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Richard Coles on leaving radio, TV and the church

Richard Coles is 'rediscovering' himself having left radio, TV and the church. Photo: Natalie Dawkins
Richard Coles is 'rediscovering' himself having left radio, TV and the church. Photo: Natalie Dawkins

These have been tumultuous years for Richard Coles. Now, after radio, TV and the church, he’s forging a new life as writer of crime fiction. He says it’s time to rediscover himself (although misses being a vicar).

There’s a title bestowed on certain people in the public eye these days. Performers and personalities held with affection and esteem, who’ve reached a particular point in their career become ‘a national treasure’, often to the amusement of their friends and family.

The Reverend Richard Coles certainly came in for some teasing as his celebrity status started to soar a few years ago. Appearances on Celebrity Mastermind, University Challenge, Have I Got News for You, Celebrity Masterchef, Strictly Come Dancing and other shows led Richard’s partner, David Oldham, to refer to him as ‘Borderline National Trinket’.

Great British Life: Richard Coles has left the church but says he loved being a vicar. Photo: Tim AndersonRichard Coles has left the church but says he loved being a vicar. Photo: Tim Anderson

Richard is now taking a new direction in life; a podcast and novel-writing are replacing radio, television and the church. But he has adopted David's affectionate, leg-pulling title for his one-man show which he is touring nationwide, including to Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds this month. Each evening’s conversation will be led by the audience, he says, and nothing is out of bounds, as he invites them to ‘ask me anything’.

He has plenty of life experience to draw on for material. Growing up in Northamptonshire, in a family of shoe manufacturers, Richard went to Wellingborough School where he was a choirboy. He moved to London, came out as gay at the age of 16 and in 1985 joined Jimmy Somerville in forming pop band The Communards. After rapid, but short-lived, fame and success (three top 10 hits in as many years), Richard had a spiritual awakening. He became first a Catholic monk, then an Anglican vicar.

Great British Life: Richard and partner David Oldham, who died in 2019, at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, on their parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2012. Photo: Kevin JacksonRichard and partner David Oldham, who died in 2019, at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, on their parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2012. Photo: Kevin Jackson

His first parish was in central London (where one crisis was a road closure due to a caviar spillage); then followed rural Northamptonshire (there was a murder in his first week). He began to be invited as a guest on radio programmes; presenting jobs followed, eventually leading to a stint on Saturday Live on BBC Radio Four. He stayed for 12 years, but stepped down this spring when the production moved to Wales. After losing David, his life partner, in 2019, and retiring from the church in 2022, it has been a turbulent few years, he says.

‘I really loved being a vicar and I really loved doing Saturday Live and now I’m not doing either. I have my weekends back but I have to rediscover myself.’ In a lifetime seemingly built on reinvention, he’s recently moved to a village in Sussex. He has a new partner and, in the past two years, has become a bestselling novelist of crime fiction. The first two books in a series are about a crime-solving village vicar called Canon Daniel Clements.

‘It’s definitely not me,’ he says of any parallels a reader may draw with the character. ‘There are certain similarities. We probably belong to the same tradition within the church. We both like dachshunds. We both have a feisty mother. But he’s a much more restrained and diligent person than me, and he’s cleverer than me, too.’ You wonder if this is a self-deprecating claim by a man who seems to excel at everything he tries... except, perhaps, dancing. ‘I only do things I think I’m good at,’ he says.

Great British Life: Richard Coles and Jimmy Somerville formed The Communards in 1985. Photo: ArchivesRichard Coles and Jimmy Somerville formed The Communards in 1985. Photo: Archives

Following up his debut bestseller, Murder at Evensong, was daunting, he says. ‘It was a big hit but, rather like the 'second album anxiety' I remember from the `80s, I had second book anxiety.’ Nevertheless, sales for book two, A Death in the Parish, also topped the charts. Visiting Woodbridge to talk about the book this summer, he said that he wanted to write crime fiction because it’s the genre he most enjoys reading.

‘I think it’s reassuring. The world is settled, then all of a sudden something happens and everything’s turned upside down. An enigmatic figure on the edge of things works out what’s gone wrong and puts things right.’ He hopes for plenty more books about Canon Clements and villagers of Champton St Mary.

‘The characters are starting to do lots of the work themselves, living their own lives,’ he says. ‘It sounds a bit mystical, doesn’t it? But after a while you do feel the story writes itself. Sometimes it seems like I’m a not very good lion-tamer surrounded by not very tame lions and they’re about to jump on me.’

Although the novels have been classed as ‘cosy crime’, there are some serious themes about church and community that Richard is hoping to develop through the books, and by revisiting the 1980s, the period in which the stories are set which was so transformative of his own life. ‘It was the greatest decade in the history of popular culture,’ he jokes, ‘and in a television adaptation we might use my records and I’d get paid twice!

‘But it was a period of social change and I think the first lesson I had as a vicar was to explode the very persistent myth that the only things of interest happen in big cities. They don’t, they happen in Woodbridge and in Champton St Mary, and all sorts of places, because human beings are human beings and when you put them all together human dramas play out.’

Great British Life: Richard Coles with his beloved daschunds. Photo: Natalie DawkinsRichard Coles with his beloved daschunds. Photo: Natalie Dawkins

While fewer people are going to church, singing hymns or saying prayers, the vicar still fascinates, he says, and is the perfect vehicle for any story. ‘They can go everywhere and are involved with people in the drama of their lives. As a vicar, you have an immensely privileged connection to people, often in the best and the worst days of their lives.

‘I think people are interested in somebody in the community who is a keeper of secrets, who offers confidential counsel, who's a confessor, someone who could lighten the burden they carry.’ Somebody, in Richard’s case, who could possibly be considered something more than a Borderline National Trinket.

Reverend Richard Coles: Borderline National Trinket is at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds on September 27.

Great British Life: Richard Coles' book.Richard Coles' book.



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