Good Grief with Reverend Richard Coles review: National treasure goes on an improbable bereavement journey

Coles lost his partner of 12 years, David Oldham, to alcoholism shortly before Christmas 2019  (Channel 4)
Coles lost his partner of 12 years, David Oldham, to alcoholism shortly before Christmas 2019 (Channel 4)

The Reverend Richard Coles – vicar, co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, author, winner of Celebrity MasterChef, and former keyboard player for 1980s pop sensation The Communards – has, in his own softly spoken and modest way, become something of a national treasure. Can he really be as overwhelmingly nice as he seems? I’ve no reason to doubt it, and his endless empathy is one of the many qualities that make him such a popular figure with the general public, and, one imagines, the God he serves with such distinction.

There’s certainly plenty of empathy around – and required – in Good Grief, an unusual documentary that deals with the terrible and still slightly taboo subject of bereavement. Coles lost his partner of 12 years, David Oldham, to alcoholism shortly before Christmas 2019, but the details aren’t dwelt on here. Instead, Coles takes us on what he terms his “bereavement journey”. During his many encounters with counsellors and people who are still processing deep, life-changing loss, he finds his “burden” – a pejorative but serviceable word – lightened by the experience of talking things through, and sharing the pain. He’s delighted, for example, when a rather forthright American therapist tells him, in the manner of a 1980s TV business evangelist, that the old adage that “time heals” is “just BS”. A lady in a “laughter yoga” studio helps convince him that the famous “five stages of grief” is a “misconception”. He chuckles with fellow widows who share amusing grief-based anecdotes – one of them tells him that he should treasure his time in early bereavement because “no one will ever be as nice to you again”. That sort of thing.

It’s not hard to feel for Coles about his loss, but his personal journey takes in so many “stops” that you are also left a bit dizzy. It is almost as if Channel 4 decided that the best way to help Coles and anyone else looking for solace on a Monday evening in front of the telly, is to distract all concerned with such a packed itinerary you don’t have much time for introspection, or else you’d miss the next flight. Thus we join the nation’s favourite parson as he goes on specially grief-oriented experiences, such as skydiving in Milton Keynes, surfing in Bristol, attending a widows’ retreat on the Isle of Bute, cuddling a sloth in Honduras, a “grief cruise” around the Caribbean, chatting to alpacas in the Cotswolds and, most improbable of all, “bereavement boxing” in Wellingborough. It’s a sort of “Mourning Around the World in 80 Days” treatment, and, at times, fairly random. I came to the conclusion that almost any event involving human interaction with fellow mourners could be tailored and turned into a form of therapy, including everything from a vintage bus rally to an illegal dog fight.

Coles is such an obviously warm and lovely person that we’re on his side when he gets trussed up like a walrus in a sausage skin and plunges into the Bristol Channel in freezing February. I can well believe that this helped him to stimulate endorphins and broaden his life experiences, just as David had once led him out of his comfort zone. Yet, being the reserved type, Coles’s brief pieces to camera didn’t reveal that much about his inner feelings, as he admits. I’d have appreciated a bit more reflection about his life with David, and a bit less of the travelogue, to be honest. As I say, maybe Coles, despite his calling, didn’t have that much to say, or there wasn’t the time, what with so many adventures to relate.

People Coles’s age, 60-ish, are just going into the phase of life when parents, older siblings, partners and long-standing friends start to fade away. You attend more funerals than, as one might once have done, Communards concerts, and you spend too much time feeling powerless and reflecting on nothing so much as the title of the band’s smash hit 1986 cover, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Let’s hope and pray his reverence will stay and comfort us for a while longer. Coles is the nearest thing the British have to a national parish priest, and he needs looking after.