The Richard Curtis comedy came about as a result of the 1992 changes in the Church of England that permitted the ordination of women, and although the issue was obviously not contentious enough to scare the BBC out of granting it a primetime slot, there were still plenty who - if not outright against the church's move - were at least uncomfortable or nervous about it.
So how do you quell the furore caused by a change like this, which encompasses massive issues such as religious values and gender equality? The answer was simple - make Dawn French its grinning poster child.
The Vicar of Dibley: Originally broadcast from November 10, 1994 to January 1, 2007
It was clear from the very first second of The Vicar of Dibley when the opening credits took us gliding over the golds and greens of the English countryside to the soothing tones of 'The Lord is My Shepherd' that the show would be framing the risky subject of women vicars in a safe, cosy environment.
Dibley is a quaint and peaceful village tucked away in Oxfordshire, almost entirely removed from the real world. It is exactly the type of place that would be both most fearful and most welcoming of someone like Geraldine Granger, French's titular reverend. The transition of its people as a whole from being initially sceptical of the woman vicar to offering her a place in their hearts must have been what Curtis and fellow writer Paul Mayhew-Archer hoped would be replicated by viewers in the real world.
It's no surprise that the people of Dibley couldn't help but fall in love with Geraldine. The character bounces into the village and lights up the place from the moment she arrives (we mean that literally - she's wearing a bright yellow trench coat in her first scene). Bubbly, quick-witted, loyal and caring, she is someone who is shown as having very few flaws.
Crucially, Geraldine is aware and accepting of the unease that her ordainment causes, but chooses to joke along with her critics, confident that her personality will be enough to alleviate everyone's fears. Her tactic is the same as Curtis's - don't bother debating why female vicars should be given a chance, just show them why there should be no need for debate.
Even the things she does most likely to cause offence to religious viewers - such as sticking a photo of Sean Bean next to one of Jesus and hiding chocolate in hollowed-out bibles - are presented as delightful quirks. She is an everywoman - kind-hearted, unlucky in love and occasionally bumbling. What she is not is a monster.
The Vicar of Dibley then is a character-based sitcom first and a thought piece second. In fact the tricky issue of women vicars is hardly brought up after the first episode, and even in that it's treated softly - the entire issue at one point being compared to the divisive flavour of prawn cocktail crisps. From then on the show was all about Geraldine's attempts to somehow enliven or better the village and her relationship with its residents.
Any Vicar of Dibley fan knows that Geraldine's closest companion is Alice Tinker, the church verger. Played to perfection by Emma Chambers, Alice was a puppy dog of a person, all sweet and wide-eyed without any real comprehension of the world. Her constant confusion and near-insane ramblings were a source of much frustration for Geraldine, but she was infuriatingly sweet and the pair have an unwavering loyalty to each other.
This meant that Geraldine often had to defend Alice from perhaps the only person in the village unable to stand her, Councillor David Horton (Gary Waldhorn), especially when she became romantically involved with his similarly simple son Hugo (James Fleet).
David was Geraldine's frequent sparring partner, leading the charge at the beginning of the series to have her ousted, but eventually their continuous clashing started to resemble something more like friendly ribbing as the cantankerous, fiercely conservative Conservative was softened by her charm. The two were even briefly engaged, but that's too weird to think about in detail.
Then there was the rest of Dibley's tragic parish council - disgusting and disturbing farmer Owen Newitt (Roger Lloyd-Pack), notoriously boring closeted pensioner Frank Pickle (John Bluthal), Letitia Cropley and her grotesque culinary creations, played by the great Liz Smith until the character's on-screen death in 1996 - one of The Vicar of Dibley's more heart-wrenching moments - and Jim Trott (Trevor Peacock), whose contribution to the show only needs to be summed up with the words 'no, no, no'.
The characters of The Vicar of Dibley played into that old cliché of backward village folk that those in the countryside embrace for the sake of humour and those from the city genuinely believe exist. Geraldine is well aware of the fact that she's surrounded by imbeciles, and most of the time merely tolerates them, but the major figures in Dibley are all able to function as a community and stand united. Though they may at times be repulsed by each other's personality traits or beliefs, there's an ever-present love and affection for each other.
With a host of characters who are 'a little off', The Vicar of Dibley revels in absurdist humour. Every episode starts off with a random as heck visual gag and throughout the series there's been plenty of daft moments, like the service for animals, the amazing Christmas special where Geraldine is forced to eat three dinners, Kylie Minogue turning up to host the village fete and the vicar dancing with Darcey Bussell.
Such goofy ridiculousness has made The Vicar of Dibley a comedy institution - it was voted third in a 2004 poll to find Britain's best sitcom, the premise of the post-credits joking between Geraldine and Alice is a mystery to nobody and episodes such as the Songs of Praise special, the wedding of Alice and Hugo complete with Tellytubbies as bridesmaids and the birth of their first child during a Nativity play have become classics. This writer still thinks twice before jumping into puddles on country lanes.
Fans continued to call out for the show to return and a pair of Christmas specials were produced in 2004 and 2007. The latter couple were stated to be The Vicar of Dibley's final full-length episodes and gave the programme a fitting end by marrying Geraldine off to the dashing Richard Armitage, finally granting the reverend happiness after more than a decade of caring for everybody else.
It may have been slightly sappy and standard series finale fare, but Geraldine's wedding represented the final piece needed to complete this feel-good jigsaw before it could be put away.
So as we come to the end of this Tube Talk Gold entry saluting The Vicar of Dibley, it seems appropriate that we should leave you all on a joke. Here's a classic borrowed from Geraldine herself - what do accountants do when they're constipated...?
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