In 1994, there weren’t many female vicars in Britain. For the Church of England, the subject was touchy. When The Vicar of Dibley premiered, featuring Dawn French as the new leader of a congregation in a small (and quite batty) Oxfordshire village, the star received some hate mail from conservative priests who loathed the idea of popularizing what they saw as a ridiculous notion. Thankfully, things have changed. Today it is difficult to see how anyone can find this lovable show offensive.
The Vicar of Dibley ran on BBC for 13 years, but only intermittently. The first season featured six episodes, the second (two years later) only two, one set during Easter, the other Christmas. They were essentially specials and the showrunners would repeat the formula on a number of occasions a few years later, as well as creating a couple of Comic Relief episodes. The Vicar of Dibley rarely ran for whole seasons, but would rather just pop up now and then. The final episode in 2007 was indeed meant as a goodbye and included even flashbacks and a few peeks behind the curtains.
As the years went by, so did life in the small village. Geraldine Granger’s (French) first arrival in 1994 had initially shocked the congregation, especially David Horton (Gary Waldhorn), the rigid chairman of the Parish Council. Geraldine had her off-color ideas, which greatly annoyed David, but he did warm up to her later, even asking for her hand in marriage in 1999 (she declined after having a dream where Sean Bean told her not to do it). The Parish Council was stacked with oddballs, including Jim (Trevor Peacock) who began every sentence with a stuttering “no, no, no, no…” before eventually coming up with whatever he was trying to say. Owen (Roger Lloyd Pack) had a farm and the occasional flirt with sheep; Letitia (Liz Smith) was a bold gastronomic experimentalist; Frank (John Bluthal) the most boring man in the village; and Hugo (James Fleet) David’s cheerfully inept son.
Life and death, love and loneliness
Hugo would eventually court Alice (Emma Chambers), the vicar’s verger, and they would later marry and have children; they both had stupidity in common, their most endearing (frustrating?) quality. Life and death, love and loneliness were resurgent themes throughout the show. The Vicar of Dibley had its share of belly laughs, but its earnest moments were just as effective; for instance, Letitia died in a moving episode in 1996.
French was brilliant as Geraldine, a woman who loved chocolate, Jesus and Sean Bean and who had a wild history in college. She was a breath of fresh air, funny and attractive, but French also made sure to emphasize the fact that Geraldine was no saint. Her cast mates also delivered, including Chambers as the goofy Alice; in their hilarious routines after every episode’s end credits, Alice’s epic thickness would drive the vicar insane.
A fan once came up to Trevor Peacock and told him that it was easy to love the show because the characters seemed so real. “Real?!”, Peacock thought, “they’re all mental!” And they are. But there is an endearing familiarity that partly explains why The Vicar of Dibley remains one of Britain’s most popular sitcoms ever.
The Vicar of Dibley 1994-2007:Britain. Made for TV. 24 episodes. Color. Created by Richard Curtis, Paul Mayhew-Archer. Cast: Dawn French (Geraldine Granger), Gary Waldhorn (David Horton), Emma Chambers (Alice Springs Tinker), James Fleet, Roger Lloyd Pack, Trevor Peacock, John Bluthal, Liz Smith (94-96).
Quote: “I am not a lunatic. I have the psychiatric report to prove it. A slender majority of the panel decided in my favour.” (Lloyd Pack)
Last word: “People come up to me and say, ‘Are you that stupid?’ I look at them and say: ‘Oh, yes. I am dim, dim sum, dim sum dim. Dim, dim, dim, dim,’ and they look at me rather strangely, and I am the one who goes off smiling. I giggle to myself and I think, ‘For God’s sake, be inventive, say something else’.” (Chambers, The Telegraph)