outreach programme to the disadvantaged youth centre. And you used the money to fund poems for a prize named after yourself.

Poetry is worth less than any of these things. If poetry requires defunding these activities, it undermines Oregon’s claims to be a socially progressive president: she associates rugby with ‘loaded landed toffs’, but ignores its contribution to the lives of students with disabilities. The high cultural worth of poetry, as suggested by its appeal to the Fulbright judges, does not translate into any comparable monetary value. Investing in it is self-evidently the wrong financial priority for a modern university: poetry as billionaires’ budget; poetry as elitist and reactionary; poetry as land-grab.

The situation isn’t helped by Oregon’s choice to name the prize after herself, nor by the reference to Christ (‘I won’t be the first person to be crucified for trying to do something good’) she argues is an allusion, not a comparison: ‘It’s a subtle difference, and one that, if you read more poetry, you’d understand.’ This is poetry as vanity project; poetry as snobbery; poetry in the service of a messiah complex.

Ultimately, the outrage over this misappropriation of funds leads to impeachment. ‘A majority of the student body’ are involved in a vote of no confidence in Oregon’s presidency. They’re up in arms not least over the reimbursements claimed by Tony Shales, English Literature Professor and turbot obsessive: poetry as expenses scandal. Justifying the measure she’s taken to balance the books, Oregon channels George Osborne: ‘we – I – have had a lot of tough decisions to make, and we – I – have always had the best interests of the student body at heart.’ Poetry is identified with the unjust exercise of power: it sparks a revolution, not by energising the populace as Oregon wishes, but by being exactly the last thing the students of Medlock want or need. It’s a waste of money, and one that brings about the leader’s downfall. This is poetry as political football; poetry as huge, trumpeting white elephant.

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Professor Tony Shales (Tony Gardner) — would you trust this man to judge your poetry prize?

And perhaps that’s the end of the story. Oregon’s presidency is, after all, at an end, and the series has only one more episode to go. But although it seems unlikely, I’d like to hope to think this isn’t the end of the Shawcross Prize. Firstly, there are genuine plot reasons for it to play out: two housemates, Vod and JP (Zawe Ashton and Jack Whitehall) are in financial trouble £20,000 would do a lot to resolve, and both have shown some interest in poetry in previous episodes. Vod’s friend on the hippie commune in episode 3 is a ‘sand-poet’, who has written ‘over 1,000 poems in the sand’; in Jon Brown’s fourth instalment, JP attempts to enter the competition with a series of limericks which Oregon instantly rejects.

These glimpses of what poetry might mean in the Fresh Meat universe bring me to my final point, which links to Jon Stone’s question of approach. The plotline circles around and around the potential prize-winner – we see wheelbarrows full of unread entries being cremated in the house’s garden – but at no point has the show what kind of poem might win, except by negative example. JP’s limericks are too frivolous, however well-crafted (I liked the ‘Stowe/blow’ rhyme), for what seems to be an inherently weighty matter: ‘You’re not going to win with a limerick’, Oregon bluntly declares. Paz’s sand-poems, with their inbuilt transience, receive a sceptical response: ‘and that’s… good, is it?’ By the standards of the prize’s founder, we can assume that a worthy winner would offer something both serious and lasting, but beyond that, we don’t get any closer to what the show or its characters consider ‘good poetry’ to be. To get structural for a moment, ‘poetry’, and especially the implied term ‘good poetry’ becomes a shifting signifier whose signified is endlessly deferred. This allows for all of the plot points details above, but also suggests a fundamental uncertainty over what value poetry actually has in this narrative: whether ‘good poetry’ exists in this world at all, or the whole art form is only there to be mocked.

Asking Tony to sift the entries, Oregon tells the lecturer she needs someone to ‘shovel through the shit and find the gold’. So if there is gold out there, what does it look like? Presenting a poem as worthy in its own terms is something the series consistently avoids, like staring directly at the sun. Having trailered Jeanette Winterson as a judge, it would be fascinating to see Fresh Meat nail its colours to the mast and have her cameo in episode six. Would the scriptwriters commission a real poet to provide the winning entry, or put something together themselves that stays true to the voice of a familiar character? If the latter, will the poem be merely revealing of that character’s inner struggles, or presented within the world of the show as a work of actual literary value? And will we, at home, be expected to agree?

