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Rev, the TV comedy about the trials of an inner-city vicar, returns to the airwaves for a third season later this month. Here, Tom Hollander, the actor who co-created the series and plays the downtrodden Rev Adam Smallbone, reveals some of his favourite religious figures, real and fictional.

1. The nun on the stairs

In Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-nominated The Great Beauty (2013) an old nun turns up, and she’s hilarious because she manages to combine the ridiculous with something that makes you half-believe there is something miraculous about her. When she [prostrates herself to] crawl up the steps, you’re waiting for her to be exposed as some sort of fraud but you’re never quite sure.

St Simeon Stylites
St Simeon Stylites

2. The saint on the pillar

I like the figure of St Simeon Stylites, who lived on a pillar for 30 years in early Christian times. He was a hermit of some sort, but people kept coming to him for advice – so, to get away from them, he lived on a pillar and used to stand all day to dedicate himself to God. He must have inspired Simon the Holy Man in [Monty Python’s] The Life of Brian, who lives in a hole and says about the juniper bushes, “They’re all I’ve bloody got to eat, clear off!”

3. The writer on religion

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who writes about religion and comparative religion, and she talks about religion in the most brilliant, modern way. She manages to remove the off-putting aspects of patriarchy and hierarchy from the way she thinks about it. She’s a great person; I’ve listened to her talking and thought, “Ooh that sounds marvellous, everyone would like that.”

4. The philanthropist in the country

There’s another nun, Sister Frances Dominica, who set up and runs a charity called Helen & Douglas House, which is a hospice for children. It’s within the grounds of the priory where she lives in east Oxford, and it’s a place full of light, hope, colour and laughter, and that’s remarkable. I’ve worked with them a bit, so I’ve met her now a few times. She’s an amazing woman.

5. The scoundrel on the stage

I like Molière’s Tartuffe, a character I played years ago. He is a complete scoundrel who pretends to be religious and, in the name of piety, rips everyone off and tries to have sex with everyone. I suppose he is here as a representative of all those glorious, villainous religious people – you can’t think of the history of religion without thinking of those who have used it to mask their dark, devilish motives.

‘Rev’ returns to BBC2 for a third series at 10pm, Monday March 24

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