The real Vicar of Dibley
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Date: October 2002

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Curtis noticed a mug in her kitchen with the inscription, ‘Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.’

Why did Richard Curtis (writer of Blackadder, Four Weddings and Notting Hill) seek out Rev Joy Caroll when he was writing his new sitcom, and why did she never return his phone calls? Martin Wroe talks to the real Vicar of Dibley.

A vicar smuggles a famous comedienne into a funeral service. As the leads the mourners in their solemn remembrances, she catches sight of her undercover celebrity trying desperately to look anonymous. Sounds like a TV sitcom scenario – the Vicar of Dibley perhaps.

‘No-one except the organist realised it was Dawn French,’ recalls the Rev Joy Caroll. ‘She was sitting at the back, pretending to be a musical assistant, bending over the organ with a floppy hat covering her face.’ Strangely enough, it was at this funeral service, led by Carroll, then a vicar in Streatham, south London, that one of the BBC’s most successful modern comedies, finally left the drawing board. Watching Carroll on the job, Dawn French suddenly realised she could see how to play the part of Geraldine Granger, Richard Curtis’s fictional Vicar of Dibley.

French, visiting the funeral to research the sit-com, remembers watching Carroll climb down from the pulpit after her sermon, take the hand of the old man whose wife had died, and sit quietly with him in his loss. ‘I knew something was undeniably true,’ says French. ‘I knew it was so right that women should be ordained. Women are good at this job, it comes naturally to us, providing spiritual guidance and succour. I could finally see how Dibley’s Geraldine might work.’

At the time, eight years ago, neither Carroll nor French had any idea they were about to collaborate on an Emmy-winning comedy, drawing 15million viewers an episode. If it is now a decade since the Church of England overturned four hundred years of tradition and allowed its women to become priests, it is possible to argue that Carroll – or certainly the endearing humanity of her sit-com self in Dibley – has done more to get English churchgoers used to women clergy than any one else. But when Curtis first approached Carroll, to see if she would help, she didn’t bother returning his phone calls. ‘I’d never heard of him,’ she recalls. ‘It was some friends who mentioned he’d written Blackadder and Mr Bean…’

In search of inspiration and not knowing any better, Curtis, who had just written the most successful British film of all time in Four Weddings and a Funeral, visited the General Synod of the Church of England. When he saw the 29yr old Streatham vicar delivering an impassioned speech attacking opponents of the ordination of women, he knew he had found his real-life vicar. But until meeting Carroll, French had major reservations about the chocaholic, liberal priest Geraldine, thrown into blue-rinse Dibley with its eccentric parishioners. She could see the comedy in stuttering Jim Trott, foul-mouthed Owen Newitt, besotted verger Alice Tinker and right-wing councillor David Horton but feared Geraldine was too nice to get the laughs.

‘I had been having seriously cold feet. I couldn’t imagine a female priest young enough or spunky enough or credible enough to base the character on.’ Meeting Carroll changed her mind. For a start, ‘there were sufficient empties lined up in the kitchen to reassure me that this girl knew how to party.’ Curtis noticed a mug in her kitchen with the inscription ‘Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.’ In fact Carroll, punk-rock teenager, one-time barmaid and school teacher, with a self-confessed fondness for partying, had nearly not become a priest at all. Its image of women – ‘middle-aged teetotal deaconesses’ – she found alarming. When she applied for theological training, the vicar providing her reference sat her down to express his reservations about the amount of time she was spending in the pub. In contrast, says Carroll, being a barmaid was the making of her pastoral skills.

Despite being raised the daughter of a clergyman, she feared entering the Church would leave her frustrated. But her training at Cranmer Hall, Durham proved more open-minded than expected and only as a deacon in charge of her first parish in east London, did the innate sexism in the Church bring her down to earth. At her first clergy meeting she heard a male colleague ask another, ‘What is that?’ as she walked in wearing her clerical collar. She says it was this sort of prejudice she hoped Curtis’s fictional vicar might subvert. And if he wasn’t setting out to make fun of the Church, even that wasn’t too great a fear: ’The church does a good job at doing that for itself,’ she laughs. ‘This couldn’t make it any worse.’

Based in the US, since marrying the political activist Jim Wallis, Carroll now works in the Episcopal Church where women have been priests and bishops for three decades. She is confident that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury-elect, will improve prospects for women in the Church. Christianity itself, she argues, is not inherently sexist – only the cultures through which it has been handed down over the centuries. ‘The Church is fighting its way out of centuries of prejudice, but it is winning, it is not stuck in the past.’