Emma Chambers fans wish for just one more misunderstood joke | Julia Raeside

The actor best known as Dibley’s Alice Tinker will be remembered for her full-beam warmth

No one misunderstood a joke like Alice Tinker. In the Vicar of Dibley, Emma Chambers, whose death was announced on Saturday, provided a far-from-straight woman to Dawn French’s appealing rural cleric Geraldine Granger.

In Richard Curtis’s madly successful ecclesiastical sitcom, Chambers never failed to steal the closing scene in which vicar and verger sat face-to-face over mugs of cocoa, cracking jokes.

To duplicate a trope for 26 episodes (including charity specials) and never lose the comic momentum is a testament to both women, but particularly to an actor who never seemed to repeat herself. She was always inventing, seemingly in the middle of delivering a line, and made the whole process look like a series of new thoughts arriving as she spoke.

Chambers made a career of embodying a smart sweetness that infused many of her performances, not least as the sidekick of Geraldine, the vicar trying to find her place in a tightly-knit community of rural eccentrics.

The scripts helped, too, obviously, but Chambers always prevented Alice’s empathy and warmth tipping over into sickly sentiment. No cloying Pollyanna-ing went without a mug or a gurn to defuse its treacle.

She could switch easily between the dim-witted musings of a character not outwardly blessed with brains into Baldrick-like profound thoughts on the human condition and then back again to head-thudding stupidity without showing her workings. She made playing dumb look easy.

Chambers in the 1999 film Notting Hill.
Chambers as Honey Thacker in the 1999 film Notting Hill. Photograph: Clive Coote/Polygram/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

I first fell for her in Simon Nye’s How Do You Want Me, a ridiculously overlooked comic masterpiece in which she played (or rather downplayed) Helen, sister to Charlotte Coleman’s Lisa.

When Lisa arrives back in the village of her birth with a new husband (Dylan Moran) most of the locals don’t take to him, but Helen provides that hint of acceptance so absent in the rest of the family. And we see the first glimmerings of a quiet eccentricity that went on to inform much of her screen work.

Chambers so often played the character who looked on with sympathy and concern when others were dishing out scorn. The concerned pair of eyes across a room, cutting through the rest of the action. Casting directors obviously felt that emanating from her naturally.

In a departure from these agreeable characters, I enjoyed her turn in the BBC’s Martin Chuzzlewit in which she starred as Charity Pecksniff, the spoiled and not at all charitable sister of Mercy Pecksniff (Julia Sawalha), entirely driven by a desire for a good marriage and ruining her sister’s day wherever possible. She snarked from beneath that bonnet with just enough sweetly delivered venom to communicate Charity’s utter contempt for her inferiors.

But the full beam of her warmth as a performer is what everyone is remembering in the wake of such horrible news. It is often talked about as an admired quality in a comic actor, but warmth isn’t something lifted off a page. It is everything to do with the gaps between the words and how that performer generates and releases the energy from their inner furnace. Not too much, not too little – she judged her appeal to an audience perfectly without ever seeming to calculate or use the same piece of timing twice.

However dim or overly enthusiastic the character she played – and she was a terrific, pink-haired loony-tune sister to Hugh Grant’s William Thacker in Notting Hill – I cannot imagine ever having a bad time with those characters in person. She was the endlessly encouraging, supportive friend and sister who more than deserved to step out into the spotlight herself.

It is often said when someone dies that those that miss them wish for just one more argument. As a fan of Chambers’ immensely likeable work, I wish we could have had just one more misunderstood joke.


Julia Raeside

The GuardianTramp

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