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Daring and hilarious Rev is back for more

Graham Linehan said not so long ago that making Father Ted today would be unthinkable, in light of all the shocking and disgusting things we've learned about the Catholic Church in the years since his and Arthur Mathews' sitcom ended.

"All the satirical jokes were so silly, and it was in the days before the scandals that hit the church," he said last summer.

"If we did it now, we wouldn't be able to write some lighthearted sitcom, because I find the child abuse stuff so depressing."

When Ted first appeared, nobody for a moment believed its glorious and intentional daftness bore any more resemblance to the real world of the Catholic clergy than CSI does to the real world of police forensics.

Although given what we now know about the playboy lifestyles of certain wearers of the dog collar, the sight of Bishop Len Brennan sliding into a Jacuzzi with a bubblingly hot chick and a glass of champagne suddenly begins to look more like accidental documentary than deliberate spoof.

Linehan is right, though. What viewer these days could possibly stomach a sitcom about Catholic priests?

None, except, perhaps, those who harbour fond memories of RTE's atrocious Leave It to Mrs O'Brien (and surely there must be a shallowly-breathing few still out there) and the soft-centred ITV sitcom Bless Me Father, which starred Arthur Lowe as a wily Oirish PP and was written, under a pen name, by Peter De Rosa (the one-time novice curate who went on to write the controversial bestseller Vicars of Christ, about the decadent lives of the early popes).

Church of England priests, on the other hand, are a different proposition. Untainted by revelations of grotesque abuses of power, privilege, trust and the bodies of innocent children, they have long been a rich source of affection for British comedy writers.

The bumbling vicar, out of touch with the needs of the world and his parishioners, but still full of good intentions, has been a staple of UK sitcoms for decades. Dad's Army had one. So did Steptoe and Son, as a recurring character who turns up with the begging bowl at the most inopportune moments.

The late, crane-necked comic actor Derek Nimmo scored a big hit in the late 60s in Oh, Brother! (which just about scrapes into my memory), where he played an inept novice in a monastery. He was elevated to the priesthood for a follow-up series, Oh, Father!

Richard Curtis's The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French, threw a modern female vicar into a village full of English eccentrics, but was essentially still a traditional sitcom.

None of these, however, touches the glittering Rev, which returned to BBC2 last night for a third series. It's a show which perfectly fuses the ancient and the modern.

Tom Hollander's Adam Smallbone is every inch the beleaguered modern inner-city vicar, trying to cope with a new baby (born, in a hilarious opening scene, in a taxi), a frustrated wife (the marvellous Olivia Colman), a crumbling church with faulty, potentially fatal wiring, a shrinking congregation and a gaggle of interfering superiors, who run the church like a corporate business.

On top of that, he's engaged in a rivalry with smug local imam Yusuf (Kayvan Novak), who tells him: "I love your churches. There is always so much space."

The only one in his corner most of the time is alcoholic Colin (the terrific Steve Evets), who decides selling meth to teenagers is as good a way as any of raising money to refurbish the rundown local playground.

Rev has received rave reviews in the British newspapers: a kind of divine critical rapture. But it deserves every plaudit. It's funny, it's realistic – at least in a slightly exaggerated, comic sense – and it's even more than a little daring in the way it sends up the foibles, failings and internecine jealousies of religions.

Basically, it's not got any Catholic priests in it.

REV (BBC2) *****