One thing that British sitcoms have always excelled at is mixing serious moments into their usually buoyant silly comedy.
It’s not easy to do; when you’re cracking jokes at a million miles an hour, whether verbally or visually, misplaced moments of serious emotion can arrive like hard-slammed brakes, stopping the flow of the episode’s narrative in its tracks and making the resulting scene an awkward, turgid mess.
It’s not pretty, it’s neither uplifting nor funny and it leaves everyone feeling cheated, a problem when the intent is to inject some intensity into the levity and reassure viewers that these characters don’t just laugh and joke, they are real people who feel things too.
No such fate befalls the 1996 Easter episode of The Vicar of Dibley, “The Easter Bunny” which first aired on 8 April that year and which deftly handles the death of a major character – SPOILER ALERT! LOOK AWAY NOW! – Letitia Cropley (Liz Smith) with a movingly humourous mix of comedy and empathy.
Her death is entirely unexpected since Dibley feels, so the Vicar (Dawn French) says, like a place removed from the serious troubles of life, a lovely idyll where things aren’t perfect but nothing as horrible as death can rear its head.
That’s why, in the middle of Lent and Easter preparations, Geraldine isn’t overly concerned when Alice, who still fervently believes in the Easter Bunny for reasons that later become clear, summons her to Letitia’s home where the rest of her main, decidedly idiosyncratic characters are holding vigil.
The vicar finds David (Gary Waldhorn), his son Hugo (James Fleet), Jim (Trevor Peacock) and his fussy best friend Frank (John Bluthal) and dairy farmer Owen (Roger Lloyd Pack) all standing concerned just outside Letitia’s bedroom and realises that things may be far more serious than she imagined.
And indeed they are, with Letitia, who as a young woman was quite the social and sexual butterfly, passing away only a few minutes after Geraldine arrives, but not before getting the vicar to promise that she will continue the Easter Bunny tradition for which Dibley is well know.
Every year for thirty years, Letitia, and before that her father, has dressed up as the Easter Bunny and gone around the village distributing eggs to everyone’s home.
Her passing of the baton is touching, and although you don’t what it is she is asking of Geraldine exactly, you suspect that it has something to do with the Easter Bunny who everyone, even serious, sober David, is adamant really exists.
What makes this tender farewell work so affectingly well is that it slides beautifully and without disrupting the flow of the storyline into all the jokes that precede and follow it, a masterful job of embedding the serious into the comical that never puts a put wrong.
The joy of this episode, and this is a considerable amount – if losing both my parents in three and a half all-too-short years has taught me anything, it’s that there is often a great deal of humour mixed in amongst the crushing sadness – is the way in which a very solemn moment, where Alice visibly breaks down in tears is followed by one of the best sight gags of this expertly executed classic British sitcom.
Geraldine, who looks hilariously resplendent in her bunny suit, is shown skipping, well for a step or two anyway, around the village, throwing eggs expertly into flower pots, happy in the knowledge even if she feels a bit ridiculous, that she is fulfilling her dear friend’s dying wish.
It’s a delightful homage until she runs into David, also in a bunny costume and then everyone else (bar Alice) also in bunny costumes with it soon becoming clear that Letitia has had one last bit of mischievous fun with her friends.
It’s a delight, a perfect moment of visual humour that also serves to sew effortlessly the more serious scene that preceded it into the overall story, a story by the way that contains some very funny references to what everyone is giving up for Lent with Geraldine forgoing chocolate (oh no!) and David lustful thoughts.
The Vicar of Dibley has its own very merry British sitcom-y ways with all of the Lent jokes and the quips that accompany everyone’s fond memories of Letitia and her gastronomic experiments – the final joke is a cake that mixes in anchovies, a characteristic of Letitia’s cooking which never followed normal taste patterns to put it mildly – and yet none of the very silly moments detract one bit from the tragically sad death at the centre of the episode.
It is brilliantly good writing that proves you can be sad and happy all at once, that Easter is a time for levity and goofiness but also some serious introspection and that it is quite possible for a sitcom to be both comedically clever and seriously thoughtful and not once skip a beat.
Until it’s Geraldine in a bunny suit and then that’s pretty much bound to happen, isn’t it?