Richard Coles: ‘Do you know who Shane MacGowan reminded me of? Maria Callas’

Both ‘lived on capital, not interest’, says the former Communard and recently retired vicar, who is bringing his Borderline National Trinket ‘stand-up memoir’ to Ireland

The Rev Richard Coles is on speakerphone from his home in England. His confident, wry, knowing voice – a voice familiar to listeners to Saturday Live, the BBC Radio 4 programme he presented for more than a decade – booms through my kitchen,

Coles is 61. Back in the day he was in The Communards with Jimmy Somerville. He played keyboards. Their biggest hit was Don’t Leave Me This Way, a 1980s disco staple that still gets airtime. Since then he has worked as a vicar, presented radio shows and podcasts, written memoir and fiction, competed in Strictly Come Dancing and generally continued being a public figure for the entirety of his adult life.

He gave up his Radio 4 presenting job last year. He also retired from his parish, “thanks to a brilliant manager from my music days, who has sorted me out with a pension that provided me to be able to do that”.

Is he a wealthy man?


“I suppose I am, really, compared to most people. I don’t think about it very often. But that is the nice thing about being relatively rich: you don’t have to think about it. So I go to the bank and I put my card in the machine, and the money comes out, and then I don’t think about it. I suppose I am very conscious that for some people it is another story.”

He left the BBC and his Church of England parish, in the Northamptonshire village of Finedon, at the same time. “I didn’t want to be a vicar of anywhere else. I didn’t want to be disloyal.” As for leaving the BBC, he says, “Any representative of an institution will know that it demands stuff from you that you don’t always want to give, because you don’t get it back. That is one of the reasons I left the BBC at the same time as retiring as a vicar. Something about it felt too costly. I began to feel that very burdensome and wanted to step away from it.”

Coles, who is gay, was married to David Oldman, who died of alcoholism in 2019. Coles has spoken and written about the many challenges of living with someone who is an alcoholic, and of the grief at bereavement. Oldman’s death, he says, made him want to refocus and do different things with his life.

Coles is now on tour with his live show, The Reverend Richard Coles: Borderline National Trinket, which includes dates in Dublin and Belfast this month. It’s billed as a type of stand-up memoir, with “tales encompassing sex, drugs, pop stardom, religious epiphany, love, a dream job and the madness of grief”.

“When I am on stage, or performing,” Coles says, “I feel I am unusually alive, and I think I am just one of those people who is built for that kind of interaction with the public.”

Will he be playing the piano in the show? Will people be humming along to Communards songs at Liberty Hall at the end of this month?

“No,” he says. “I am afraid very few people would want to come and see me play the piano. Certainly not on my own.”

He does still play, though, especially since he retired. “I could quite happily practise the piano all day. The interesting thing for me is that I am playing the repertoire I used to play when I was a teenager, when technically I was probably at my best. I don’t have the technique now. But I’m a better musician now, because I have lived life and I bring that with me to how I play.”

He is looking forward to spending more time visiting Ireland in retirement. “Dublin is one of my favourite cities. It’s one of those places I have always felt an affinity for. I don’t want to deal in cliches, but I think Ireland is a nation where people love stories, and people love a do. And I love stories, and I love a do.”

When we speak it is shortly after the night of riots in Dublin.

“I was completely taken by surprise by the rioting,” he says. “I hadn’t realised that this whole nationalist-rhetoric kind of thing had got a foothold in Ireland. I thought the Irish had risen above all that. So I wasn’t aware of that at all. I found it quite depressing: streets subjected to violence, things on fire, because people pick up this weird nationalist narrative that sweeps across so many other places now.”

On cheerier matters Irish, Coles has become a GAA fan in recent years. “Like lots of people in England, I discovered GAA through watching Normal People. I’m a football fan and a soccer fan, and I was watching this game out of the corner of my eye when the show was on. I thought it was quite unusual when somebody picks up the ball, and then I realised it was GAA, so I started watching it and got really into it.”

Coles met both Sinéad O’Connor and Shane MacGowan. “I met Sinéad a couple of times,” he says. “We never worked together, but I thought she was a great artist. I was definitely on a stage with Shane once or twice back in the 1980s. He was an extraordinary person. Do you know who he reminded me of? Maria Callas. An artist who lived on capital and not on interest. You could see with Shane that he would burn bright and burn himself up in the process, which I think he did. But what he did was so original and so inspiring and heartwarming.”

As to his own personal favourite living artist, “I’m a massive Joni Mitchell fan. Why they gave the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan and not to Joni Mitchell, I don’t know.”

Does the former vicar believe in an afterlife?

“Yeah. Maybe not so much an afterlife, but I believe there is a life beyond this one. A life which is not constrained by time and mortality, as ours is. I think we intimate it in this life; we see it being lived in anticipation. And I think it awaits us. And when we are in it, perhaps that will seem like the reality. I think the something else after death is actually reality. I think what we live through now is shadow and what we get when we come to the end of the shadows is a realisation of reality that has sort of always been there waiting for us. That’s what I think I think.”

He has views on what a modern church should look like. “A modern church is not that different from what the church has always been like. It should be about the gospel, but what that means when we try to live our lives as a voyage of new discovery. It is that paradox that you want to be faithful to tradition but also alert to the signs of God’s new creation. The tension of the church has always been that, trying to hold fast to old ways while at the same time realising that something surprising and new is happening all the time.”

Coles also has things he wants to say about Brexit. “Brexit was one of the single worst mistakes that the United Kingdom has ever made. I understand some of the reasons why people thought it was a good idea, but I always thought it was a bad idea. It was far too risky for a nation that was coming out of years of austerity and in a world that was so uncertain. We have made ourselves poorer in Britain, and we have made ourselves more isolated and have retreated from the world. I never think it is a good idea to retreat from the world.”

After so many years interacting with people in his role as vicar, what has he learned about people?

“The big thing is that there are no heroes or villains. There are just people, and all of us have the potential for goodness or badness.” Then he says wryly, “Some people think they have an exceptional gift because they have no badness, but they are the outliers. The art of living is trying to find ways of optimising your generosity, and your grace, and your thoughtfulness, and your imagination, and to minimise self-seeking kinds of meanness, ungenerosity and viciousness when you can.”

Coles mentions curiosity several times, as an attribute he values. “I’ve always been insatiably curious about people,” he says. Curiosity is the hallmark of The Rabbit Hole Detectives, the podcast he presents with the archaeologist Cat Jarman and the historian Charles Spencer. Yes, that Charles Spencer. The posh one, the earl who was also Diana’s brother, and is custodian of the 13,000-acre estate of Althorp, where they grew up.

“We are friends in real life,” Coles says. “Charles is fascinating. He’s become a really good friend – and has been immensely sympathetic and generous and supportive to me ever since David died. I suppose his life is very unusual compared with mine. And I am interested in people whose lives are different from mine.”

Coles describes The Rabbit Hole Detectives as a history podcast, but it’s really a kind of aural cabinet of curiosities, in which each of the three presenters take turns in talking at length about some obscure story or item that has taken their fancy. Recent topics have included grapefruit spoons, pigeon droppings and the shah of Iran.

“We all have our interests, and so each week we take a topic and explain that topic to the other two, going down as many rabbit holes as we can along the way. So it’s that sort of smash-and-grab history. I think it works because we are three unlikely friends.”

I am about to ask if Spencer ever talks about his late sister when the PR person comes on the line to tell us time is up. Don’t leave me this way, I think, as Coles bids farewell politely.

Richard Coles is at Liberty Hall, Dublin, on Thursday, January 25th, and Mandela Hall, Belfast, on Friday, January 26th