THE Reverend Richard Coles is not your standard vicar. From budding pop star to the Anglican priesthood, the writer, broadcaster and inspiration for BBC sitcom Rev could easily be considered a bit of a maverick, but it’s not a title he would give himself.
“That makes me think of Tom Cruise on a motorbike and I don’t think I’m that,” he laughs.
“I don’t think of myself as a maverick at all. Quite the opposite — I really think of myself as quite conventional but dispersed over unusual territory.”
That unusual territory started more than 30 years ago when the former member of The Communards and Bronski Beat was making music. Nearly three decades on, he’s here to talk about a new voyage into the charts.
The 55-year-old is playing DJ this time. He’s selected 41 of his favourite festive songs.
Standing tall and sporting his dog collar, Coles is warm and welcoming as he sits next to a plate piled high with pastries in Sony’s Kensington offices.
“I was sitting in Five Guys having a beef burger and ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ came on, which is great. But I wanted to get back to the original story.
“I wanted to put together a Christmas album that went back to the stable in Bethlehem and the source of it all. It kind of gets lost sometimes.”
From Aled Jones’ ‘Candlelight Carol’ to Mario Lanza’s ‘The First Noel’, The Reverend Richard Coles — Songs For Christmas certainly does that, but doesn’t he miss making his own music?
“I don’t think there’s any need to inflict my efforts on people particularly,” he says drily.
Further probing reveals a little more enthusiasm.
“I guess part of me would like to have another go with Jimmy really ... he was the best singer I ever worked with. And he was just so exciting to work with too.”
“Maybe for a charity thing,” he ponders, fidgeting in his seat.
Jimmy of course is Jimmy Somerville, Coles’ collaborator in both The Communards and Bronski Beat, but their friendship began before that. Both young men escaped their home towns (Kettering for Coles, Glasgow for Somerville) for the neon lights of Soho and the idea that in 1980s London almost anything was possible.
“I lived in a squalid flat in King’s Cross, Jimmy lived in a squat in Bloomsbury,” he says. “You could sign on, you could live hand-to-mouth, and I just don’t know how people could do that now.”
“There was a pungency about the culture in the Eighties,” he continues. “It created pungent music and record companies had the resources and were bothering to sign up new and exciting acts.”
Perhaps unaware he is sitting inside the building which houses Simon Cowell’s record label, Syco, he bemoans the X Factor’s “supermarketed” output.
“Lots of great musicians do come through that but it does produce something which lacks that pungency,” he adds.
“Do you know what?” he says after a short silence. “I frequently find myself praying for punk. For something to come along and upset everybody and ignite a few fires and behave disreputably.”
Not words you would expect from a man of the cloth. But anyway, is he not aware of grime? The raw, aggressive, do-it-yourself culture born in London that has since spread from Blackpool to Bournemouth?
“Grime has rather passed me by,” he says, beaming. “But I’m so glad to hear it’s there. I’m more of a Wagner man these days which is grime for the over-50s.”
He lives quite far from that pungent neon lights era of the Eighties, of course.
His parish is in Finedon, Northamptonshire, but this is a man who is far from shy and retiring. He’s fresh from starring in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing where, unfortunately, he was voted off after just three performances.
“It’s quite brutal because it’s so much fun,” he says. “It was like being a kid and playing again with fantastic toys.”
He had already planned an outfit for Blackpool — a cassock for the Argentine tango, he admits with a laugh.
Despite his dancing and desire for a punk revival, Coles really is a vicar at heart. “The things I worry about with religion isn’t to do much with forgetting Christmas,” he says. “It’s to do with religion being angry and violent.”
After a moment of silence he adds thoughtfully: “I wish people would connect with what we have to offer more and I think we have to ask ourselves lots of searching questions about why we are no longer persuasive to people.
“I often think people are hungry and we give them a menu they can’t read and a language they don’t understand.”
- The Reverend Richard Coles - Songs For Christmas is out now.