The Christians told me where to shove it... | Dawn French interview

The Christians told me where to shove it...

Dawn French interview

You might imagine that returning to a job you haven’t done for five years to be a bit disconcerting. But Dawn French had no such problems when donned her dog collar to record two new Vicar Of Dibley episodes for BBC1’s Christmas schedules, as Jane Dudley found out…

“On the first day of rehearsals we all went to the parish council room and sat at the same places around the table and it just felt like putting a nice old cardie on,” she says, over coffee and cake in Parsons Green, south west London.

“Geraldine is getting older - and wider - and wonders whether she’s wasted her life because she’s been in Dibley for ten years. She’s wondering whether she’s made the right decision to be there at all.”

In fact, Dawn found herself in a similar dilemma when she was asked to take on the role when the series first started a decade ago.

“Richard [Curtis, the writer, along with Paul Mayhew-Archer] sent me a very rough outline of the first episode and said, ‘Tell me what you think’. And I read it and thought I’d like to play Alice, because I could see what her jokes were.

“I thought Geraldine was too much of a goodie two-shoes – she didn’t have any of the faults that I thought good, central comedy characters needed. She’s not vain, she’s not a bully, she’s not an ignoramus and she’s not pompous.

“I thought, ‘Am I just going to sit there while everybody else has all the big gags?’ Then Richard said ‘I need you to be in the middle of it, to steer it – Geraldine’s the only sane one in the village. You’ve got to be the one who’s thinking, “Why are all these people mad?”’

“So I dallied with my decision until Richard sent me a list of people who would be much better in the part and who are much better actresses than me, and then I thought I’d better get on with it and I’m very glad I did.”

Dawn admits the series is “old-fashioned and cosy”, but claims it is topical, too: “When it was first written, it wasn’t yet Church law that women could be priests and it was extremely political to begin with.

“And I got some very dodgy mail when it started. It was a very eye-opening experience because a lot of the mail I got was from vicars. These were Christian people, using appalling language and telling me where to shove it, basically, and I was astounded by that.”

It’s the need for Curtis to address current issues that have led to the two Christmas programmes, Dawn says.

“I think it’s easier for Richard to write when there’s a reason. There were some other issues he wanted to tackle. Over the years he’s said, ‘We really should’ve talked about gay priests and other issues’, so I think he just thought now was the time.”

And those issues are explored in a typical sitcom way - when dippy church warder Alice, as played by Emma Chambers, stumbles upon supermodel Rachel Hunter in her underwear in the vicar’s house – left - and assumes the two are having a lesbian affair.

“Alice gets the wrong end of a very, very long stick. Alice and Geraldine have had a conversation about how mad it is that gay people can’t be promoted in the Church and so she’s assumed that there’s something between Geraldine and the model. Alice then spreads the rumour around the whole village

“Emma couldn’t be more unlike Alice. She’s a very bright cookie. But she’s totally got Alice. When she’s performing, I just stand back and admire her acting – and I don’t seem to be doing any acting myself. I feel like I don’t bring enough to the table, sometimes.”

As for her own Christmas, Dawn and husband Lenny Henry have invited a host of friends and family to their Berkshire home to celebrate.

“I’ve already invited too many people. During the year I always think, ‘Won’t it be lovely if we have all his lot, all my lot, all the lot next door, all that lot from Australia – it’ll be lovely and Charles Dickensy’, and then

I find I’m in a kind of a Christmas hell.

“I take a lot of what I call b-a-t-h-s,” she adds, stretching the word out. “Len knows what this is code for, which is, ‘I have to go upstairs now and shut the door!’ And sometimes I do actually get in the bath with no water in, and just lie in it, so that if anyone were to come in I wouldn’t be lying! I’ve been known to have five ‘baths’ on Christmas Day!”

But will be she watching The Vicar Of Dibley? “Ooh I don’t know if I could bear that. I don’t know if I could sit and watch it. I might let them all watch it and I’ll go somewhere else – I’ll be in the bath.”

First published: November 29, 2004

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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