Ask me to name one of my all time favourite sitcoms, and unquestionably, Richard Curtis’ classic BBC One staple from the 90s and 00s, The Vicar of Dibley, is somewhere in my top 5. The hilarious antics of the barmy country parish flock of St Barnabas, Dibley, in Oxfordshire, tended to by the show’s titular character – played by one of my actual comedic heroes, Dawn French – are still just as enjoyable now as they were over two decades ago.
The last couple of years however, has seen the sad loss of four British comic actors who bought both the show and some of TV comedy’s zaniest characters to life. With this in mind, and in tribute, I have sat down again this last week with my boxset to determine what I think are the best episodes of the series which has topped the ratings numerous times over and attracted guest stars ranging from Kylie Minogue to Johnny Depp. Bless you all for watching…
- THE NEW ARRIVAL (Series 1, 1994)
GERALDINE: You were expecting a bloke, right? Beard, bible, bad breath? And instead you got a bodacious babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom.
DAVID: Yes, that sort of thing…
If you want a masterclass in how to do a pilot episode of a sitcom, this one is it. Here for the first time we meet all the Dibley residents and establish all their personas right away, overseen by the snotty, tight belted and he of even tighter attitude, head of the Parish Council, David Horton, played by Gary Waldhorn, who truly made the part his own.
As Dibley’s long standing vicar, Reverend Pottle, quite literally falls off his perch mid-Sunday service, their new vicar, Geraldine Granger, arrives to take his place, and is not only something of a culture shock (bear in mind the Church of England had only just passed canon law for women to be ordained as vicars when this was first broadcast) but also is met with strong resistance from Mr Horton…
- THE EASTER BUNNY (Special, 1996)
MRS. CROPLEY: You can tell a dying woman the truth, vicar. My cooking…will I be thought of as a culinary pioneer, a chef of experimental tastes, whose rich unorthodox command will be the stuff of legend in the new millennium, or was my food just ghastly?
GERALDINE: Well, honestly. You are one of the greats. Mrs Beeton, Delia Smith, Letitia Cropley. That’s the trinity.
The start of Lent arrives for the villagers, and sees them all agreeing to give up swearing, dithering, thinking about sex and – grudgingly for the vicar – eating chocolate respectively, with a sin box set up to help fund a new Friday night video club in the village hall.
However, the preparations for Easter take an unexpected sad turn, when Dibley’s “queen of Cordon bleugh”, Mrs Cropley, takes ill and never recovers. She passes on a wish for the Vicar to fulfill on her death bed – and when we say it involves a bunny costume, you know what’s gonna happen next…
- DIBLEY LIVE (Series 2, 1998)
GERALDINE: Now I just need to hear some sound from you Frank for levels, so tell me what you had for breakfast…
GERALDINE: Gonna need more than that so…let your imagination run wild!
FRANK: Right, wild…two pieces of toast.
To celebrate 100 years of the village, Geraldine is granted a license for Dibley to have its very own radio station for one week, broadcasting live from the Vicarage. Some are more appealing than others – foul mouthed B.O king Owen Newitt’s report on bovine fleas, anyone? And then there’s the surprising revelation given by the council’s snore-a-minute taker Frank Pickle (John Bluthal) on his “hour of talking”.
And that’s before the climax of the week, the broadcast of the annual village quiz, which after long standing champion David publicly berates his future daughter-in-law live on air – Dibley’s gentle but dimwitted verger, Alice Tinker (Emma Chambers), who got engaged to his son Hugo the episode before – he comprehensively loses to her in his failure to know which Dibley resident is commonly known as ‘Donkey Bonker’…
- LOVE & MARRIAGE (Series 2, 1998)
ALICE: And for my wedding train, she thought…
GERALDINE: Thomas the Tank Engine…
ALICE: Yep. With Percy and Gordon.
GERALDINE: Bit much isn’t it? Pulling three stream trains up the aisle?
ALICE: Oh no, they’ll be very light. She’s making them out of lino.
Voted as the ultimate TV wedding by Radio Times readers, Alice and Hugo (James Fleet) finally tie the knot in a sweet yet utterly bonkers wedding ceremony, complete with Teletubby bridesmaids and “2 Become 1” as an opening hymn.
But there’s romance in the air in another way this episode, as Simon, David’s dashing old brother (played by then Casualty actor Clive Mantle) is in attendance at the ceremony, leaving a newly blonde and muchly smitten Geraldine, recently propositioned by the Archbishop about moving to a new parish, with a difficult decision to make…
- WINTER (Series 3, 1999)
FRANK: Shouldn’t we do something about this? After all, we are the three wise men!
JIM: No no, no no, we are the kings. And most kings are brain dead inbred cretins.
The last Christmas of the 20th century arrives in the village, and with it, the annual dilemma of what to put on for the annual Christmas show. After a heavily pregnant Alice suggests putting on a live version of the nativity at a nearby farm, it’s all systems go – even if Frank’s idea of a wise man for his audition is to read his lines in the voice of Stephen Hawking, and likewise Jim (Trevor Peacock) dressing as Billie Jean for one of the ‘kings’.
But with Alice playing Mary whilst also “great with child” on the back of a motorised lawnmower (in place of the donkey which ran away in rehearsals), it’s not long before the nativity becomes more realistic than anyone expected – and that’s without the vicar’s angelic appearance to the shepherds watching their flocks by night…
- THE HANDSOME STRANGER (Special, 2006)
HARRY: Well if my calculations are correct, this meeting constitutes our third date. Which means you owe me the sum of one kiss. With tongues.
GERALDINE: Well, it is sinful to be in debt…
The first of two hour long specials that bade farewell to the series after a run of twelve years and 20 episodes, handsome accountant Harry Kennedy (Richard Armstrong) moves into the village and Geraldine is soon utterly smitten with him following a series of dates.
But when she sees him days after their third date with a mysterious blonde woman, and jumps in a puddle yet again to avoid them, it appears the course of true love hasn’t run smoothly for the Vicar once again – or has it?
This post is in loving memory of Roger Lloyd Pack (Owen Newitt), Liz Smith (Mrs Cropley), Emma Chambers (Alice Tinker) and John Bluthal (Frank Pickle). May they rest in peace as we thank them for the hours of laughter they gave us.
The Vicar of Dibley is currently re-running on Gold, everyday at 3.40pm and 8.20pm, Sky channel 110, Virgin Media channel 124 and BT TV channel 310.