Friday 22 February 2019

Obituary: Emma Chambers

Award-winning comedy actress who starred in The Vicar of Dibley

COMEDY ROLE: Emma Chambers starred as ditsy Alice Tinker alongside Dawn French in ‘The Vicar of Dibley’
COMEDY ROLE: Emma Chambers starred as ditsy Alice Tinker alongside Dawn French in ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ Newsdesk Newsdesk

Emma Chambers, the actress who has died aged 53, was best known as Alice Tinker, the wide-eyed, dim-witted verger and comic foil to the Rev Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley; she also played the kooky, punky Honey Thacker, the star-struck sister of Hugh Grant's character in Notting Hill (1998).

The Vicar of Dibley, which was inspired by the Church of England's decision in 1992 to permit the ordination of women priests, first appeared in 1994. Emma Chambers was in all 20 episodes, winning Best Actress in the 1998 British Comedy Awards for her role. Later, she featured in some of the show's Comic Relief specials.

On one occasion she was given a script on Friday that included a tongue-twisting speech involving the slogan "I can't believe it's not butter". Dawn French was convinced that she would not be able to learn it in time for filming in front of a live audience a week later. Emma Chambers was determined, however, and, while driving with her husband, practised the lines more than 100 times. By the time they started rehearsing on the Monday morning, she was word perfect.

In another typically daft scene, when her character was married, she was followed down the aisle by two Teletubbies.

Emma Gwynedd Mary Chambers was born in Doncaster on March 11, 1964, the daughter of a surgeon and his pharmacist wife who later separated. An early memory was seeing her father in his green gown preparing to operate. She had a brother, Simon, and a sister, Sarah Doukas, a modelling agent who discovered Kate Moss. Much of their childhood was spent on their grandmother's farm in the New Forest.

Young Emma was educated at St Swithun's School, Winchester, where she played lacrosse for Hampshire, before training at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first job was in Harrods, where she claimed to have sold Radox bubble bath to Michael Caine.

Her earliest roles were in the theatre, but by 1990 she was making occasional appearances in The Bill. In 1994 she played Charity Pecksniff in the BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, a performance that was widely praised. Critic Hugh Massingberd, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said that it showed "what she is capable of beyond being Dawn French's ninnyish sidekick".

As Hugh Grant's "baby sister" in Notting Hill, she contributed one of the film's funniest lines, exclaiming: "Oh holy f***!" on finding that her fellow dinner-party guest is Julia Roberts's film star "Anna Scott".

For a time she took a break from acting, later explaining that she had "fallen slightly out of love with the job".

But in 2000 she played the unhappy housewife Martha Thompson in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Kingsley Amis's novel Take a Girl Like You for BBC One, and in 2002 she was acclaimed for her performance as Sheila in Michael Frayn's Benefactors at the Albery Theatre, a play about two couples and their idealised views on life.

Emma Chambers, who was a diminutive 5ft 2in, suffered from a severe allergy to animals. When working on Benefactors she discovered a cat lurking in her dressing room. "I saw this pair of eyes just looking at me," she said. "I had to dash up to wardrobe, I had to leave... I was itching, wheezy. My voice was husky the next day."

She enjoyed gardening, particularly tending to her courgettes. In 1991 she married the actor Ian Dunn. Before that she had been lodging with Ian McKellen, whom she once described as "a sort of father figure to me". Emma Chambers, who died on February 21, is survived by her husband.

© Telegraph

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