Reverend Richard Coles told David Hennessy about his live show that goes into detail on his unique life of having a number one record and serving in the priesthood, and his love of St Finbarr’s GAA Club in Cork.
The well known Reverend Richard Coles has been a chart topping pop star, BBC radio presenter, best selling author, TV presenter- as well as a parish priest.
Having retired from the priesthood in 2022, Richard is currently on his first tour of the UK and Ireland with his show, Borderline National Trinket.
He takes his show to Dublin and Belfast this month.
Richard first came to prominence as the multi-instrumentalist who partnered Jimmy Sommerville in the 1980s band The Communards who had three UK top ten hits, including the No. 1 record and best-selling single of 1986 Don’t Leave Me This Way which was at number one for four weeks.
After his pop success and seeing friends die from HIV, religion called to Richard with the former pop star turning Church of England vicar.
This puts him the unique position of being the only vicar to have had a No.1 hit record.
In his live show, Reverend Richard Coles takes audiences through a journey of his life with tales encompassing sex, drugs, pop stardom, religious epiphany, love, a dream job, and grief.
Richard will be performing in Dublin at Liberty Hall on 25 January. He says: “I love Dublin. I’ve got Irish family and quite a lot of them are in Dublin. I very much enjoyed watching Dublin win the GAA football final this year because I’m a follower of Irish football.”
Talking of GAA, Richard follows St Finbarr’s club in Cork where he also has family.
How would you describe the show?
“It’s my story.
“People always seem to be very interested in how people go from being pop stars to vicars and things like that, and I can sort of get why that’s interesting but I think what’s really interesting is that the people that come to see my show are people who’ve lived, had the same sort of life, been around since the 1980s, listened to music, grown up, thought about things, been through all sorts of experiences so you get this sense of camaraderie and solidarity.
“Of, ‘Yep, we were there too’.
“And I think that’s fun, and we’re getting some younger audiences now that seem a bit baffled when you say things like ‘buy a record’, but then they sort of check in with their elders on either side to find out what that means.”
What was it like going from the Communards to being a vicar?
“It was sort of a return to where I started out because, like lots of people who have careers in music in Britain, I started out in a choir so from the age of about eight, I was making music to a high standard and around music all day.
“I got an early start, and that was great but then as I got a bit older and the appeal of popular music came along and also the desire to live a liveable life as a young gay man.
“Then, of course, I had to run away to London which I did and then another sort of life began and then after a while, the two sort of joined up again so I ended up with this unusual career of being a vicar who has had a number one record.
“I don’t think anyone else has done that yet but you never know what Robbie Williams is going to do next.”
Coles came out to his mother in 1978 when he played her Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay four times before she said, ‘Darling, are you trying to tell me something?’
Coles has spoken about how coming out affected his mental health, leading to depression and attempting suicide.
You speak about sexuality, it was difficult for you coming out…
“Bit of a challenge at first.
“Social attitudes in Britain changed very rapidly in the 1980s which was lucky for me because that’s when I kind of popped up and I think The Communards played a part in that.
“The culture changed and then lots of people whose lives had not been easy started to become more liveable and that was great.
“It was very interesting coming to Ireland and realising that Ireland was quite a bit behind England in that respect.
“Not socially, there were gay people being gay in Dublin in the 1980s but it was legally a different world.
“And also, I think the power of the church and of conservative social attitudes was so great then.
“I mean, it’s transformed now and it seemed to happen very quickly in Ireland which was very encouraging for everybody like me watching on.”
Obviously you’re very proud of your Communards achievements but I’ve heard you say as well that that all seems like a different person, is that the case?
“I think less so now.
“I think there was a time when I looked back on it and thought doing a pop festival was very different from doing a carol service in Lincolnshire, but actually now I think I see more continuity between the two things really.
“Vicars and pop stars do have some odd things in common: Standing up in front of people and doing things, dressing in peculiar clothes, keeping odd hours, managing unrealistic expectations.
“So in a way actually being a pop star is quite good prep for being a vicar, (but) the rates of pay are rather different.”
Richard’s husband David Coles died in December 2019. He is now in a new relationship with actor, Richard Cant.
