Ahead of his first-ever UK tour, archly titled Borderline National Trinket, Sarah-Jane Outten chats with Richard Coles about sexuality, being mistaken for a member of The Housemartins, and his love for village gossip.
Hi Richard, how are you today?
Well, I’m not alright actually. I’ve done my back in. I made the mistake of cleaning a bath and there is something about the bend and the twist that has not gone well with me, so I’m a little bit crocked at the moment. I’m feeling a little bit sorry for myself, but I get it sometimes… It’s normally from cleaning the bath. So I have showers!
Oh no! I hope it’s not going to interfere with your forthcoming tour, we’re looking forward to seeing you in Wales. What can we expect?
The idea began when someone referred to me as a national treasure, which is a thing that can happen. If you’ve been on Radio 4, you’ve been a vicar and you’ve been around for a while, sooner or later someone is going to call you a national treasure. This didn’t really impress my late husband, David [Oldham, who died in 2019]; he translated that grudgingly into a “borderline national trinket”. I thought that was a label I’d more happily wear than ‘national treasure’.
I think people are sort of interested in my life: it strikes them as a bit peculiar in terms of where it started, where it went and where it is now. So it’s an exploration of the highways and byways of that, I suppose. And a how-to guide of how you indeed become a national trinket.
I can understand why people are curious: as you say, your life has been very varied. Do you see this tour is a form of an autobiography?
I’m not sure. If my CV arrived on my desk, I would assume it was the work of a fantasist – it’s so unlikely and fictional. I don’t think I would give it the time of day! I feel my life requires a little explanation, to me, if to nobody else.
Fair to say that not even you imagined that your life would turn out the way it has?
Oh god no! I had absolutely no idea. You see, when I was young I realised that the Blue Peter time capsule was going to be dug up in the year 2000, and I would be 38. So all my thinking about my life only went up to 38, because what could possibly be interesting in digging up the Blue Peter time capsule?
Of course, that was 23 years ago and quite a lot has happened since then. I’ve never been very good at imagining my own future, and one I have I’m very content with, I’m a very lucky man. However, I didn’t see any of this coming.
Are there parts of it that you would change? Or parts of your life that you have enjoyed more than others?
I would have liked to have had more sex when I was younger, with more people. For a gay man of my age and generation, there was plenty to satisfy the biggest of appetites. But I was too shy, awkward or unconfident to make the most of every opportunity, which I sometimes wish I had.
I also wish I had been a bit more canny with money. I’ve been mostly good at earning money, but I still think it’s just what you have in your pocket. So I’m financially pretty illiterate, really. I should have been a bit cleverer about that, I suppose.
Do you think there was a defining moment when you no longer wanted to be a vicar?
There wasn’t a defining moment that made me resign – there were a couple of things. Part of it was being a vicar for 12 years where I was [Finedon, in Northamptonshire] and I had done everything I thought I could do. I didn’t want to go anywhere else, so it seemed the right time to make an exit.
But also I found the church tying itself up in knots over sexuality. It was so boring. I thought, I can’t be bothered with this anymore and I don’t have to think about it now. And that’s nice.
As a gay man, do you think standing down as a vicar sends a signal to the church or other people? Or is it entirely a personal decision?
People will make up their own minds, I guess. My sexuality has never been a problem as far as my own community church has been. I’d hoped that the church, as a whole, had acknowledged what the rest of the world does. Same-sex couples get along with things just the same as anybody else – and that might be something we can affirm, celebrate and support. I have someone new in my life; I don’t want to have to go to the bishop and have a conversation about that.
What other roles would require you to have that kind of conversation? Not very many.
Indeed, and I find it quite humiliating actually. I’m not prepared to put myself in that situation. I can humiliate myself without help. I went for an MRI scan recently and presented myself when I put the gown on the wrong way around.
So what do Sundays look like now for you – what is the perfect Sunday?
Well, I’m not in charge of anything on a Sunday anymore, apart from maybe lunch. I don’t have to wake up on a Sunday morning and have to remember to do this and that. I do miss being a vicar and I love being in church and I loved being part of it, but I didn’t really enjoy the responsibility that came with it.
Do you regret anything about standing down as vicar?
No regrets, but I do miss my parish and community. But I couldn’t continue even though I like being part of the community. I miss the cricket club, the over-60s, the kids in the school, all of that.
When you’re out and about in the street, what are you most recognised for?
That’s a really interesting question. It depends on who’s doing the recognising! Two ladies stopped me today and told me how much they enjoyed me in the Commodores. I don’t correct people now, I’ll take that, it’s alright! And some people think I was in The Housemartins. No idea why.
Then some people know my voice from the radio when I talk; some people know me from gameshows on the telly or watching Dave on perpetual rotation; and now most people know me from books. It’s odd, but I’ve been around for a while. Some people don’t recognise me at all.
Maybe they don’t recognise you because you aren’t wearing a dog collar? I think lots of people just haven’t come across the sort of stuff I do. Apart from Strictly Come Dancing, maybe?
Yes, I think maybe it’s the effect of trauma, I don’t know. Maybe people have blotted that out of their memories, I know I’ve tried to!
So, what is next for you? It seems like there is very little left to do as you have done so much already.
I’d quite like to do a bit less, live my life and spend some time with my lovely new partner [Richard Cant] – he’s an actor, so he’s in something. Dating actors is a nightmare, not because there’s anything bad about them particularly, but the way they work – if he’s in a show, it’s six nights a week and matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays.
It’s boring, but I like playing with the dogs, playing the piano, cooking, and I’m quite into doing laundry. I like everyday things… but I am busy. I’m always writing. I’m writing a series of crime novels and that’s pretty much a full-time job. I’m on book three, and there are another three to come – and maybe even more after that – so it’s keeping me busy!
I like gossiping with the neighbours – I do a lot of that. It’s a very good village for news. There is a cafe at the end of my lane, sometimes I sit there, have a flat white and talk about people.
When you come to Wales on your tour, will there be an opportunity for the audience to ask questions?
There certainly is. We are going to have an interactive environment in which people can ask questions and I will be very happy to try and answer them. I was in Cardiff a short time ago – well not Cardiff, what’s that posh bit just outside by the sea?
That’s the one! I feel slightly guarded about coming to Cardiff because when I stopped doing Saturday Live it was because it moved to Cardiff; I don’t want people there to think it’s because I’ve got anything against Cardiff – it just didn’t work with my routine. I feel I need to impress Cardiff a bit. Maybe I’ll do a handstand…
Not with your back!
Actually no, not with my back. Maybe I can learn Calon Lan. I’d love to do that.
That would impress us.
Would it? Whenever I watch rugby and hear Calon Lan I feel Welsh. I have no Welsh heritage at all, but everyone feels Welsh when they hear Calon Lan, don’t they?
Richard Coles: Borderline National Trinket, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Tue 12 Sept
Tickets: £25.50. Info: here
Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen, Wed 13 Sept
Tickets: £23.50. Info: here
words SARAH-JANE OUTTEN