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The BBC has put Mapp and Lucia on our screens.  This is a major epoch.  E.F. Benson’s novels about the social life of a sea-side town called Tilling were a big hit with figures such as W.H. Auden, Noel Coward and Nancy Mitford, and have remained something of a cult phenomenon ever since.  Though they may be too popular to merit that name: they lie somewhere between Molesworth and Malory Towers on the spectrum of “likely to meet someone else at a party whose life and worldview were significantly skewed by obsessive reading of those books”.

mapp and lucia

Many of us probably have sketches or notes somewhere in our past for a Mapp and Lucia, whether a ballet, a stage version, a film or a continuation in novel form.  Tilling novels have become something of a minor genre since Benson died and then went out of copyright, and several of them approach the stories from a slight angle, such as Tom Holt’s plunging of the characters into the Second World War which overshadows their original lives in the 1930s, or Guy Fraser-Sampson’s drawing out of the gay themes and the lives of the servants.  Many of us will also find it difficult to watch any screen version of the novels without comparing it shot-for-shot with the mid-1980s version.

Luckily this production recognised the issue and addressed it head-on.  There were some pretty heavy homages to the 1980s version, or if you were feeling less generous, some fairly strong reliance on it, with small set-pieces and even individual shots from the older production reappearing. Miranda Richardson’s Mapp started as a simper-for-simper remake of Prunella Scales’ memorably ghastly interpretation, before developing into her own. Mapp, in her performance, was just as toothy and obsequious but more forthright, and her voice was less prone to trailing off in saccharine murmurs.  Once it settled down, the performance was a little less stylised than the 80s version, reminding us that Benson wrote a whole novel in which Mapp is the anti-heroine before Lucia arrives on the Tilling scene. Her interpretation of the part held out the possibility of shifting the focalisation a little, with Mapp as more than quaint local foil to Lucia’s more sophisticated antics.

Lucia herself was brilliantly played by Anna Chancellor, an actor whose previous roles in society comedies might have been training her for this most delicate of roles. The shades of Duckface and Miss Bingley came together in her consciously superior but playful Lucia, aware of being a social asset to the town but not satisfied with being traded on instead of making her own deals. (A friend noticed with glee that the Mozart Turkish March which Lucia sneakily practices, before revealing the envelope and claiming to Georgie that she is sight-reading, is the same piece which the other Miss Bingley storms through at the party at Lucas Loge, out-classing Mary Bennet’s embarrassing playing and underlining the sisters’ metropolitan qualities.)

Chancellor was also noticeably less stylised than her predecessor in the role, Geraldine McEwan’s defining version. Maybe she felt Lucia needed to be less overtly pretentious and acquisitive, less alien to a audiences who might be expecting their post-Christmas comedy warm and friendly rather than coldly sparkling.  At the risk of going all Lady Bracknell, much depended on the carrying of the chin this season: where McEwan’s went up and at an angle, Chancellor’s went low, beguiling the Tillingites rather than intimidating them.  (Both characters were also played younger than they are often read, correcting a tendency to see them – or dismiss them –  as gossipy old women with nothing better to do.  In the novel they’re in their late thirties and early forties, and though they may have nothing better to do, they do have several decades to do it in.)

These central performances contributed to one of the real strengths of this production: the emotional strains which the cast and script managed to produce from a plot which (when summarised) occasionally rises to farce, and mostly stays at the level of gossip.  Benson wasn’t afraid of emotion, as anyone who has found themselves in tears at the end of An Autumn Sowing can testify.  It isn’t as overt in Mapp and Lucia as in some of his other works, but he isn’t a brittle drawing-room epigrammatist.  His books are more about people trying to think up epigrams whilst doing the shopping, or smiling politely as their neighbour makes the same joke about the weather for the fourth time this week.

It was lightly played, but all the characters have real emotional stakes in the action, and the book centres around the disruption up of a social world which its characters have become used to.  The smallness (in both senses) of the society which makes the plot possible also raises the emotional temperature: the loud despising of the world beyond Tilling (especially London) is based on a common recognition that they don’t have the option of going elsewhere; they’re all too entrenched in this town and their local lives.