A big theme of the show is grief. It was your late husband that came up with the title, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, that’s right. David came up with Borderline National Trinket because I made the mistake of preening myself when someone said I was in danger of becoming a national treasure and he wasn’t going to tolerate that, so ‘borderline national trinket’ was his retort.
“Yeah, I’m 61 now and I find myself fairly young to be a widower but of course it’s a state that comes to roughly 50% of us if you’re lucky enough to share your life with someone who loves you.
“I talk about that quite a lot and I think that’s very resonant for people because anyone who has been through that experience will find, I think- I hope, a sort of feeling of solidarity with me, when I talk about things.
“I feel solidarity with them when they talk about it.
“And it’s not bleak.
“Some if it’s bleak but a lot of it’s comedy really like most of the stuff that really forms life.
“It’s a mixture of light and shade, and comedy and tragedy.
“And, again, cliche, but I think that’s quite an Irish thing.
“One thing I love about Irish theatre and Irish literature is the way that tears and laughter are often very closely mixed.”
I’m sure it’s not bleak but it must be emotional, how does it feel to speak so personally night after night? “I feel it’s paying tribute to David and I quite like that now.
“I’ve learned how to start to live a life around the hole that his departure has left and that’s good.
“But I don’t want to sort of forget about him and I’m very grateful for the time we got together even though it was sometimes very challenging.
“Some people I know never refer to the lost partner, they prefer to do it that way.
“I like to keep his memory going and share it with other people.
“He made a big impact on lots of people’s lives.
“I was just with his brother the other day and we had a laugh talking about him and his eccentric ways.
“I find the whole experience (of the show) is a very warm feeling actually.
“It’s a 60 year old man who has lived his life talking to other people who have also lived their lives pretty much.
“The worst thing about getting older is decrepitude. Your knees go, your hips go, your teeth fall out, your hair falls out. That’s horrible.
“But the best thing is the quality of the relationships you have with other people.
“I really enjoy that now.
“It’s just spending some time with some people who’ve been around the block and we swap notes and we have a laugh.
“That’s what I do with my friends and that’s what I do with the people I sort of meet along the way now.
“I really enjoy that. I’m thinking about taking up golf simply because I just like the idea of spending a morning walking around grass just talking about life to people.
“I think I might like that, I just don’t want to hit the ball.”
Are you looking forward to going to Ireland because you have lots of family there, don’t you?
“I do, yeah.
“There’s a whole branch of my family which is Irish and some in Dublin, most around Cork so I’m looking forward to coming to Dublin.
“I’ve always had a good time there.
“I’m really looking forward to coming to Ireland and, I think like lots of English people with Irish heritage, I kind of feel it calling to me and I get a bit misty eyed whenever the Barrs win, whenever anyone starts throwing balls around and hitting them with unusual clubs. I can feel this sort of thing.
“I’ve started playing the accordion now and I find without quite meaning to, it’s quite often Irish jigs that I end up playing so maybe that’s my Irish heritage.”
It was Normal People that got you into GAA, wasn’t it?
You were a big fan of the show? “I was.
“It was lockdown.
“Like lots of people I was at home and watching telly and I got into Normal People and I just loved it.
“I completely fell in love with it, it’s such a great series.
“I think it reminded us of what it was like to be young, what it was like to fall in love, what it was like to be around with other people.
“I was watching Normal People and I was watching this game of football and I thought, as far as I recall, picking up the football in football is generally quite frowned upon.
“Then I realised that they were playing GAA football and I started watching it and then I got really into it and then I found out through my Irish connections that actually my dad’s cousin was a hurler from Wicklow, and then my family in Cork, I found this connection to St Finbarr’s so officially, I’m a member of St Finbarr’s actually so I’m a Barr’s fan, but I’m also a Dublin fan and I introduced the GAA football final to the rural community of East Sussex this year.
“I got the neighbours round to watch Dublin play Kerry in the final and it was fantastic.”
So you have got connections to both Cork and Dublin, could be some conflict there..
“If it came to the crunch, I think if it were Cork v Dublin, I would be on the side of Cork but I just love Dublin.
“I think it’s a fascinating city.
“If you’re an English person, I think if you can inhabit Ireland for a bit, it gives you a very useful perspective on the islands to the east.
“It’s made me think a lot about what it is to be English when I think about what it is to be Irish.”