One answer might be offered by the end of Skinner’s episode three, where Josie, Vod and Oregon read through the entries on a car trip back to Manchester. In turn, the three friends dismiss as ‘Shit!’ and throw out of the window three poems: one with a run of sing-song rhymes (‘said/dead/Maidenhead’), one which is cut off almost immediately after the sentimental trigger-word ‘alone’, and one which begins ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village, though.’ This is, of course, the opening of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’, and is proclaimed unanimously ‘Shit!’ by all three students. Reading it with the same inflexion as the first shit entry, Kimberley Nixon’s Josie seems to be conveying that this, too, is doggerel.

For the viewer who doesn’t know the original, this might seem pretty accurate: the final entry in a terrible triumvirate. For one who does, it’s a fun in-joke, but also poses an interesting problem: what do the show’s creators think of this poem, and how does it fit within Fresh Meat’s discourse on the place of poetry? Assuming they don’t also think it’s shit, is this a comment on the callowness of youth, and how much less these characters know than they believe they do? While in-keeping with some of the show’s more recent developments, this seems too harsh. I wonder it’s more a comment on the fact that no poem, however powerful or canonical, can adequately convey its pleasures in a speeding car as the latest in a long, dull pile. Read in the context of the competition, Frost’s opening does sound like doggerel. But if we accept it isn’t, we also have to accept that poetry requires time to yield its benefits; that it can’t be judged at speed, and at face value. We have to accept that there is some value to poetry, even some need for it, given the right circumstances — even if the framework of cultural associations built up around it makes it very hard to know exactly what that is.

It’s hard to be the Bard – but why?

Judging by the songs available on YouTube, the Broadway musical Something Rotten strikes an interesting balance between propagating familiar pop-cultural myths about the early modern period and unpicking some of those assumptions through playful anachronism. The opening number, for example, welcomes us to ‘the Renaissance/Where everything is new’: far from a transitional period still processing and remaking its medieval heritage, the 16th century is presented as a new broom. ‘Our mugs are made of pewter,/Our houses all are Tudor’: the Middle Ages are banished entirely, and one writer is securely ‘the top’. Can you guess who it is yet?

When William Shakespeare first appears, according to at least one dodgy video (mea culpa – the show’s UK transfer is yet to be confirmed), he’s far above us, at an open window. Fans crowd around on the lower stage, behind a Hollywood-style red rope. This visual elevation is notable partly because the fellow writers who we have just heard about, in a fairly comprehensive roll-call, all pranced about on that lower level. Shakespeare isn’t alone, after all – the lyrics, by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, go so far as to include a ‘Woo!’ for Thomas Dekker – he’s just higher. Better.

This introduction is based around the very post-Renaissance concept of Shakespearean exceptionalism, where all roads lead to the Bard. Other early modern authors get their moment in the sun on condition that they endorse, and help to create, the Shakespeare myth (here, as in other posts, I’m channeling the great article by Peter Kirwan footnoted below.) Rather than one among many, Shakespeare is the One who crowds literally kneel and worship – his celebrity, his popularity, and what he himself (not in this play…) refers to as ‘vile participation’ (Henry IV Part 1, 3.2.87), all feed into this sense of a democratically-elected superiority. As the character announces in a moment which sits between the mass market Shakespeare of Victorian cheap print and the modern dictator’s personality cult, ‘I am the will of the people now.’

In this context, even the repudiation of Shakespeare is a kind of naughty thrill that re-affirms his centrality. To sing along with fictional rival playwright Nick Bottom’s ‘I Hate Shakespeare‘ – the song released, complete with lyric video, as a kind of promotional digital single – you have to say the name ‘Shakespeare’ itself no less than fourteen times. And though Bottom’s attack makes points that seem fair from a twenty-first-century focus on clarity and originality – ‘He’s a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can’, who makes the audience ‘feel so dumb’ – these things are enjoyable because we know we’re not really supposed to say them. If Shakespeare is the will of the people, joining in these admissions of antipathy has a transgressive quality – we’re watching a musical about Shakespeare, after all.

