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Brit Com Lovers: Spread Christmas Cheer with Vicar of Dibley

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15 October 2007: As the gift-exchanging time of year approaches for Christmas 2007, there is one DVD comedy series worth considering for that ever so hard to please loved one now that the sitcom has unplugged its cameras forever.

Dawn French One Dawn French starred as Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley 1994-2006 | c Ian Pleeth for BBC
About 14 years ago, screenwriter Richard Curtis took the lead for a comedy series from a somewhat controversial decision by the Church of England. Curtis, 54, developed a British comedy featuring a fictitious female vicar in the rural English countryside town he named Dibley. He wrote the script specifically for casting his long time comedienne friend Dawn French.

The Vicar of Dibley first aired in 1994 on BBC and ended during the Christmas 2006 and New Years Day 2007 holidays. The entire series, including the final episode, is now available on DVD in the United States.

Unlike seasonal sitcoms from Hollywood though, the sporadic shooting of Vicar of Dibley ended with a total of only 22 episodes (about 12 hours playing time,) including seven specials that were double-time in length. Despite the show drawing some content-sensitive criticism early on, viewers in Great Britain warmed-up to Vicar of Dibley and ranked the show No.3 as an all time favorite sitcom. The series' final episodes on Christmas Day 2006 and New Years Day 2007 ranked No.1 for audience draws at 11 million and 12 million respectively. (There are only about 21 million households in all of the United Kingdom.)

Dawn French two Dawn French holds a rabbit during the show's Easter Special | c Brian Ritchie for BBC
If audience praise was not enough -- Vicar of Dibley was nominated 14 times for television awards, and took away Best Situation Comedy by the Royal Television Society and Most Popular Comedy Programme in National Television Awards in 1998; and the Golden Rose for Best Comedy in 2007 by Rose d'Or Light Entertainment. The lovely French, 50, and co-star Emma Chambers, 43, both took away Best Actress awards during the run of the series.

FOX has reportedly created the same situation sitcom in the United States starring Kirstie Alley, 56, as a "rebel" vicar serving a small Georgia town in The Minister of Divine, although it remains to be seen whether the producers and actors in the states can match, let alone surpass, the inherent charm of Curtis' Vicar of Dibley.

Dawn French three Another issue for FOX is bound to be, if and once it does air, whether or not audiences will stick around in between commercial breaks every five minutes.

For at least the first 12 episodes of The Minister of Divine, Curtis was reportedly involved in production. One big difference between the two vicars is --according to press gossip-- Alley's character has a "sorted past" and sets out to make amends...only in the U.S.A.

Moving on...for British comedy lovers and collectors in the states, The Vicar of Dibley is an unparalleled series, without a sorted past or message from the pulpit so common with Hollywood shows. Writing as an owner of The Vicar of Dibley series -- playing the DVDs usually twice a year never wears thin.

Dibley's vicar Geraldine (Gerry) Granger, played by French, was laughably imperfect, sexy in a loveable way, and owned her faults. She existed to bring the message of God, and to help people on their way even if it meant getting the odd poo on her hands while changing a baby's diapers. The rather buxom vicar Granger had an addiction to Curly Wurly and other chocolate bars and to good looking men...until the final show when she meets the man of her dreams.

Emma Chambers Best Actress won Emma Chambers played Alice Tinker-Horton on The Vicar of Dibley 1994-2006 | c Nicky Johnston for BBC
With her wits about her though --which couldn't really be said for the towns' folk of Dibley-- she and her parishioners quickly found they had more in common than not. Her greatest challenge early on was the church's uptight councilor David Horton --a Tory-- played by Gary Waldhorn. But even Horton comes around eventually... and that becomes apparent in season three.

As often seems to be case with these deeply touching British comedies (same too for Mulberry and The Good Life,) The Vicar of Dibley offered moments of tears through death of a character, through joy in nearly everything the vicar touched, and from an overwhelming sense that the writers, producers and cast all collectively "get the meaning of life."

What typically holds British comedies together is that writers create characters meant to evolve --while upholding imperfections as affirmative traits-- during typically short seasons, which goes against Hollywood formula of keeping up appearances week-to-week. While the vicar maintains her characterization in the series, Hugo Horton (played by the wonderfully talented James Fleet,) his father David, Alice Tinker (played by luscious Chambers,) and Frank Pickle (played by debonair John Bluthal,) transform anew as a result of the vicar's guidance.

The series played-up the humor in indulgence, mostly through the characterization of the vicar's food intake, just as sitcoms of the 1960s used humor from inebriation. Did the vicar really dunk her head in the chocolate fondue fountain? She sure did, and bet it was tasty too. There was a level of patience --not present in Hollywood television comedy shows-- that Vicar of Dibley carried throughout the series. Only one of the shows turned Hollywood and force fed the message during Christmas special 2005 to "make poverty history" although it too was thought provoking.

James Fleet and Gary Waldhorn James Fleet (R) and Gary Waldhorn (L) play father and son Horton | c Nicky Johnston for BBC
One does not have to believe in a god to appreciate the religious humor and irony in good Christian soldiers bickering amongst themselves, which this vicar clearly saw was a waste of time, but the net result of Vicar of Dibley was -- if such a good vicar were leading my neighborhood house of worship, I'd consider going to church.

Guest stars on Vicar of Dibley included the gorgeous Darcey Bussell (England's queen of ballet,) Rachel Hunter, Sarah Margaret Ferguson - Duchess of York, Sean Bean, Terry Wogan, Kylie Minogue, Johnny Depp...and (wink) Reg Dwight.

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