He punches drunks, uses strip-club bouncers as minders, and got high on myrrh in church. The vicar who inspired TV”s Rev confesses all
Father Paul Turp carries out his parish duties with remarkable equanimity and good humour
The Rev Paul Turp is posing for our photographs, but he is concerned about the huddle of shady-looking characters lurking behind him on the south steps of his church in East London.
‘They’re doing a drug deal, so be careful you don’t get them in the shot or we could get a bit of trouble,’ he warns, sotto voce, adding: ‘It’d be embarrassing if we all ended up in a fight.’
In the event, the trio of dealers disperses without any kind of ruckus, but skirmishes outside Father Paul’s church in Shoreditch are not uncommon.
‘I often get pushed around,’ he admits breezily.
‘I’m not bothered, although you do have to watch some of the alcoholics. If they pass out after drinking for 12 hours and you try to move them, they tend to lash out quite violently.’
Fortunately Fr Paul, a 62-year-old grandfather, still has a powerful punch.
He tells the story of one encounter with a ferociously drunk parishioner:
‘He viciously head-butted my left eyeso I gave him a right hook. I put everything into it but he was so drunk he didn’t feel a thing. We got into a bit of a wrestling match.
‘The next day I took the Sunday morning service with a corker of a black eye. Everyone was giggling.
‘Afterwards I sat on the wall with the chap who’d head-butted me and he said: “They told me what I did. I’m so sorry. I don’t remember a thing.” Then he gave me a fiver for the charity box and said: “I’m so grateful you didn’t phone the police”.’
For viewers of the BBC2 sitcom Rev, this anecdote will have a familiar resonance: the BAFTA-winning comedy drama, which has a Christmas Special next Tuesday, is not only set in Fr Paul’s church, St Leonard’s, but many of its storylines are drawn directly from the real-life vicar’s experience.
Fr Paul has cared for his flock, which ranges from the destitute to rich City bankers, with an amalgam of tough love and compassion for 28 years. But much of what he has witnessed during that time is just so extraordinary it would seem implausible, even in a fictional TV comedy.
Take his recent decision to post signs outside the church — one in English, one in Polish — warning loiterers that the police will be called if they trespass.
Tom Hollander with Olivia Colman in Rev. The BAFTA-winning comedy drama is set in Father Paul Turp”s church, St Leonard”s
The notices prompted a bit of a furore from a homeless organisation: had the vicar, whose church runs a night shelter for street-sleepers, abandoned his customary Christian care for the destitute
On the contrary, Fr Paul explains. The warnings were aimed at a posse of dangerous drug dealers, drunks and prostitutes who had commandeered the church garden.
‘We were losing the battle against drugs and having a lot of problems, particularly with some Polish dealers, and a group of the more dangerous users,’ he explains.
‘There would be comatose bodies blocking the front door when I arrived in the morning. Sometimes they wouldn’t wake up so I’d have to get someone to help me drag them away.
‘And there were the lager cans and needles to clear up and drunks shouting really nasty words. Then someone put up a tent in the church garden and a lady of ill-repute was trading from it.
‘Obviously people were arriving for church services and thinking: “Do I have to take myself through that lot to get into church” So I had to do something.
There was also a problem with the illicit metal trade. All the expensive antique brass door knobs in the church were stolen.
‘A magazine for the homeless, The Pavement, got in a bit of a tizzy about the notices and made a comment about it without talking to me first.
“But the homeless people weren’t to blame; besides, the church supports them mammothly. As well as the night shelter, we’ve just had a big Christmas lunch for them.
‘Incidentally, 20 people who work for a big international bank in the City took a day off work to help.’
“Virtually every scene in the series, in some form or other, really happened,” said Father Paul Turp
Poor Fr Paul. He is clearly a devout vicar who carries out his parish duties with remarkable equanimity and good humour, but sometimes he must feel more like a night club bouncer than a man of the cloth.
He does admit that his years as a keen club rugby player — he was a prop forward — have served him well; especially when he’s had to take on those bellicose drunks.
There’s solace, too, in the neighbourly help on hand from the strip club across the road.
‘I’ve known the family who run it for years,’ he says. ‘If I ever thought I was in danger I’d only have to phone them and one of their doormen would come straight over. It’s a comfort. We look after each other,’ he says.
The strip club also obligingly keeps a church collection box on its bar.
‘They let me have the proceeds at Christmas and invite me to pop over and get the money,’ he says.
‘There was an act going on when I went last time and I did get a glimpse from the corner of my eye, but I didn’t stop. I just collected the tin,’ he smiles.
Viewers of Rev will doubtless recognise this as inspiration for a scene in the comedy in which the Rev Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) visits a strip joint.
But while the fictional Fr Adam protests against the arrival of a lap-dancing club in his parish, Fr Paul has attacked Hackney Council for trying to ban them, arguing that in doing so they would ‘push the business underground’.
He is humane, passionately committed to the people he serves — and remarkably open-minded.
I wonder if he is ever shocked by the exploits of his parishioners
‘No,’ he says, ‘but I am sometimes disappointed.’
He can recall only once being driven to use the F-word and that was when he returned to his vicarage home in Hoxton to discover a couple fornicating on his car, which was parked on his secluded driveway.
‘They were on the bonnet of my Vauxhall Cavalier, which is quite tacky, isn’t it I’m afraid I told them to “f*** off”,’ he says apologetically.
The incident — apart from being unsuitable for family viewing — would be considered too preposterous to be believable were it included in the TV series, he points out.
