If anyone knows of a small British village in need of a feisty feminist to round out their cast of lovable eccentrics, please contact Judge Kristin Munson.
"You were expecting a bloke…beard, bible, bad breath? And instead, you got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom."
-- Geraldine Granger
It's funny when bad things happen to sitcom people and, as far as the British are concerned, it's even funnier when bad things happen to truly awful people. Every episode the audience waits for David Brent and Basil Fawlty to get their comeuppance, or for snobby Hyacinth Bucket being taken down a peg. So it's unusual to see a Britcom where the lead character is not only nice, but someone as normal as we are.
Created by Richard Curtis, the mind behind Blackadder and Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Vicar of Dibley gets the best of both those fictional worlds. It's a religious sitcom that is both toasty warm and unbelievably rude. The Immaculate Collection gathers together the show's previous DVDs just in time for the release of the program's final bow.
Facts of the Case
When Geraldine Granger (Dawn French, Clatterford) became one of England's first female vicars she knew it would be tough, but she didn't expect to be assigned to the looniest British village this side of The Wicker Man. There's anal retentive Frank, who can turn a simple anecdote into a three hour ordeal and Mrs. Cropley, a liberated granny with terrible taste buds. Owen's a sexually frustrated farmer and Jim's thoughts are confusing enough without him stuttering 'No, no, no' at the worst moments. Hugo and Alice have big hearts, but a combined mental age of 12, and David, the only fully sane villager, wants Geraldine gone. What's a girl to do? If you're Gerry, you put on your best smile, stock up on chocolate, and don't take 'no, no, no' for an answer.
It's hard to believe a program that portrayed a reverend as wise, tolerant, and caring would inspire hate mail from the clergy, but it did, just because the reverend in question was a woman. Over the course of three series, many specials, and 10 years, The Vicar of Dibley took viewers into a weird, mad country village to see kindness and optimism (usually) prevail in the face of total insanity and the show did the same in real life. Originally the subject of controversy, it was voted number three in a poll of the top hundred Britcoms of all time.
The show's main strength lies with its cast, a collection of some of the best stage actors England has to offer. It takes talent to play stupid, ignorant, partially mad people and make them into lovable innocents you feel okay laughing at. Roger Lloyd-Pack and Trevor Peacock are standouts as Owen and Jim. Dawn French excels at playing someone who is easily guilt-tripped, always saucy, sometimes vain, and prone to becoming a giggling ninny when she gets over-excited. If you don't have a Gerry Granger in your life already, you'll wish you did.
The Vicar of Dibley's other asset is the writing team of Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer. Every episode requires an opening sight gag, a parish council meeting, a chat between Alice and the vicar, and a naughty joke told after the credits and the two find a way of making it original each time. The conversations and situations are naughtier and more irreverent than most shows (If you didn't know what buggery was before, you will now), and yet there's an underlying niceness to the proceedings. The show's also not afraid to immerse itself in pop culture, something that makes it feel more modern and relatable than other sitcoms, in spite of the country setting. Prepare for an octogenarian performance of The Full Monty striptease, some Dalek bridesmaids, and a church choir that belts out Top 40 hits at Sunday service, as well as star turns by Kylie Minogue, Rachel Hunter, Johnny Depp, and cameos from Sean Bean and the Duchess of York. Some of the jokes, however, are just too topical, and too British, even for an anglophile, so if you don't know John Major from John Inman it's easy to get lost.
