Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Vicar of Dibley: Winter

The Vicar of Dibley was a BBC sitcom that ran intermittently between 1994 and 2007, following the introduction of a female vicar to a very traditional village in England (a new and controversial move in 1994 when it began). It was written by Richard Curtis, co-writer of Blackadder, and starred Dawn French as the vicar Geraldine, and had a beautiful theme song (The Lord is my Shepherd, set to music by Howard Goodall).

British TV series often have strange schedules and there is something of a tradition of doing really exciting plot developments during a one-off Christmas special, but The Vicar of Dibley got even stranger than most and this episode was one of four stand-alone seasonal specials. Although it's called 'Winter', it's actually the Christmas special and centres around Geraldine's attempt to do something really special with the annual Nativity play for the millennium.

The Nativity Play is a British school and church tradition, in which all the kids put tea towels on their heads and pretend to be living in Roman Bethlehem, and re-enact the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph are the leads (all the little girls want to be Mary), other speaking parts go to the first and second innkeepers (who have one line, 'No room!'), the innkeeper who provides the stable, three shepherds, three 'kings' or wise men and Gabriel. (The Magi are most often portrayed as kings, despite the historical inaccuracy, partly so they can sing 'We Three Kings' and partly so they can wear paper crowns). The other kids all have to make sure they have white sheets and stand at the back playing angels and singing 'Away in a Manger'. It's a brilliant tradition, which is great fun and which has occasionally been lampooned elsewhere, most notably in the play 'The Flint Street Nativity' and in Curtis' own Love Actually (where the nativity play, for some reason, includes at least two lobsters). I always got stuck as the incredibly boring Narrator in school, but I did once get to play Mary in a church procession.

The Love Actually Nativity was a bit *different*. An octopus was also involved.

In this episode, Geraldine's incredibly dim verger Alice actually comes up with a genuinely brilliant idea, which is to stage the Nativity play in an actual stable on a local farm. Complications ensue when the heavily pregnant Alice insists on being cast as Mary and goes into labour during the show. Hilarity and sweetness ensues.

Since the point of the outdoor Nativity is to be more realistic than usual, historical accuracy (or lack thereof) becomes something of an issue during the preparations. No one suggests the Kings should actually be Persian priests, because no Nativity is likely to bother doing that - we're all far too attached to the paper crowns etc. In fact, at one point Jim and Frank discuss whether they're wise men, who should help with the birth, or Kings, 'inbred cretins' who can't help with anything, according to Jim. But Geraldine does try to use historical accuracy to stop Alice from playing Mary, by insisting that Mary could only speak Hebrew (which isn't actually true, she would also have spoken Aramaic and possibly some Greek). Brilliantly, Alice responds in fluent Hebrew! This is a lovely moment, not to mention quite possibly the most intelligent thing Alice has ever done.

Geraldine's rehearsals follow the Mike Leigh method of improvising around the subject, which also leads to some interesting work. Alice suggests that 'loaves and fishes' is a family recipie, which is very funny, while she and the vicar both get a bit carried away improvising an argument between Mary and Joseph and the shepherds' improvisation seems to imply that everyone in ancient Bethlehem had access to BBC television.

The greatest amount of historical meddling, however, is down to David Horton, local politician, who wanted to be cast as God but has instead been cast as Herod (another speaking part often included as part of the Kings' story, though the massacre of the infants is not, in fact, commonly part of a Nativity play). David is not at all pleased with this and starts trying to suggest reinterpretations of Herod's character, insisting that history has misunderstood the man. His first suggestion to explain away the massacre of the infants is that some soldiers misheard what Herod said and misunderstood, which is a bit like Henry II's explanation for the murder of Thomas Beckett. (The soldiers in question appear to be dressed as Romans, even though Herod was a Jewish king and probably had his own guards - Romans are too much part of the cultural imagination of the ancient world to leave them out all together). During the play itself, he starts giving out sweets to all the children in the audience, trying to get them to like him (all this despite the fact his costume resembles that of Ming the Merciless). Best of all, he asks the soldiers to 'kill them gently!' The whole thing is entirely doomed - quite apart from his Biblical nastiness, the historical Herod the Great was a nasty piece of work with a tendency to have his own children put to death.

This is a lovely episode (albeit with one of those very clean sitcom childbirth scenes with hardly any screaming). The Vicar of Dibley is one of those nice, homey shows that always feels slightly Christmassy anyway and anything with Nativity plays in it always brings me right back to childhood Christmasses and the desperate search for some kind of blue headscarf to wear as Mary. I also genuinely like the idea of a farmyard Nativity, though historical realism can be taken too far - luckily Geraldine is at hand to reassure Alice that she hasn't, in fact, given birth to the Messiah.


  1. I love the Vicar of Dibley, though I've only seen the two "regular" seasons (up through Hugo and Alice's wedding), and it is a source of many family quotes and in-jokes. Alice speaking fluent Hebrew is one of those tropes that every sitcom uses eventually, where the dumbest character has some sort of savant moment. Of course, she is the smart one in the family (scary thought, that). From the picture, I assume Hugo is Joseph.

    I was originally going to suggest that Owen would have been the logical choice to assist with the birth. But then I remembered that his sheep tend to have unusual problems when lambing.

    It's a good thing Herod is traditionally sometimes included, or they never would have been able to find something for David Horton to do.

  2. Yes, Hugo is Joseph - he doesn't accomplish much, just faints at the sight of the emerging baby!

  3. Well, what can you really expect from Hugo? I think the only spine he ever showed was standing up to his father so he could marry Alice.


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