Mapp And Lucia - The Complete First Series Review
Ah, the halcyon early days of Channel 4 when it took seriously its remit to reach parts of the audience that hadn’t been reached before. One of its first commissioned serials (actually made by LWT) was this adaptation of E. F. Benson’s comic novel of 1935. The characters of Miss Mapp and Mrs Lucas (known to all as ‘Lucia) first appeared in separate novels by Benson in the 1920s but were united ‘by popular demand’ in his novel Mapp and Lucia.
The first series of 5 episodes, aired in 1985, was an adaptation of this novel and was so successful (particularly with gay viewers) a second 5-episode series followed in 1986 adapted from Benson’s sequel novels Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia. This review will concentrate on the first series, by far the more successful and satisfying of the two.
This surely has to be one of the campest things ever to be aired on British telly. The action begins in the summer of 1930 and the story revolves around two very dear friends, the recently-widowed Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Geraldine McEwan) and ‘confirmed bachelor’ Georgie Pilson (Nigel Hawthorne), who are the leading lights of society in ‘The Village of Riseholme in the Cotswolds’.
Lucia decides to rent a house for the summer in the seaside town of Tilling (a fictionalised version of Rye in Sussex, of which Benson was mayor), belonging to Miss Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales), the doyenne of Tilling society. The bulk of the story revolves around the machinations of the two ladies as they lock horns in a battle to become Queen of the Tilling social scene.
The three principal characters are played to perfection by the leads who appear to have thrown all restraint to the winds in their interpretations. McEwan’s arch, vulpine Lucia contrasts magnificently with Scales’ bovine, dogged Mapp. Anyone who thinks of Prunella Scales comedy work in terms of Sybil Fawlty will be pleasantly surprised by her contrasting characterisation here. Geraldine McEwan deploys every vocal trick in the book to convey Lucia’s self-absorbed persuasiveness, often ranging from a girlish soprano to a declamatory basso profondo in the same sentence. Prunella Scales, by contrast, deploys Mapp’s lines in a series of unctuous cascades. Nigel Hawthorne as the astonishingly effete Georgie uses one of the most affected RP accents ever to be heard on TV, at his most memorable when remarking on one of the ladies of Tilling wearing a ‘fahh coat’ in the middle of summer.
The series has a studied air of unreality about it, taking place in an idealised version of middle-class small-town England at the start of a soon-to-be tumultuous decade. All the servants are unswervingly loyal and arrange their own lives entirely to suit the whims of their employers. One of the major subplots is the resolution of the potential domestic crisis caused by the decision of Lucia’s chauffeur, Cadman (the ubiquitous Ken Kitson) to marry Georgie’s indispensable maid Foljambe (Lucinda Gane) to the satisfaction of master and mistress. Tradespeople also know their place (but often with a knowing wink) and display due respect for their betters at all times.
The ‘betters’ by contrast spend their work-free lives trying every which way to outdo each other in the social circles of Tilling. These largely revolve around garden produce, painting and rubbers of bridge (you really need to watch it to appreciate this fully). The rich array of supporting characters include permanently flustered Diva (the cinemascope-bosomed Mary Macleod – a great character actress and probably best remembered as the Matron wandering around the boy’s dorm naked in Lindsay Anderson’s If). Also present is one of the first out-and-out dykes to be seen on British TV, Quaint Irene, who ‘dresses like a boy’, falls madly in love with Lucia and frequently addresses her as ‘queen of my heart’. Unfortunately this is one of the less successful performances as Cecily Hobbs tends to deliver all her lines in an unvaryingly hearty manner which does become grating after a while. On the plus side, she pops up rarely. Special mention must be made though of Marion Mathie’s Mrs Wyse, deploying an accent even more outrageous than Nigel Hawthorne’s in her pitch-perfect characterisation of pretentious gentility.
As was standard practice of the time, the series was shot entirely on video, interiors in the studio and exteriors on location. Most of the exteriors were shot in and around Rye for extra authenticity. The actors’ expert performances are assisted greatly by scrupulous attention to period detail in make-up, hair and costuming, this being particularly so in Geraldine McEwan’s case. She sports a very fetching bobbed hairstyle (red, of course) and is always dressed in the best stylish clothing of the time. Nigel Hawthorne also sports a truly appalling and obvious toupée (part and parcel of Georgie’s character). He has one brief scene without it, probably just to emphasise that he is, indeed, wearing a rug. Georgie’s vanity is also emphasised by his eyebrows and moustache being dyed the same shade of auburn as the wig and his clothing being immaculate at all times.
The five 50-minute episodes are spread over 2 discs (3 on Disc One, 2 on Disc Two) enclosed in an amaray case. The discs have no extras of any kind and there are no subtitles or language options. The soundtrack is the original Mono English track and is as clear as a bell. Each episode is generously chaptered and these are accessible from attractive animated menus.
The image, as usual for these old TV shows is in fullscreen 4:3 ratio. The picture quality is superb considering this is a fairly minor release of a largely-forgotten cult series. The master tapes must have been in excellent condition to produce this quality of transfer. The picture is stable, clear and free of any tape damage or artefacting. Colours are bright and natural, particularly in the exterior scenes which were mostly shot in bright summer sunlight. There is a small amount of grain in the darker interior shots but that is barely noticeable. The image does wobble slightly during the opening credits on each episode but I suspect this is camera shake so don’t be put off by it.
For fans of camp classics, this is a must. Some of the situations and performances are jaw-dropping in their audacity – in the final episode Mapp and Lucia, caught in a flash-flood, float out to sea on an upturned kitchen table! - but everything is held in check by the sheer talent and professionalism of everyone involved. What could have been embarrassing in lesser hands is gloriously entertaining and had me laughing out loud. Highly recommended.
As already mentioned, a second series was filmed in which Lucia becomes Mayor of Tilling and marries Georgie (!). Unfortunately, this lacks the spark of the first series and some of the characters and their quirks become plain ‘tahhsome’ as Georgie would call it. Stick to the first series – you won’t be disappointed.
Due to availability and cost prospective buyers may find the 'Complete Mapp and Lucia' box set containing Series 1 & 2 a more attractive option, and has been linked to at selected affiliate stores in the column to your left.