The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown review – one resurrection too far?

Dawn French revives the amiable nonsense that graced our screens between 1994 and 2007 – but it’s just not the same without all the dearly departed eccentrics

The last time I saw the Vicar of Dibley, she was flying over Oxfordshire in her pyjamas. The Rev Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) had just got married to Gorgeous Harry (Richard Armitage) in a church wedding officiated by Jeremy Ogilvy (Hugh Bonneville). Her best mate, Alice, who organised the wedding, was dressed as the 10th Doctor and there were Daleks among the wedding guests. Themed weddings are always wrong? Discuss.

It was nonsense, but, in the Vicar of Dibley’s defence, there often comes a moment with British national treasures after which nobody really remembers how these jokers became such fixtures in our lives, still less why they think they can go out dressed like that. Joanna Lumley, Elton John and the House of Lords are cases in point.

As she left the church, Geraldine was blissfully happy, and so – like the piplings in CBeebies’ Waybuloo, which, I’d like to think, was inspired by this episode – expressed her joy by rising heavenwards. Exactly the same happened after my marriage. Haven’t seen her since.

Whether Geraldine was going to meet her maker or just flying above the M40 towards Birmingham is one for theologians. This was in 2007 and I never expected to hear from the Vicar of Dibley, still less gorgeous Harry, again.

Thirteen years on, though, like a slacker Jesus, the Vicar of Dibley is back on my telly. The continuity people seem to have forgotten Gorgeous Harry existed, but he’s not important now. What is important is that the vicar has turned to video messaging her flock during this spring’s first lockdown. Geraldine is older, let’s hope wiser and wearing some floral top over her dog collar that needs to be taken outside and shot. Her Zoom backdrop also features a picture of Idris Elba, which is about the only thing countering the idea that her parish is an isle of white in diverse Britain. That idea gains credence from the fact The Vicar of Dibley was filmed in the Buckinghamshire village of Turville where other monocultural middle English shows (Midsomer Murders, Lewis, Marple) were shot.

When it started in 1994, Richard Curtis’s sitcom had a radical edge in that it was made only two years after the Church of England admitted women priests. Ever since, though, it has been a bucolic fantasy as helpful to modern Britain as Roger Scruton in a novelty Christmas jumper, part of TV’s white flight to an England that never existed. Further west in the Cotswolds, thank heavens, This Country has more plausibly shown what English village idiots in the new millennium are like.

Despite all this, Geraldine’s video monologue was affecting, In reality, many of the actors who played Dibley’s eccentrics, perverts, snobs and dunderheads have died. Roger Lloyd Pack, who played Owen Newitt, died in 2014, Liz Smith who was Letitia Cropley, in 2016, John Bluthal who played Frank Pickle in 2018, and, in the same year, Emma Chambers, who was Alice Horton (née Tinker) died aged only 53. How could the show carry on without them? Curtis came up with a good answer: by pretending they are still alive. The vicar, for instance, read a letter from pervy farmer Owen wondering whether social distancing rules applied to a human and a young seductive frisky goat. Thames Valley constabulary should be paying farmer Owen a visit. After her message of neighbourliness was interrupted by some oaf ringing the doorbell, the vicar disappeared from the screen. “Go away Frank, you incredibly annoying old git,” we heard her shouting, as if Frank were still with us.

All this reminded me of the heartbreaking moment in Coronation Street when Jean Alexander’s Hilda Ogden pretended that husband, Stan (Bernard Youens), was in bed upstairs while all the audience knew that Youens had in fact died and so Stan was never going to come down those stairs. How nice-but-dim Alice will be memorialised in later monologues (three are being broadcast over Christmas) is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: we will never have back the ritual closing gag in which Geraldine told a joke that Alice never understood.

The vicar blessed us with an Easter message, which, given this was being broadcast in December, was weird. “Like Jesus,” she told us, “we will rise from this [Covid] stronger than ever.” I hope the Vicar of Dibley won’t. It’s risen from the dead too often already.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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