We took a trip to Finedon, Northamptonshire for an exclusive chat with the only Church of England vicar to have had a number one hit record. The Reverend Richard Coles first shot to fame as one half of 80s pop group, The Communards. He is now parish priest at St Mary's Church, Finedon and a well-known broadcaster, author and TV presenter. He is also hugely in demand on the speaking circuit. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with The Reverend Richard Coles
Where did you grow up and spend your early years?
I grew up in Northamptonshire and I love it here, where I am now, but when I was a teenager, and particularly when I knew I was gay, I did think that perhaps Kettering in 1978 was not going to be the summit of all I could achieve in life. So I escaped to London, like lots of people, lots of gay people in particular, in the 80’s who kind of ran away and life began.
So I arrived in London when I was 18, same time as Jimmy Somerville who arrived from Glasgow when he was 18, new in town, and sort of made up our own life really. You could do that in London, it was accessible then. You could arrive in London with nothing, get a foothold, and make up a new life.
How did you start in the music business?
I wish I could claim I’d had a master plan and it all worked out beautifully, but it wasn’t that. I simply fell in with a crowd of people who started doing interesting things.
My main good fortune was knowing Jimmy Somerville, and as soon as Jimmy opened his mouth and sang, I knew that that was something pretty spectacular. Not just because he was such a great singer, but because he managed to express through song the aspirations of a whole group of people. I think that was what made him so distinctive and so powerful.
As soon as I heard that I remember thinking this is a good thing to get involved with, and things snowballed from there. But I was the most undeserving pop star in the history of recorded sound.
How did your collaboration with Jimmy Somerville come about?
Jimmy and I were both runaways to London in the 1980’s, so we were living in the same part of London. He was living in a squat just opposite the British Museum, so kind of location, location, location squat, and I was round the corner in Kings Cross, and we immediately had this strange rapport which is odd because we’re very different.
He came from a very tough working class Glaswegian background, he grew up in a world of sectarian politics, and it was pretty awful, whereas I came from middle class, middle England - a public school boy. So we were very dissimilar, but often opposites attract, don’t they?
So we did have and still do have a rapport, we got on well, and he was just such an exciting, stimulating person to be around, he just made possibilities seem new and fresh, he was good at that.
How did you become involved with The Communards?
Bronksi Beat happened first of all. Basically, Jimmy got together with two guys who lived in his block, he was living in Camberwell in the tower block then, Larry and Steve, and they formed a little band for a gay arts festival that was started by Ken Livingstone when he was leader of the GLC.
I think really it was a two fingers to the tory government over the river in the Houses of Parliament, happy days. They did a gig for that and called themselves Bronksi Beat, after the little boy in The Tin Drum, the Volker Schlöndorff film, who had a piercingly high voice that changed things. Then Bronski Beat did one gig at Heaven, and there was a guy from a record company there – the minute he heard it he realised this was special and signed them.
They had a record out in just a matter of weeks and it went straight into the top five. So Bronski Beat went boom, and I can remember (I was then living in Kilburn) walking down the road and seeing Jimmy on the front of NME in a newsagents.
My friend all of a sudden was becoming a sort of public property and that was exciting, and also a little bit kind of envy making. Then Jimmy asked me to come and play in Bronski Beat, to play saxophone, and I did. Then he very quickly decided he wanted to leave Bronski Beat and form a new outfit with me, so we did.
I went in to pop music, I never went up and down the M6 in a van, the first ever gig I did was the Montreux pop festival as I recall, so I sort of went in at the first class end of the spectrum, rather than the standard. We had this kind of moment of success, quite a long moment of success compared to some bands, and then the tensions that inevitably come along with that began to affect us too. And the fact that we were so different, opposites in a way, which had given such energy to our friendship, also gave energy to us falling apart too, musical differences and the old cliché.
Also wanting to do different things, and also I got terribly jealous of Jimmy getting all the credit and all the attention, because I felt virtuous because I did all the work, well I didn’t, he did quite a lot of it too actually. I think those relationships between singers and instrumentalists can be quite tricky.
What was it like to be in a pop band in the 80s?
The 1980s was a good time to be in a pop band in the sense that you could do creative new things, and people would let you do that. It was just so richly rewarded because people bought records, and then CDs, so there was lots of money in the industry, and that was exciting.
And also people were just generally excited by pop stars, so the world would very soon start saying yes to you, and acquiescing to you, and also if you were a pop star who was trying to stand for something that felt like quite a vindication.
But it’s also very corrupting too because you earn too much money at a time of life when you’re really not made for that sort of good fortune, and also it’s impossible not, in the end, to start believing your own publicity, and that takes a little bit of, you get used to it in about three days, but getting used to it going away? That takes a bit longer.
How and why did you make the move from pop star to priest?
I kind of crashed out of pop music really, I kind of got to the end of the 80s and realized that my time as a pop-star was not going to be very long, and rightly so. I took some time off, I thought I would take a year off and work out what I was going to do, and all I did in the end was take drugs and go out.
