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Dawn French had “all sorts of misgivings” about playing Geraldine in The Vicar of Dibley

It's hard to believe now, but the iconic sitcom created all sorts of anxiety for the comic actress.

Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown

The Vicar of Dibley has become a British comedy institution since its debut in 1994 but, remarkably, its star Dawn French has revealed that she was very doubtful about playing the central role of Reverend Geraldine Granger.

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The Vicar of Dibley has returned for a series of short episodes, The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown, this Christmas, featuring French alone, although other classic characters will appear as “noises off”.

The comedian and actress explained to Radio Times how initially she had “all kinds of misgivings” about taking on the role.

She said: “I hadn’t done a sitcom before and I thought you had to invent a character, like a Captain Mainwaring. I said to Richard, ‘I need to make her not me. Maybe she should have an accent, maybe I should look very different…’ But Richard [Curtis, creator] said, ‘You need to wear Geraldine like a good-fitting jacket, bring her really close to you’. The opposite of playing a character.”

It’s not the first time this year that she’s dusted off Geraldine’s habit – she appeared in a sketch for the BBC’s fundraiser Big Night In back in April and now she’s back for a series of seasonal sermons on BBC One, featuring characters like Owen Newitt, so memorably played by the late Roger Lloyd-Pack.

The episodes were filmed on a set in Shepperton and in Turville, the Dibley village in Buckinghamshire, and director and co-writer Curtis decided, with French’s fun support, to keep the show’s characters alive but unseen, with Geraldine talking to Owen or chatting about Frank as though they’re just off to the side.

“People know Dibley as an ensemble piece, they inherit all the other people, even though it’s just me, talking,” said French. “In a funny way, the audience becomes the other characters. They are the heart of Dibley. They’re who I’m addressing directly.”

There will be one direct and heartfelt acknowledgement of the departure of one character, Alice Tinker, played by Emma Chambers, who died in 2018.

Alice will get a eulogy and her widower, Hugo (James Fleet), will appear.

“Of course, as Geraldine is talking about Alice, I’m talking about Emma, so it wasn’t easy. It was very emotional,” said French.

French will also play renowned author Beatrix Potter in Sky One’s Roald and Beatrix: the Tail of the Curious Mouse.

We wonder how similar she is to the author, especially regarding Potter’s fear of ageing.

She said: “It’s a privilege to get older, but it’s not for wusses. Things go a bit wrong… your rheumatoid arthritis knee stops you walking your dog a long way every morning, you know you’ve got to have a little op on that at some point, and you’ve got to take six weeks off… But ultimately, it ain’t so bad. Your teeth are a bit yellower, your chin has sagged, you’re fatter, you’re greyer.

“The only thing is, I feel the tick-tock a little bit. I am quicker to edit out eejits from my life, because I haven’t got the hours. That’s the only grumpy part of me, it’s just to do with time.”

Regarding her own Christmas, the celebrations in the French household will be muted.They usually include 25 guests and her husband, Mark Bignell, dressed as Santa, but perhaps not in 2020.

Does it matter if we don’t have that Christmas? I mean, what about if we didn’t even have presents and gave money to the right places instead? You can put your twinkly lights up and pull a cracker, but maybe it’s really low key, and maybe that doesn’t matter…

“There are probably a lot of people, and I might be one of them, who don’t mind not being in a great big gang. I love it and I dread it at the same time, because it’s a big palaver, isn’t it?”

Roald and Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse will air on Sky One on Christmas Eve at 8.15pm.

The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown began on BBC One on Monday 7th December.

The Christmas issue of Radio Times is on sale today, Tuesday 8th December.

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Check out what else is on with our TV Guide, or take a look at our new TV shows 2020 page to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.