From Father Ted and the Vicar of Dibley to Rev, it’s been a mixed blessing for clergy when it comes to television portrayals over the years.
S4C’s new eight-part drama Parch, however, offers a realistic insight into the work of a woman vicar in rural Wales, says one of the programme advisers. And she should know as she’s been doing the job for the best part of 21 years.
The Revd Manon Ceridwen James is now Rector of Llanddulas and Llysfaen and also Director of Ministry in St Asaph Diocese. She was recruited by the writer of the new drama, Fflur Dafydd, who followed her on Twitter, to help ensure the portrayal of the lead character, the Revd Myfanwy Elfed, was as authentic as possible.
The bittersweet drama series follows Myfanwy as she juggles parenthood with parish duties and then faces the devastating news that she has a life-threatening brain condition.
Manon, a Welsh-speaker who grew up in Nefyn and now lives near Colwyn Bay, says, “The portrayal of Myfanwy is very realistic in my view – she juggles her calling with that of being a wife and mother and is working in a context where there is multiculturalism and even antagonism towards faith, not least from her own husband. However, she also faces the many demands of parish life that will be familiar to clergy. She is constantly being compared unfavourable to her deceased predecessor, (the ubiquitous Revd TJ), by her warden Mr Jarman, and faces the pressure of fund-raising, a demanding wedding couple, and a steady stream of funerals.
“In the middle of all this she has to face her own mortality as she learns of her own serious brain condition. She is faced with the reality of dealing with life and death in the middle of trying to help others make sense of the key times in their lives, such as marriage and bereavement. Her brain condition leads to some vivid and humorous visions. It also leads her to question her own faith and whether her relationship with God is based on the way she has become more receptive to visions and imagination.
“Although I thankfully don’t have to face the criticism nor the difficult events that Myfanwy faces, I feel that her portrayal by the actress Carys Eleri, has tremendous insight into the life of a woman Vicar working in rural Wales today.”
Manon, who has two teenage daughters and a stepson herself, advised Fflur by reading through scripts and commenting on what was realistic in the life of a vicar and how Myfanwy would be most likely to deal with different situations. She advised on the different roles within church life, technicalities to do with the sacraments and liturgy, and how Myfanwy would prepare for and conduct weddings and funerals. She also worked with Shan James, the costume designer, in advising about the clothes and robes Myfanwy would wear in different situations, directing her towards the more fashionable end of clerical outfitters! Carys Eleri also watched Manon lead a service as part of her preparation for the part.
Manon adds, “For me, it is has been a great opportunity to contribute to the portrayal of a female vicar on screen and hopefully to show that women clergy in Wales are just like anyone else with the same problems and issues as many mothers who are juggling all that Myfanwy has to manage in her busy life. However she is also a sympathetic character, giving her all to others. People will warm to her.
“The series is different from other portrayals of vicars on screen though there is some similarity with the realism of Rev. However, even though Parch as a title is similar to Rev, in Welsh Parch also means respect and respectability and some of the themes of the relationship between religion and respectability are present in the series. Myfanwy swears, gets frustrated with her family and enjoys a drink with her friend in the same way as most vicars do but we haven’t seen it before in Welsh on television.
Co-incidently, Manon has another link with Fflur Dafydd – part of a PhD she is working on involved a study of the work of Menna Elfyn, the acclaimed Welsh language poet who is also Fflur’s mother.
Fflur Dafydd has long established herself as an acclaimed writer, and has won many awards including the Prose Medal, and the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize at The National Eisteddfod; as well the Hay festival award in 2009 for the best English-language novel, Twenty Thousand Saints. Fflur is also a lecturer, songwriter and a lyrical pop singer.
Her own PhD is on the work of RS Thomas, and her documentary ‘Pererindod RS’ (RS’s pilgrimage) was also broadcast on S4C in 2013, partly filmed in RS’s final parish church in Aberdaron.
Married to an undertaker, Fflur says, “Having my husband’s and Manon’s feedback has been crucial in creating the drama. The vicar and undertaker are key figures within society; especially as they support people coming to terms with grief, and it’s important they are portrayed accurately on-screen.”
Parch can be seen on S4C on Sunday evenings at 9pm and repeated on Tuesdays at 10pm with on screen sub-titles. It is an Apollo production, part of Boom Cymru, for S4C
You can catch up on episodes of Parch on S4C’s Clic website
You can follow Manon on Twitter @ManonCeridwen