So what impact does the desire to reclaim Shakespeare as an essentially modern celebrity – a figure set apart from his Renaissance context, even as that context is made to feel more distinctly modern by virtue of his position as its leader – have on Something Rotten’s depiction of Shakespeare himself? Well, in simple terms, it goes to his head. Christian Borle’s Bard is arrogant, preening – ‘a rock star in a leather jacket’, as one interviewer addresses him. He also, intriguingly, suffers from writer’s block.

By being acclaimed ‘the soul of age’ in his own lifetime (not after his death, as in Jonson’s poem), Shakespeare leaves the age behind, becoming defined instead by notions of authorship which not only post-date Shakespeare but which also arguably arose in response to his daunting influence. When Borle laments how his busy schedule and the ‘trappings of fame’ prevent him sitting down to compose, he’s referring to a way of treating authors as public property which is justified by the sense of the author as unique genius, a biographical figure whose life is celebrated as the source of the ‘inspired’ work.

Jonathan Bate has argued that ‘Shakespeare was the first writer in Western high culture to be praised specifically for his supposed artlessness’, for ‘genius in the sense of ‘native endowment’ as opposed to ‘the art which could be achieved by study’. Through Shakespeare, genius becomes associated with a model vision of authorship, which from the Romantic period onwards has increasingly foregrounded authors as figures worthy of public fame. In the promotional video, we see Borle’s Shakespeare trying and failing to exercise the native genius expected of him:

and you’re trying to find
an opening line
or a brilliant idea
and you’re pacing the floor
and hoping for uh
just a bit of divine intervention

so you write down a word
but it’s not the right word
so you try a new word
but you hate the new word

Shakespeare here is swamped by expectations, by the pressure of a whole culture looking in at his window, constantly aware of ‘This bar that I’m raising/To be this amazing.’ He has become subject to the anxiety of his own influence: ‘Hard to alleviate, the pressure to create!/(It’s hard)/Hard to do something as good as the last thing I did that was already great!’ In other words, he is blocked by what are essentially modern assumptions about how good Shakespeare should be. This is a far cry from the inherited idea of Shakespeare’s genius which relies directly on his lack of creative inhibition: Milton praised his ‘easy numbers’, and Jonson carped that ‘hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d’. While Shakespeare as presented by Jonson ‘never blotted out line’, Borle (like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love) is practically throwing reams of unsatisfying drafts out of the window.

In emphasising how exceptional Shakespeare’s writing is, Something Rotten thus paradoxically makes him seem a lot more like us. There is an image, and there is a person onstage struggling with his own creative process who might not be able to quite live up to it. Kirkpatrick’s lyrics don’t tell us it’s hard to be Shakespeare – they announce ‘it’s hard to be the Bard’, a version of ‘Shakespeare’ that audiences like us have created. Shakespeare holds the cultural prestige of the untouchable literary superstar partly because of the old narrative of his artlessness, his facility – one that survives in part because, as Richard Burt argues, ‘mass culture narratives rely on dated scholarship.’ Here, however, this is precisely the version of himself that Borle’s Bard – because of his hyperinflation as a cultural symbol – is conspicuously failing to deliver. Everything is new in Something Rotten’s Renaissance – except for the difficulty of finding anything new to say. This is a cultural problem which the narrative of Shakespeare’s pre-eminence, his ease, has done a great deal to create; so much that it now finds its way back into narratives of Shakespeare himself at work.

 

References

— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.”Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.

— Richard Burt. “Shakespeare in Love and the End of the Shakespearean: Academic and Mass Culture Constructions of Literary Authorship” in Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 215.

— Jonathan Bate. The Genius of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. London: Picador, 2008.

— https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-hard-to-be-the-bard-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-i-hate-shakespeare-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/something-rotten-welcome-to-the-renaissance-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/something-rotten-will-power-lyrics/

Found Poem

The lines of the following poem are all subheadings introducing quotes for the term ‘Love’ in an 1884 book: The Student’s Topical Shakespeare: Thirty-Seven Plays, Analyzed and Topically Arranged for the Use of Clergymen, Lawyers, Students, Etc.