The Irish World catches up with Reverend Richard Coles shortly after the death of Shane MacGowan and it just felt right to bring up.
“I would like to say I sort of worked with Shane but I was sort of roughly on the same stage as him
once or twice so I can’t really claim any sort of collaboration, but he was such fun to be around.
“He was one of those people who kind of lit everybody up and you also knew that he was probably not going to have a quiet and sedate existence.
“The thing that’s fascinating is that he was a very complex, thoughtful and creative person and those people come along rarely and we should cherish them when they do.
“We’ll all miss him terribly.
“I remember being on stage with the Pogues once or twice and of course they blew everybody else away.
“There’s something so unique and distinctive and infectious about their music and also about him.
“And I think we like pop stars to live the life that we dare not live ourselves.
“I think Shane dared to live the life the rest of us were too timid to live perhaps.”
What was it like watching Ireland vote for same sex marriage?
“I thought it was amazing.
“I remember watching it and thinking, ‘No, not Ireland. It’s too big a step to take in one go’.
“I can just remember hearing the sound of the kind of joy and delight of people when the result was announced and the news spread.
“You could have seen it coming, I think, because lots of people in Ireland were gay and lots of people’s family members were gay and of course, you only have to walk half a mile alongside gay people to realise that their lives and your life are pretty much the same really so it was long overdue, I think, that acknowledgment and I thought it was just brilliant and so typical of Ireland to lead the way really because I can remember an Ireland in the 1980s where you got the Angelus before the news on telly and the sense that nothing, no sort of significant change in social attitudes or moral perception would ever really happen.
“And then all of a sudden, it was like the cork was taken out of the bottle and it all went bang.
“This is obviously looking at it from the outside.
“I’m sure it was a different story if you were there.”
What has it been like to see that progress from the time you came out? Have things come on leaps and bounds?
“Depends where you are.
“I mean if you’re lucky enough to live in the UK or Ireland or Western Europe, then the chances are that if you’re a gay man or lesbian or trans person, then you’re probably living as good a life as anybody like you has ever lived.
“You don’t have to go too far to see that shift.
“I mean, attitudes in Russia at the moment are particularly hostile. The Middle East, the Caribbean, there are lots of places where people who are gay or whatever are constantly having to deal with a hostile state or a hostile culture and I wouldn’t want to be complacent about it anywhere really.
“Victories won today might be lost tomorrow.
“Interesting time, isn’t it? My sense of the world is quite an uncertain place now and it’s important, I think, to ensure that human, liberal and civilised values are upheld really because lots of people are chipping away at them.”
In April 2022, Coles announced that he retired from parish duties due to the Church England’s increasingly excluding gay couples, and what he described as its “conservative, punchy and fundamentalist” direction.
You’re retired now but part of the reason you retired was your frustration with the Church of England not being as inclusive as it should have been.
“It’s not only the Church of England.
“Because the Church of England is an established church, it means that we have to be pretty much in step with the world around us in order to do our job which is to serve the interests of everybody whether they’re actual members of our church or not.
“We need to understand the world in order to do that, and one of the things the world has learned to understand fairly recently is that gay relationships are pretty much the same as straight relationships where people love each other and are faithful, devoted and something the church should support and uphold and celebrate.
“We’re not able to do that for same sex couples and I find that a real shame.”
Coles was an inspiration for the character of Adam Smallbone in the BBC sitcom, Rev.
What do you think of another programme that features priests, Father Ted?
“I love Father Ted: So interesting that Arthur and Graham seem to understand clerical life almost better than clergy.
“I don’t know a single cleric who doesn’t love Father Ted because we recognise our own ridiculousness.
“I think it’s always good to recognise your own ridiculousness.
“It’s just timeless, isn’t it? Brilliant characters. Brilliant, brilliant writing and how fortunate it was that Arthur and Graham were around to capture that when it was happening.
“I was in Eastbourne Marks and Spencers the other day and I found myself in the bra section.
“I cannot do that without thinking of Father Ted.
“That’s so deeply imprinted on my soul now, the embarrassment of clergy being found in the lingerie section in department stores.”
Reverend Richard Coles is touring the UK and Ireland with Borderline National Trinket.
He comes to Liberty Hall in Dublin on Thursday 25 January and Mandela Hall in Belfast on Friday 26 January.
For more information, click here.