There was much talk about entertainment ‘saving us’ from 2020, especially anything nostalgic, so the surprise return of The Vicar of Dibley to our screens at Christmas was like reconnecting with an old friend.
Three ten-minute-long episodes aired on the BBC over the festive season, returning Dawn French to the vicarage alongside James Fleet, who plays Hugo Horton.
“This idea is doing three shorts that could be made up into one half-hour with different scenes, relating to the lockdown from this last troublesome six or eight months,” says Peter Bennett-Jones, who has been executive producer on the show since it first hit our screens in the mid-nineties.
“They’re sort of Zoom versions,” he tells HuffPost UK. “There’s a scene with kids and lots of good jokes in it, so I think they’ll do their job - but it’s not the all-singing, all-dancing version.”
To celebrate the show’s return, Peter got nostalgic by sharing some of his favourite memories - and secrets - from Dibley’s past with HuffPost UK.
Dawn French was worried about taking on the role
“Joy Carroll [one of the first female vicars in the UK] made Dawn feel much happier about doing the show because she told Dawn that vicars can drink and eat chocolate and have a sex life,” says Peter. “Dawn was worried about doing the part… [She was worried it] might be a bit pious. Joy Carroll was such a force of nature.”
The part of Geraldine wasn’t initially written for Dawn
“It wasn’t written for Dawn but she made it her own,” says Peter. “Richard wrote it for a forthright comic actress. I think he might have even seen three or four different people have a go at it. Dawn got cast and the rest is history as it were.
“I know he had a couple of other people but I think the right call was made. She just made it her own. She knows where comedy is - she’s a comic actress really, you can’t really imagine it without her, funnily enough.”
Writer Richard Curtis preferred working on Dibley to Notting Hill and Four Weddings
“Richard wrote me a note when I said I was going to do this,” Peter tells us. “He said: ‘I was doing Dibley in the period where I’d done Four Weddings and Notting Hill. Dibley was ten times more fun than making movies!’”
Would Richard ever be on board to make more of the show he loved filming so much? “Richard’s got so much else that he does I think he’d be fearful of going back, but never say never,” says Peter. “I’m sure he’ll carry on doing little specials and these are different ways of doing it in this particularly strange year.”
“Richard is a very generous writer,” adds Peter. “He’s not only funny but he depicts the best in people, by and large. He makes everything very affectionate and enjoyable and that spreads into the entire production. Productions are usually a fairly tense affair I would say.”
Filming in the village of Turville for the second series wasn’t guaranteed
“Sir Alastair Horne was chairman of the village council,” Peter remembers of the village of Turville in Buckinghamshire, where they shot on location.
“When we came round to doing the second series of episodes we had to go back, and once we’d committed to a location you have to persuade them to let them go back otherwise you’re sunk...
“He [Alastair] said, ‘I’m going to put you at the top of the agenda with the village council, and I did my spiel, saying ‘Is there anything we can do to make life easier?’ because it’s disruptive.
“He said ‘try putting some decent jokes in it this time,’ and he meant it. He was a dry, distinguished historian, but he did lend us his garden to shoot the fete in so he allowed us back and was perfectly cooperative after that.”
Most of the show was shot in front of a live studio audience
“Anything you see in the village was done in the village, but the village hall, in the vicarage where she’s inside with Alice or people coming in and out would be in the studio,” Peter says.
The crew balanced time between Turville and the studios in Shepperton, Surrey. “You’d film somebody going into the vicarage, which was a house just by the church gate in Turville, and you’d just edit that together with the shots inside, done in the studio.”
The show was inspired by a real life female vicar
There were just a handful of female vicars in the UK when Dibley began, recalls Peter. “There was a woman called Joy Carroll who was one of the very early female vicars. Richard hung out with her a bit and she was a sort of inspiration and Dawn was cast to play this role.”
The very fact that there was opposition to the concept of female vicars “put wind in Richard’s sails and helped form a very friendly central character,” remembers Peter of the early days.
The show was initially met with some hostility
“People had strongly held beliefs and they think any form of getting laughs at the expense of religion is insensitive,” reveals Peter. “So we originally had episodes pre-watershed, and they had to be pushed post-watershed is my memory.”
The characters were inspired by real villagers
“It was just based on village life,” recalls Peter. “You’d get a farmer and make them slightly ridiculous, like Owen, and not [quite] the village idiot, played by Trevor Peacock - but he’s basically just given one joke and does it with commensurate skill: ‘no no no no, yes.’”
David Horton, played by Gary Waldhorn, was inspired by a real person in Richard Curtis’ life. “The David Horton character just plays it to a T,” says Peter. “There’s a rather haunting Lord of the Manor where Richard lives and that was based loosely on him.”
Remember the classic puddle scene? Filming of that didn’t go quite to plan
“That puddle she jumps into was filmed initially with hot water so she could not get too cold jumping in, but then we realised that just sent steam off so it didn’t work,” reflects Peter.
“So they ended up putting cold water and she had a wet suit under her cassock.”
James Corden was cut out of a Comic Relief special
“[Richard Curtis] would get big stars to come in on the Comic Relief specials,” Peter says. “Johnny Depp did one, James Corden, he got cut out of one…”
Not everyone was a fan when the show first aired
“It’s very rare that any comedy series that becomes a classic gets well-reviewed in its first outing,” remembers Peter.
“I remember some really horrible ones, I seem to remember a rather unpleasant one from the person who used to edit the Today programme. It’s very common. Something about the nature of critics, they aren’t mainstream fans. They’d rather something cleverer.”
Emma Chambers, who played Alice Tinker, took some persuading to film the final episode
“I remember the very last episode we did, Emma took some persuading to do it,” reveals Peter. “We couldn’t do it without her.... She was going through all sorts of problems. Anyway I did persuade her to do it and I remember her coming up after - we had a lovely drinks thing at Shepperton after the last recording - I was just leaving and she ran outside, gave me a big hug and said ‘that’s the most fun thing I’ve done, I’m glad you persuaded me.’
“She brought a lot to that party - her performance was fantastic. Playing somebody essentially a bit dim but totally lovely needs fine judgement, because otherwise it can be offensive. It’s never offensive.”
So there won’t be another series, right?
“The BBC always had an appetite for more,” says Peter. “Never say never, but you know, in the end it’s unlikely to go back to its former self because Alice is no longer with us, Owen’s no longer with us… half the cast are gonners, sadly. Oddly immortalised.”
What about if they returned with new cast members? “You could argue it like that,” Peter says of that approach. “But again, it’s always difficult going back to something that was very successful ten years earlier or fifteen years earlier.”
The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown is available on BBC iPlayer. Series 1-4 are streaming now on Netflix.