Love

Its absurd Vows
Its Avowal Desired
Its bewildering Power
Its bewitching Tyranny
Its Conquests
Its contradictory Character
Its Dart not invisible
Its Difficulties
Its Effect on Time
Its Infatuation
Its Jealousy
Its Messengers should be swift
Its monstrous Promises
Its own Dowry
Its pacifying Power
Its Reason no Reason
Its Shadows
Its Treasures

What Rev is doing right

It’s very rare for Rev to make me laugh out loud – which might seem an unusual admission for what I’ve already described as one of my favourite  comedies currently on British TV. This in itself suggests it’s worth looking more closely at how it works, and why it works so well, despite its fairly low rate of chuckles per minute; it might also suggest that when we like a TV comedy that isn’t always funny, we might want to think more about what comedy is.

Specifically, it's about these people

To begin with the banal; Rev is about people. It devotes a large proportion of time in each episode of its second series, which finished last night, to giving us a good sense of who its characters are, what they think of those around them, what they want, and what they think they want. Knowing what someone is supposed to be like makes it more interesting, and curiously, more plausible, when they do unexpected things: when Colin experiments with alternative forms of spirituality, for instance, or when Mick (admittedly not a developed character, but a well-established comic turn) kicks drugs and shares his secrets, or when Archdeacon Robert openly discusses his sexuality along with his spirituality, both of which have up to this point been kept firmly in the background. All of these moments have emotional weight because, rather than rushing for the comic jugular, writers Tom Hollander and James Wood have taken the time to craft, through subtle detail, a sense of psychological expectation which is solid enough for viewers to accommodate new information, the kind that doesn’t vanish by the time of the next thirty-minute episode. We finish Series Two feeling we know more about these people than we did at the start of it; that the problems and questions it raises will continue to matter at the start of Series Three.

Specifically, this God

But Rev is also about God – in a serious, not a frivolous way. I don’t know, and nor do I particularly want to, if Wood and Hollander are paid-up believers; but as the credits make clear, a lot of ecumenical advice has gone into the show’s creation. It tells, because rather than reducing religion to a series of paedophile priest quips (cf episode 5 of Life’s Too Short), or the brilliant, but perhaps slightly kitsch surrealism of Father Ted, the show gives voice to the debates and doubts about mercy, morality and the treatment of others which have always driven genuine religious reflection. It’s true that the show generally supports Adam’s ministry, though it also shows him as a selfish bastard with very human failings – but by engaging with religion’s role in the world in a serious way, it elevates the inquiries of the Church to a position where they can be endorsed or dismissed from genuine understanding and criticism rather than ignorance.

This is something the best atheist comedians – Stewart Lee being the most obvious example – have also always understood, to the extent that Lee’s Catholic wife Bridget Christie challenges him for it in her own show. She expresses incomprehension at his need to have a deeper knowledge of the Bible than she does, likening it to someone with a hatred of Jeremy Clarkson watching every single episode of Top Gear. But some of Rev’s funniest, and most dramatic, moments come out of this engagement; I’m thinking of the football match in which Adam screams out a pep-talk about the difference between Catholic and Protestant interpretations of God, quoting which might make my point more clearly: ‘But most of all let’s do it for our kind, liberal God, who loves women and gays, and not their vain, tasteless, demanding God who loves gold and supported the Nazis!’

Anglicans: totally fine with men holding balls

Although Rev has been well-received by critics, it doesn’t neatly fit the comedy genre, and I think this is because we’ve come to expect every moment of a comedy show to be in itself comic. It might be more helpful to consider the genre more as an indicator of tone than a contract to deliver a certain type of content; some of the best drama, after all, is full of moments of uproarious laughter (This Is England ’88, of which more next time), but wouldn’t get packaged as dramatic comedy in the same way something like Rev might end up filed under comedy-drama. The obvious point here is that genres aren’t an adequate, or a particularly useful, way to subdivide works of art; but given the criteria that develop around an art-form which we expect primarily to make us laugh, it’s worth remembering that what makes a comedy good or great might not always just be what makes it comic.