Edinburgh at this time of year is a bubbling cauldron of world-class conversation. But few can sculpt a phrase, or rustle an erudite observation from the most ephemeral cue, better than the Reverend Richard Coles.
Once half of the chart-topping Eighties synth-pop duo The Communards, Coles has acquired a wholly different kind of celebrity since the millennium, as perhaps the most famous vicar in England. When he’s not tending to his parish in Northamptonshire, he pops up all over the place: on TV panel shows, as the reliably unruffled, urbane and empathetic co-host of Radio 4’s Saturday Live, and as a presenter of The Big Painting Challenge, the BBC’s popular visual arts answer to The Great British Bake Off. This week he’s sprinkling some holy water on the Edinburgh Fringe, debuting with an afternoon chat show – Confessions.
In the Reverend’s book, chattiness is next to godliness. “I like lightness of touch, because I think it’s pleasing and because much of what’s significant in life doesn’t necessarily announce itself as such,” Coles offers. It’s difficult to imagine that half a lifetime ago, he was up here at the Fringe under a dark cloud – and was set on a path to the life he now enjoys by a twist of fate.
It was August 1990, and amid the frenzy of the festival, which he was covering as a fledgling TV presenter/cultural commentator, he happened to walk past St Mary’s Cathedral and overhear the sound of Evensong. At this stage in his life, he was, he says, “lost, a total mess”. Behind him was a decade that had seen him hurtle from days on the dole in squats to pop-stardom fame and thence into drug-taking, clubbing and hard living.
He used to get so high that he survived an “all-nighter at which I was so far gone I didn’t notice that the blender I was using to make shakes was giving me electric shocks”. As he outlines in Fathomless Riches, his 2014 memoir, St Mary’s struck a life-changing chord. As he sat down at the back, he heard words from the Magnificat “that I had not heard in 20 years: ‘he hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek’.” It was like “water in a desert”, he says. On returning to London he talked to a priest. He was 28.
In 1986 he and Jimmy Somerville, his co-Communard, had been responsible for the bestselling record of the year, a euphoric, gospel-saturated version of Don’t Leave Me This Way. A more rigorous approach to the divine was now in order.
After much study and training, he was ordained. “Edinburgh was a decisive moment in my trip from non‑belief to belief.”
This Sunday, Coles will make a return journey to St Mary’s, invited in to deliver the sermon. Back on secular turf, meanwhile, he could pack out the Pleasance talking about himself: “I forget it might be odd for people to hear a vicar talking about freebasing cocaine but, of course, if you were involved in music in the Eighties, that was like having a cup of tea,” he jokes.
Though on this occasion, he’s hoping to coax revelations from his guests – forthcoming over the next two weeks are the likes of Judy Murray, Ian Rankin and Robert Peston.
Oh, and former Holby City actor Joe McFadden, winner of 2017’s Strictly Come Dancing. Coles himself came a cropper in that series last autumn, booted off in week three, after obtaining the lowest score for a paso doble in Strictly history. How dare they? “No they were entirely right,” the 56-year-old gracefully concedes. “It was really, really bad. A crash and burn.” That said, he was “gutted”. “I know everyone says it, but it was so much fun and I had a great time. I was banished early and it was like that awful thing in childhood when you’ve been sent to bed and can hear your friends playing outside in the street.”
Sleep was long a fraught process for him – he claims his copious drug-taking in part stemmed from his simple desire to stay awake. “I had wanted to stay up all night from when I was a child – drugs enabled that,” he says. He worries that the drug use will have damaged his brain in the long-term: “The thought of having sclerosis of the synapses is alarming. I wonder if in later life I will pay the price for having overstimulated my mental apparatus in my twenties.” At present, there seems to be no cause for alarm. Whatever his abilities as a dancer, his ability to chat induces awe. “I once made someone faint by talking to him non-stop for 12 hours,” he reveals.
Coles not only has the gift of the gab but also the ability to be in the right place at the right time. “I was fortunate being there at the birth of something,” he says, describing the capital in the early Eighties. “Politics was intense. Everyone was highly mobilised. Gay London was such a commonwealth, a close-knit creative community.” He met Somerville at Gay’s the Word, London’s only gay bookshop. “We became unlikely friends.” Drafted in to play sax with hit electro outfit Bronksi Beat, which Somerville fronted, he “hitched his wagon” to the latter’s talent, teaming up when the Bronksi dream soured.
And yet, for all the excitements, their success meant “a constant exposure to my own worst side”. Breaking up – in 1988 – was “good because it called time on all that – we had fallen out and it enabled us to reform the friendship”.
His worst excess, perhaps, was telling Somerville and others close to him that he was HIV positive when he wasn’t. “I can’t turn the clock back but I can seek the forgiveness of those I’ve wronged.” Coles was a kind of go-to-man-of-the-cloth for Tom Hollander during the making of the BBC sitcom Rev; the TV character’s habit of cadging fags off homeless people was a straight lift from Coles. As with Hollander, he too gets people shouting “Hello, Rev!” in the street.
All the same, he’s far more outspoken than Hollander’s bumbling incarnation of modern-day piety. Of the BBC he says: “I’m worried about its ability to be fit for purpose. To me the BBC means a national institution that tells a story about who we are. But to kids it’s just three letters in the corner of the screen.” As for the Labour Party, this inveterate Lefty describes himself as “politically homeless. This unthinking assumption of moral virtue on the Left is frustrating. I saw someone on Facebook talking about capitalist scum, he was angry and thought it was OK because his anger was righteous. I’m looking for some centrist political party to find a home in and it’s not there, actually”.
You could listen to him for hours – 12 hours on the trot, even. Last question. How does he square his past excesses with his Christianity? He responds with that line of Blake’s: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I’ve always thought that what God’s bothered about isn’t ‘Have you been a good boy scout?’ but ‘Did you live? What have you done?’ ”