A CHURCH service gave actor Tom Hollander the idea for his new series, Rev, a "priest-com" that may well have a large congregation of viewers flocking to BBC2.
"I went to the christening of a godchild," he says. "As we stood at the fount, I remembered the child's father at university celebrating the fact that he had reduced his mother to tears by proving the non-existence of God. I thought, 'here we are 20 years later, and your very sensible wife has realised that the best way of getting a really good free education is a church primary school. This would make a good subject for a sitcom'."
And so it is that Hollander and I are sitting chatting about that very sitcom. The 42-year-old is ensconced in the distinctly secular surroundings of a Soho hotel bar. He radiates a natural magnetism – it would not be hard to imagine the In The Loop and Pirates Of The Caribbean star as a charismatic vicar holding his parishioners spellbound from the pulpit.
In Rev, Hollander plays just such a character. With his colourful turn of phrase and fondness for a drink and a ciggie, the "Rev" of the title, Adam, could at first glance pass for one of those trendy vicars seen on Newsnight explaining why – "in a very real sense" – belief in God is an optional extra for a modern clergyman.
Adam and his long-suffering wife (Olivia Colman from Peep Show ) have been transferred from a leafy, tranquil rural parish to a more rumbustious church in the urban jungle of south London. There he has to be priest, social worker, policeman, teacher and counsellor all rolled into one.
The aforementioned idea of the moral compromises (OK then, hypocrisy) required for some parents to get their children into a church school forms the basis of the first episode of Rev. Adam has to cope with the sudden influx of middle-class parents enticed through his church doors by "the whiff of a good Ofsted" at his C of E school.
As he is dragged kicking and screaming into church, the bratty son of one father, the smarmy local MP (Alexander Armstrong), exclaims: "Why are we doing this? It's not Christmas!" These parents are all of a sudden pressing cases of wine on the reluctant vicar and offering to pay for repairs to broken stained glass windows in his church. Rev is a pleasingly authentic series, which is helped no end by the absence of a laughter track. After the cartoony exploits of Dawn French in The Vicar Of Dibley, this comedy about the daily struggles of a C of E clergyman seems much more plausible.
Priests have long been the focus of comedy. In addition to French, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Rowan Atkinson have all made memorably amusing vicars, while Derek Nimmo based almost his entire career on playing comic clergymen. Perhaps the finest sitcom of recent times, Father Ted, extracted endless laughs from the three dimmest priests in the known universe.
Hollander, who took the rather more sinister role of the scheming Lord Cutler Beckett in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, reckons clergymen make a good subject for comedy. "We all struggle to behave well, but it's more extreme for vicars because they look sillier when things go wrong."
He has a theory as to why writers have so often been drawn to men and women of the cloth. "Stories about vicars are always being told because they're at the heart of our society. Vicars touch all parts of the community and see life in all its extremity.
"They meet everyone from people grieving for lost loved ones to those approaching imminent death to the homeless to youngsters eager learn about life. They cover all the bases. As a vicar, you're the one person who can't say no – your door is always open. So writing a comedy about a vicar, you can go down pretty much any route. It's a terrific narrative spur."
"The vicar is an eternally fascinating character," continues the actor, who has previously played a more pompous parson, Mr Collins, in Pride And Prejudice. "The church is still one of the pillars of our society. Christian morality is in our daily lives whether we recognise it as Christian or not. When we get christened or married or die, we drift naturally in the direction of the church. And in moments of crisis, when our spiritual Tom-Tom is no longer telling us what to do, we find ourselves scrabbling at the vicarage door."
Hollander studied English at Cambridge University, where he was directed in several student productions by Sam Mendes. He says religion is enjoying a resurgence because we live in turbulent times.
"The church has always been a useful litmus test for society. We're entering a phase now where people are becoming more interested in religion and that which lies beyond. It's a strange and frightening time – everything is changing so much. Nature is altering so dramatically, and science appears to have let us down. That's why people are turning to religion."
Hollander goes to church from time to time, but describes his own faith as "wishy-washy". He hopes Rev might prompt some viewers to rethink their attitude to organised religion. "This series in no way takes the mick or indicts the church," he says. "In a very modest way, it is pro the church and pro this vicar. I emerged from this show with a great deal of respect for vicars. They put up with a lot and do really good work for people having a bad time.
"Clearly, our ambition is not to fill churches – and nor would we stand any chance of doing that. But if Rev makes people think, 'maybe I'll poke my head inside the local church and see if something nice happens', that would be great."
After starring in such diverse pieces as Gosford Park, The Lost Prince, Cambridge Spies, Enigma, Valkyrie, The Company, John Adams and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Hollander is one of Britain's most versatile performers and has several intriguing projects in the pipeline. He is portraying the Duke of Windsor opposite Gillian Anderson in William Boyd's adaptation of his own historical novel, Any Human Heart, for Channel 4. He is also starring alongside Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana in Joe Wright's new thriller about a child assassin, Hanna. "I play a child-catching German choreographer – say no more. It's fun to play someone so venal after Adam."
Hollander's only concern, it seems, is overexposure. "You don't want people to think, 'oh no, not him again'. I'm not wishing to invite anonymity on myself, but you have to choose your moments."
He closes by reflecting on how, in a notoriously fickle industry, he has managed to remain in-demand over the past 15 years. "Your relationships within the business are very important. I read what Jerry Hall said to her daughter about becoming a model: 'Turn up on time and be nice'. That's pretty good advice."
Rev begins on BBC2 on 28 June
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 20 June.