Feminism, comedy and Christianity don’t seem to make up a holy trinity, but in Richard Curtis’ classic BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, the popular liberal screenwriter who penned such sentimental hits as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, creates a hilarious and touching comedy about Geraldine Granger (Dawn French), a lady vicar assigned to the tiny fictional Oxforshire village, Dibley. Geraldine’s arrival is met with curiosity by the village folk, except for the chairman of the parish council, David Horton (Gary Waldhorn). The council is comprised of dotty locals including David’s dimwitted son Hugo (James Fleet), an oversexed and hygenically-challenged farmer, Owen Newitt (Roger Lloyd-Pack), Jim Trott (Trevor Peacock), a dithering old man, Letitia Cropley (Liz Smith), a randy octogenarian, and Frank Pickle (John Bluthal), a pedantic and tiresome man who’s known as the most boring man in the village. Assisting Geraldine is the daffy verger, Alice Springs (Emma Chambers).
Every episode Geraldine finds herself in some adventure, often to do with her position as the first female vicar of Dibley. Curtis was inspired by the real-life ordination of women vicars in the Church of England. Despite being a priest, Geraldine’s a bit of a rock n’ roll vicar – she swoons over Mel Gibson, Sean Bean, and Robbie Williams and is not above flirting if she runs into handsome men. But Geraldine’s also a kind and generous woman, devoted to her calling and her church.
And that’s what’s so interesting about The Vicar of Dibley – despite its potentially subversive message, the Christianity in the show is often pretty conventional – the themes aren’t usually focused on morality or sins, but more on kindness and friendship. Curtis’ political and social positions are pretty well known, as is his interest in social causes – and often they find themselves folded into the plots of the episodes.
As with most English shows, the seasons are brief – the firs season has 8 episodes, the second and third season have four each, while the remainder seasons were usually longer special episodes and Comic Relief sketches. The first season does a great job in introducing the characters and the tone of the show – Geraldine making waves in Dibley, and battling wits with David, who continuously responds to her with hostility. As the show progresses, the two’s relationship thaws into a true friendship; Alice and Hugo share a sweet love affair that also progresses through the series with a marriage and a prodigious brood of about a dozen children.
While the show is pretty mainstream, conservative Christians won’t like The Vicar of Dibley. Aside from the feminism of the show, there are lots of sex jokes, and our vicar does get into some hanky panky too. There’s also a lot of gay-friendly plot lines, too including when one of the parish council comes out, or when the villagers mistake Geraldine for gay. Curtis’ commitment to Make Poverty History also makes an appearance on an episode, when Geraldine tries to convince her largely apathetic flock to join in commemorating Live Aid, and demonstrating at the G8 Summit.
Dawn French, best known for her work with Jennifer Saunders as the comedy duo French & Saunders does a wonderful job with Geraldine. Unlike a lot of her work, she doesn’t write her work here – as a result it’s relatively subtler, and kinder. It’s interesting that French took on the role of Geraldine, as she’s the straight man of the group – the most normal and sane person in the cast of goofy cartoon characters – each a spoof on the country bumpkin stereotype. Still the writers take full advantage of French’s physical comedy skills and she does do lots of prat falls and tumbles.
The supporting cast matches French – each actor is perfectly cast – Waldhorn plays the odious snob to a tee; Peacock, Bluthal, Smith, Fleet, and Lloyd-Pack all do great jobs as well – each playing up their characters individual idiosyncracies. But best of all is Chambers, who is the breakout character in the show – she’s reminiscent of Judy Holliday or Goldie Hawn – a blonde space cadet. Even French is sometimes overshadowed by the bright weirdness of Chambers’ inspired comedy.
The Vicar of Dibley ends on a satisfying note – Geraldine’s decade-long run as the vicar of the village culminates in an important and momentous wedding. It’s done with the trademark goofy comedy – this isn’t Oscar Wilde, and doesn’t pretend to do be – it’s a fun, harmless show with a lot of heart.