The first series sticks to a standard formula: newcomer Geraldine disturbing the Dibley status quo while conservative council chair David waits for her to fail. "If Jesus wanted women to spread the gospel he would have appointed them. It's Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not Sharon, Tracy, Tara, and Debbie," he sneers. An Elton John episode is over-top wacky and a mass for the parish animals brings on the warm fuzzies. Starting with a death and ending in a wedding, series two is where the show really finds its legs. There's a lot of character growth as the vicar's influence spreads to the villagers and Geraldine finds herself in some sticky situations for the sake of being polite. Every episode is a winner but the highlights of the season are the launch of Dibley Radio, the Emmy-winning Easter Special, and the sweetest marriage proposal ever to quote Aliens. Paul Mayhew-Archer writes a wedding episode that skewers every TV wedding cliché you can think of, while raising the bar for wedding shows to come. Series three is good but disjointed, and setting each of the four episodes three months apart doesn't help. The holiday special, featuring a living nativity, strikes the perfect balance of rudeness and heart. Only in Dibley can an impassioned speech about the birth of Jesus share space with bestiality jokes. Even the writers must have been feeling tapped out at this point, because there's a gap of four years between series three and the next episodes: a pair of specials that aren't so special. 2004's Christmas and New Year specials are predictable and mean-spirited, two things the show had always avoided. There's still some funny bits but they don't measure up to the earlier series and 'Happy New Year' ends on a downer: the final scene is a tearjerker PSA for 'Make Poverty History' that's preachy and out of place. Just when it looks like the show is running on fumes, it bounces back in '06 to hit one out of the park with 'The Handsome Stranger', a Jane Austen romance done Dibley-style. Fresh, funny, and sweet it brings Richard Armitage (Robin Hood) to the cast as newcomer Harry Kennedy and lets chemistry take its course. Richard Curtis pushes his luck one wedding too far for the final special. There's being polite and being a doormat, and not only does the episode steamroll over Geraldine's character for the sake of a comic setup, the "payoff" is bunch of warmed over gags recycled from earlier shows. The finale is ultimately rescued by a catchy song about famous relationships that have crashed and burned and a post-credits twist on the usual closing joke.
As for bonuses, The Immaculate Collection doesn't offer any exclusive content beyond what's on the individual releases. "The Story of Dibley" is an hour-long retrospective featuring new interviews with the cast, writers, producers, and the real-life vicar Curtis and French used as an advisor. News footage of hatred lobbied against the ordination of females is unsettling ('Vicar Says Woman Priests Should be Burnt as Witches' reads one headline), and makes the show's success even more special, but the feature has the same problem as most of these looks back: too many clips that run too long. 'Dibley Defrocked' is a montage of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of 2004's specials and 'The Real Vicars of Dibley' profiles two women priests and a pair of unconventional male vicars. The true bonuses are the Comic Relief specials, three original sketches aired at Britain's biannual charity fundraiser that have the look and feel of mini episodes. Father Peter Clifford drops by for a visit from Ballykissangel ("Surely that's a made up name."), Geraldine throws a star-studded party, and the Dibley residents bring bizarre and inappropriate items to Antiques Roadshow.
Shot on film rather than video, the three earliest series still suffer from varying degrees of grain but are leagues beyond the tired prints shown on PBS stations. The first series is lit to give scenes a warm and sunny atmosphere that sometimes causes characters wearing light clothes to generate a halo effect. The later programs are widescreen and look slick; outdoor scenes are bright and gorgeous and the studio footage is sleek and sharp. The audio is serviceable but nothing to write home about, mono for the older shows and stereo for the new.
DVD companies have hard time with the box set format, usually following up the release of a final season with a complete series set a few months later, including extra extras and fancy packaging that either has you kicking yourself for buying the earlier sets or auctioning off organs to feed your cinematic habit. BBC has actually come up with a decent solution that will leave money in your pocket, which you can use to buy all the booze you want now that your liver's safe for another week. They've put out the final DVD, A Holy Wholly Happy Ending, as its own release on the same day as The Immaculate Collection, so the fans that bought the previous collection or individual DVDs can get just the newest one and the fans that have been waiting can immediately have the whole shebang. Halleluiah!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only thing The Immaculate Collection is missing is the 2007 Comic Relief special. BBC Video carefully sidesteps using 'complete' anywhere in the set's description but since Richard Curtis has said he won't be writing any more episodes it's foolish not to include this last Dibley foray to round out the series.
You don't have to be a freewheeling heathen to enjoy The Vicar of Dibley, you just have to have a sense of humor. A perfect mix of sex jokes, swearing and sweetness, the series is a big, squashing hug, even for people who don't like to cuddle. Passing up a visit to the Dibley vicarage would be "not so much a good plan as the worst plan since Hitler's dad said to Hitler's mum 'Let's go upstairs Brunhilda, I'm feeling a little saucy tonight.'"
No, no, no, no, no, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• The Real Vicars of Dibley
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