The first six months of that was the most fun I ever had, and the second six months of that I don’t really remember, which is just as well, but it ended with me sort of crashing and burning in that pop-star way. And it was really in the middle of that, dealing with the sort of turbulence, and also HIV and AIDs had come along by now and kind of bashed in to the lives of my friends and me in a major way, and I kind of wanted to reflect and think about things in a new way.
I found I started getting twinges of what I felt when I was a boy in the school chapel, which was a good place to be even though I didn’t really understand what was going on, and I thought oh, there is something in that that I want to connect to again, So I very reluctantly took myself off to church, and the minute I did I realized it was my natural habitat, and I’ve stayed in it.
How did you find yourself moving back to Northamptonshire?
I was doing very nicely in London, my job before here was as curate in Knightsbridge SW1, the gritty inner-city parish, and I was going to move to a neighbouring parish in the tough mean streets of Mayfair, but I saw an advert for here in the Church Times.
I knew the church, always loved Northamptonshire, came from here, wanted to see more of my parents who are getting on, and then it just sort of came together. I thought, well actually, maybe that’s quite a good idea. So, I did, I came for an interview, I hadn’t really planned to but I thought it wont hurt, and then they offered me the job and I found myself accepting it without really thinking.
I remember I got back to London, I bumped in to a friend of mine who is a priest, a glamorous priest in London, he said I hear you’re going to Mayfair and I said no, I’m going to Finedon in the Diocese of Peterborough, and he said ‘what did the Bishop catch you doing?!’
How did you get involved in broadcasting?
I got in to broadcasting; really, I just fell in to it, again, another haphazard misstep really. I was Emma Freud’s agony aunt on her show on GLR, which was the BBC London station, which was produced by a young fellow down from Manchester called Chris Evans, what ever became of him? So, that was my…I just sort of fell in to that, and I only took that job because they didn’t pay me, but they gave me a cab home. And I couldn’t drive so I used to stop at Sainsbury’s and do my shopping for the week and get it home, which was responsible for my radio career.
But I loved it as soon as I did it, as soon as I found myself at home in studio, great. And then I moved to Radio 5 when that first started, and had all the advantages of getting involved with something new, when nobody knows what they’re doing. And then Radio 3, a surprise move, did that, and then Radio 4, and just sort of found all of a sudden I had been doing it for 25 years and loved doing it.
It works for the church; I think the church quite likes the idea of having somebody in a dog collar being on mainstream media. I quite enjoy all those panel shows, they are terrifying to do, especially when you are surrounded by professional comedians, although putting on a dog collar means you are half way to a laugh already.
The challenge, for me, is how do I try to do that, be viable doing that, at the same time be faithful to the tradition I represent? Sometimes I get that right, and sometimes I get it wrong, but I haven’t got it wrong enough yet to be defrocked, fingers crossed!
You came out as gay in the late 70s, was this a tough decision at the time?
It was quite a tough decision to come out, when I was 16 actually, in 1978, but I sort of had to do it. Partly because I couldn’t really cope with living without being open about it, that was bad, and also I had confidence that people around me would be supportive, and they were.
I remember the first person I came out to was my mum and I played her Tom Robinson’s Sing If You're Glad to Be Gay, I think it was four times before she said ‘darling, are you trying to tell me something?’, and then she said ‘I’ll tell your father’. But it was okay. It can’t have been news they wanted to hear, but I never doubted for a second that they loved me and cared about me, so that was fine.
And then it was a sort of battle for a while, but it was a battle worth fighting, and eventually prevailed.
Since that time, have attitudes improved towards gay people?
I think that if you look at the achievement in terms of equality and diversity generally for gay people, now for trans people, in the past 30 years, it’s been really extraordinary. I mean, a great victory, not everywhere.
There is still an awful statistic that one in four young gay men and women attempt suicide in teenagehood – that’s still the case now and that needs to be worked out. Bullying in schools has been a big issue, but generally speaking no, it’s a different world, a transformed world, and very much for the better. It’s a different story when you look further afield, but we are doing okay here I think.
Are you often asked to speak at LGBT and diversity events?
I am quite often asked to speak about LGBT and diversity issues, partly because the story of that over the last thirty years is also the story of my life and I have been involved in that fight, both as an activist but also as someone in a pop band, an out gay pop band, so we fought that good fight. But also now, of course, because I am a church representative, and the church still, in lots of aspects of its life, is still very resistant to the idea of full equality for gay people. So there is a live battle there that’s still being fought, which I am still very much involved with.
When did you realise there was a demand for you on the after dinner speaking circuit?
I think people like a good story, and I noticed with me, particularly when word got out, people noticed that I had become ordained, I think that was a story that kind of interested people. How did you get from there to there? People would ask it all the time, and then gradually that became a more formal thing and I’d be asked to go and speak to groups.
Again I just noticed that it was a story that seemed to catch people’s attention and then sooner or later that sort of became professionalized. And I really enjoy talking to people, especially people I don’t know, who represent industries that I know nothing about, or lives or experiences I know nothing about. I really enjoy that.
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