However, Fr Paul’s parish, and the motley population of junkies, alcoholics and oddballs who form a significant part of it, is closely paralleled in the fictional community of St Saviour’s, Adam Smallbone’s church.
‘Virtually every scene in the series, in some form or other, really happened,’ says Fr Paul.
‘There are lots of vicars round the nation who’ll tell you exactly the same thing. The series reflects the ordinary life of the church.’
So we see the warm-hearted Adam — said to be based on several real clergy — finding himself in similar scrapes to Paul.
In one episode he shares a drink with alcoholic Colin, only to discover he has unwittingly taken an ecstasy tablet, and is forced to conduct a service under its influence.
We see the warm-hearted Rev Adam Smallbone – said to be based on several real clergy – finding himself in similar scrapes to Father Paul Turp
Fr Paul may not have inadvertently ingested illegal drugs, but he did once get intoxicated on full-strength myrrh while administering the sacrament.
‘Myrrh is a bit of a narcotic and I bought this pure stuff from a bloke on Brixton market,’ he recalls.
‘I didn’t know you were only supposed to use a little bit at a time and I was standing there blessing the bread and wine while it was burning.
“There was smoke spewing all over the place and I can’t remember a thing about the Eucharist that morning, although I obviously did everything properly.
‘At the end, I leant against a pillar and one of the young people in the congregation said, “What are you on vicar” I said, “Peace be with you”.’
We both roar with laughter. I can imagine the incident cropping up in the next series of Rev.
Fr Paul has much sympathy for the fictional Adam, who arrives at St Saviour’s with his solicitor wife Alex (Olivia Colman) from a sleepy rural parish to encounter the challenges of his new inner-city ministry with a mix of apprehension and bewilderment.
However, Fr Paul’s route to the Shoreditch Church was a far more circuitous one.
When he married Sandra, a social worker, in 1972 he was embarking on a lucrative career as a financial analyst with an international City bank.
Success and huge monetary rewards were in prospect, but four years later, shortly after the birth of their second child, a daughter, Paul relinquished his job and the worldly wealth that went with it, to go to theological college.
‘Sandra is the most wonderful woman and she supported me,’ he recalls.
‘She knew I had to do what I believed in.
‘Now, like most clergy wives — and husbands — she does sometimes feel neglected; that she’s second priority after the church, so we try to spend Friday nights together.
“Sometimes you have to fight for that time or the job will totally swamp you.’
Sandra also backed Paul’s decision to remain in Shoreditch when, a decade into his ministry, he was head-hunted for a far cushier job in an abbey — he will not specify which one — where his congregation would have been dependably middle-class, reliably well-behaved and prosperous.
‘It would have been perfect but the good Lord told me not to go,’ he says.
‘It was very strange. I was sitting in church and I found a tear running down my cheek. God was telling me: “You are crying because you’ve realised how much you love Shoreditch.” And I do. I love the church. I love the people — which is why I am still here, and will be until I am 70.’
Fr Paul is a dear man full of warmth and worldly humour. Shrouded head-to-toe in black in his hooded leather jacket he may look more Hell’s Angel than one of the heavenly host, but goodness shines from him like a flame of hope in a dark world.
He approves of Adam Smallbone and, although the series has not brought a sudden influx of fresh worshippers to St Leonard’s, he believes the TV clergyman presents an accurate and sympathetic portrait of a modern cleric.
‘In Series Two we’ve begun to see what a good priest Adam is,’ he observes.
‘He’ll sit on a bench and have a fag with Colin the alcoholic. He’ll talk to smackheads in exactly the same way as he does to wealthy City bankers. He shows no favour or preference. He is holy, compassionate and deeply committed.’
And the description applies to Fr Paul, too, whose pastoral care of his flock is reflected in his appointment of a burly Scotsman called Ian as his ‘security officer’.
‘Ian has been through our system. He is in recovery,’ says Fr Paul.
‘He now has the keys to the church, which means I trust him.’
Ian, who sports a day’s worth of stubble and speaks in a broad Glaswegian accent, looks like the sort of bloke who would brook no nonsense from belligerent alcoholics, and when a staggering drunk lurches through the church doors Fr Paul is quick to alert him.
‘Watch that bloke,’ he warns. ‘He’s had an awful lot to drink.’
On the day I visit St Leonard’s I see a vast spectrum of human life, from the divine to the depraved.
At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the beautiful 18th century church, whose bells feature in the nursery rhyme Oranges And Lemons, will be packed to the rafters and representatives from every stratum of society will be embraced.
The regular congregation of around 50 worshippers will be swelled by bankers, actors, musicians; a quota of what Fr Paul calls, ‘Shoreditch trendies’ — and of course, a fair few drunks, both rich and poor — as well as the destitute and rootless.
Meanwhile, in its fictional TV guise as St Saviour’s, the church will also host a Christmas Eve Eucharist, over which Fr Adam will preside.
Adam, confides Paul — who, in his role as consultant to the series has a preview of every episode — fears the holy occasion may be hijacked by rowdy drunks.
But Fr Paul does not anticipate trouble at his own service. There is something about the aura of holiness that pervades the church on the night before Christmas that inspires awe and sobers even the most raucously inebriated.
‘I’ve never had any trouble at Midnight Mass in all the years I’ve been here. Besides,’ he points out, ‘I can rely on Ian, my security man, to sort out any trouble.’
And in the unlikely event that Ian needs reinforcements, Fr Paul knows he can always rely on a higher power — the bouncers at the strip-club across the road.