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Maggie Brown: Vulnerability is the key to screen stars’ audience appeal

Emma Chambers as Alice in The Vicar of Dibley. Photo: BBC
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Why do some TV stars strike such a deep chord with audiences, as shown by the real sense of loss at the news of Vicar of Dibley actor Emma Chambers’ death?

Star quality doesn’t quite provide the complete answer. Nor does the sad fact that she died far too young, at 53, robbing us of a string of gawky comedy turns to come.

It is something else. How do certain television presences immediately gain sympathy and trust?

In the fast-moving world of TV news, how does Jon Snow remain the presenter who encapsulates the Channel 4 News brand? He shares the duties with capable co-presenters, including Matt Frei and Krishnan Guru-Murthy. But Channel 4 News is synonymous with Snow. It can’t just be his vivid ties.

What is it that David Attenborough possesses? Or, for that matter, Peter Kay in Carpool, and Catastrophe’s stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney?

Why do you long for Kay’s podgy supermarket manager to find love, or fear for Horgan and Delaney’s fictional marriage as they attempt to negotiate the trials of adult life, from unemployment to incipient alcoholism?

And why do I feel so pleased when Keeley Hawes, the winsome star of The Durrells, manages to attract the help of kindly Greeks when coping with her brood?

Keeley Hawes in The Durrells. Photo: ITV
Keeley Hawes in The Durrells. Photo: ITV

I have come up with an answer. In their very different ways, they all express a clear streak of vulnerability in the camera’s eye. The viewer detects it in their appearance and it wins their attention and, most significantly, their affection.

In the case of Attenborough, his direct-to-camera narration is informative but he never talks down to you. His humanity is evident through everything he does.

I have met Attenborough numerous times. In the flesh, he is just as gracious and engaging as his television persona suggests. There is an added element drawing you in as you watch him on screen – the worry about his physical robustness. Should he be clambering into that submersible?

He has an almost childish reaction to the natural world and is pained that it is being defiled. Those traits came over equally clearly in Snow when he was evidently distressed after the Nice lorry atrocity and by the fact that the Grenfell Tower tenants had gone unheard for so long by the people in power.

Chambers’ character, Alice Horton, was a superb counterfoil for Dawn French’s vicar, who patiently saved her from many a mishap and misunderstanding.

Alice Horton stood out from the crowd of eccentrics conjured up by creator Richard Curtis because she was so ditzy, but people loved Chambers for what she brought to the character and the humanity that shone through. Let’s hope Howard Goodall’s wonderful theme tune, a setting of Psalm 23, The Lord Is My Shepherd, lives on in her memory.