Catastrophe and Fleabag have caught on to the comedic potential of the Quaker meeting

Published in the i March 29, 2019

Heard the one about the Quaker? Probably not. After all, the thing Quakers are famous for is being quiet (oh, and oats – but don’t get me started on that marketing lie). The Religious Society of Friends, to give them their fuller name, worship in silence – sitting together in a kind of collective spiritual contemplation – and this unshowy form of faith hasn’t exactly provided many punchlines.

Until now. Quakers are suddenly cropping up in our smartest comedies. First Rob in Channel 4’s Catastrophe, on a self-improvement drive, started attending Quaker meetings. Then this week, Fleabag followed. “It’s very intense. It’s very quiet. It’s very, very… erotic,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge said to camera.

I was brought up a Quaker, and if it’s always nice to see your background reflected on-screen, that’s even more the case when a pretty niche group are suddenly dubbed sexy – rather than the usual “boring” or “worthy” – in the best TV show in years.

These days, I consider myself a lapsed Quaker – which come to think of it is a bit of a joke in itself given that Quakers are the most tolerant, open-minded people. You don’t get burdened with Quaker guilt. After all it’s hard to kick against their abiding principles (or “testimonies”) of equality and justice, peace, truth and integrity, and simplicity and sustainability. I hope such values still inform my life – and my lack of attendance to worship is more down to a horror of getting out of bed on Sunday mornings than the thought of being silent for an hour.

Of course, the customs and communities that spring up around faith have long been plundered for laughs – think Father Ted, Rev or The Vicar of Dibley. But these programmes used organised religion as a cosy backdrop, a situation to be amplified for comic effect, where stereotypes are both embraced and gently subverted. The humour is usually rather warm and slightly twee. It’s striking that Quakers are, by contrast, showing up in considerably more caustic shows.

Or maybe it shouldn’t be. Catastrophe and Fleabag both unflinchingly show people battling with modern life, and occasionally facing the yawning cavern of existential dread behind the everyday irritation and bickering. They’re both blackly funny, our laughter darkly shadowed with wincing recognition. In a world that makes no sense, these comedies reflect the fact that most of us struggle to cut through the noise, to find some meaning and purpose in life.

The Quakers, with their turning inwards to connect with something more eternal and profound – not to mention offering an hour without the buzz of social media, urgent emails and WhatsApp alerts – have an obvious appeal in such confusing and over-stimulated times.

Not that they’re above mockery. Both shows stick the knife in, too: Fleabag skewers the fact that when Quakers feel moved by the spirit to speak into the silence, the results can be extraordinarily banal rather than transcendent. In Catastrophe, Rob’s eventual frustration with the Quakers’ patient passivity, their perceived lack of anger at the state of the world, is also extremely relatable (if a little unfair given the amount of often frontline conflict resolution work Quakers do across the world).

These comedies both trade in a contemporary, deeply ingrained cynicism – it’s quite right they take sharp aim at the idea that any one thought system has the answers for how to live. But, crucially, they don’t just sneer, and it feels significant that we’re seeing people genuinely turning toward religion as they try to make sense of life.

I don’t think that even a couple of years ago we would have seen such hyper-critical characters exploring Quakerism on TV. Whisper it: perhaps that really does reflect our need for a bit of quiet.

Where next?