That leads on to another note which rang true in this production: the materiality of the drama.  No wide heritage vistas of elegant living, but the clutter of people’s homes in the early twentieth century before IKEA or Apple sleekified our interiors.   Mapp’s luring of Major Benjy into her stratagem via an unusually generous whiskey and soda effectively made the point that these are characters on fixed incomes, for whom small luxuries are the centre of their social life.  The dinner parties which Lucia introduces are not most notably new because Tilling does not like classical music or talk about Art, but because it has always found entertaining friends to dinner (rather than tea) is too expensive.  The cast caught the outrage at Mapp’s small swindle over the rent and garden produce effectively: the implicit pact they’d all made about enjoying a few more guineas a week than they could usually afford has been broken.  I got the impression, in this production, that it was Elizabeth’s breaking of this long-standing contract (even if she had been lured into it by Lucia’s appearance) which opened the ranks far enough to allow the Riseholmites to take over.

And it mattered to her that Georgie and Lucia became the centre of attention.  It’s a glib point when discussing such a famous figure of British queer literature, but Benson’s writing is strongly engaged with melancholy, exclusion and loneliness.  Alongside the odd and private joys found in Secret Lives and Paying Guests is the underlying fear of people not fitting in, or finding life unbearable, or not making enough allowances for each other.  Richardson’s Mapp was only briefly, and amusingly, gloomy when left out of the dinner parties, but it added another shading to the character which went some way to explaining her behaviour.  It also gave more heft to the oddities of the other characters, reminding us that the intricate social battles in the story are being fought for a difficult prize: security and status.  (Though speaking of queerness and exclusion, there were some lovely moments of Irene and Lucia checking each other out in long appraising glances, which offered a more complex reading of their relationship than a schoolgirlish “pash” for an older and more charming woman.)

I must admit I thought this TV version wobbled in a couple of places, and this question of oddity was one of them.  Mr. Wyse was nicely played by Nicholas Woodeson, keeping the watcher guessing as to what his “angle” was, and where he fitted into the landscape, but Steve Pemberton’s Georgie Pillson was too mannered and consciously eccentric for me.  I don’t think Georgie works as a modern “dandy”, covered in bright colours and fluffed-up cravats.  (That sort of thing is more Mr. Wyse, which adds to his mystery.)  George may worry about his clothes, and think his Oxford bags rather daring for an afternoon call, but he isn’t a stage buffoon.  Pemberton’s performance seemed to acquiesce too far with Major Benjy’s view of him as just a twittering, embroidering “milliner”, which I think is to miss Benson’s point rather badly.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mark Gatiss’ Major Benjy came off better.  We could have expected a fairly strong influence of the League of Gentlemen in a production of a novel about small-town life with both Pemberton and Gatiss in it, but the latter is a better character actor than I had expected.  I never really “got” the League of Gentlemen, and none of Gatiss’ writing since – the rather trite novels, the by-the-numbers horror scripts for the BBC, the Doctor Who material – has persuaded me I had missed much.  Still, he produced a good turn as the Major, and this was what marked him out from Pemberton.  Major Benjy was a caricature, but a recognisable social type being driven by his own internal obsessions til he couldn’t quite fit in with what people expected of him.  Georgie was just an oddity, a small-town clown with a bad wig.  The best of Benson – like the best of Menander or bits of Jonson – is about people whose own quiddities destabilise them, exerting a gravitational pull which makes it harder for them to get on with others or to relate their inner and outer existences.  That’s surely the source of the delight and the anxiety discussed above.  Royston Vasey is a very different-constructed world, and one which doesn’t have much to say to Tilling.

That said, Pemberton’s script was well-honed, and balanced exposition with carrying the story forward.  It was dramatically better shaped than the earlier TV version, chopping and splicing events to ensure that the plot centred around Lucia’s arrival, disruption of Tilling society, and ended with her “coronation” at the fete, to the extradiegetic strains of Zadok the Priest and Irene’s very diegetic cry of “The Queen is dead!  Long live the Queen!”  I can’t wait to see how the series continues this evening, but I also can’t wait to hear what you lot have to say.  I’m sure you’ll all have Thoughts on the subject – please leave them below, or sling me an email if you’d like to scribble something longer to appear here.