Sunday, 28 September 2008
Mapp and Lucia
E. F. Benson’s delicious series of comic novels, Miss Mapp, Lucia Victrix, and Lucia in London, set in provincial high-society between the wars, are one of the few things that can soothe this particular savage breast when at its most fiery. As Philip Hensher has said, 'E. F. Benson's rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one single redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition; books, however, whose unrelentingly negative view of human nature and delight in the most refined cruelty results in an atmosphere of sunny cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.' Quite so. And to think that Benson (1867-1940) was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
LWT (London Weekend Television) made the second of the novels, Lucia Victrix, into a television series in the early 80s, entitled Mapp and Lucia. It remains one of the most perfect things of its type ever attempted, and it was in this form that I first encountered Benson’s fabulous cast of eccentrics, snobs and provincial social climbers.
The action is centred on the little seaside town of Tilling, a thinly-veiled version of Rye in East Sussex, where Benson was Mayor for three years. (The television series was filmed in Rye itself.) The queen of Tilling’s social circle at the start of the series is Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a middle-aged, bossy, condescending frump, played to perfection by Prunella Scales. She presides over a clique of alternately downtrodden and rebellious eccentrics, hosting an endless series of bridge-parties and dinners.
There is Godiva Plastow, Mapp’s intermittently mutinous ‘friend’, handicapped by her plainness and that dreadful name. Major Benjy, whom Mapp (always so called) eventually marries, is a mustachio’d retired military man, golfer and alcoholic, who, forgetting that he is no longer in India, is prone to bellow ‘QUAI HAI!’ to summon another Scotch from his harried servant. Then come Mr and Mrs Wyse – Susan Wyse being a great galleon of a woman, preposterously rich and attired in sables, who often drops her MBE into conversation. Her husband, Algernon, is a little sparrow who wears a monocle and who constantly bows to everyone he meets. The Vicar (‘the dear Padre’) comes next; a kindly man with a rich Scottish burr, entirely put on, as he in fact hails from Birmingham. Last but not least is Irene Coles, universally known as ‘Quaint’ Irene, a knickerbocker-clad lesbian who paints naked women wrestlers, smokes a sailor’s pipe, and speaks her mind in a fruity bellow.
Into this closed little world, over which Mapp presides, enters Emmeline Lucas (Geraldine McEwan), known to her friends as Lucia. She has been doyenne of the social scene of her home village of Riseholme (‘Rizzum’) until the death of her husband Pepino. Along with her best friend, the effete, be-toupéed Georgie Pillson (Nigel Hawthorne), Lucia arrives in Tilling, first as a visitor, soon as a resident, like a force of nature. Whereas Mapp favours muddy browns and has an unattractive mop of mousey curls, Lucia is exquisitely coiffed and effortlessly elegant. Mapp is like a dowdy owl, but Lucia resembles a gimlet-eyed hawk in a floral smock.
The voices adopted by the two actresses in the series are strokes of brilliance. McEwan gives Lucia a preposterous range, from silvery, trilling laughter, aflutter with amusement, to the most stentorian of baritones when she wishes to impose her iron will. For Mapp, Prunella Scales adopts a version of 'Surrey Received', a ludicrous British accent hardly heard these days except on art-critic Brian Sewell. Its oleaginous, curdled vowels perfectly suit Mapp's bullying condescention. Brilliantly, as Lucia gets more and more worked up, her voice gets deeper, whereas Mapp's gets shriller and shriller.
When Lucia and Georgie visit Tilling for the summer, Mapp humiliatingly curries favour before realising that Lucia is hugely more charistmatic than she is. (She has, for instance, adopted Lucia and Georgie's habit of saying 'Au reservoir!' instead of 'au revoir', and anyone who has a secret jargon of words and phrases shared with friends can appreciate the annoyance of having it co-opted.) Over the course of two series, all-out war is declared, but conducted covertly via the medium of garden parties, recipes, games of bridge, municipal elections and public bequests.
The storytelling is marvellously amoral. Although there is not an ethical whit to choose between Mapp and Lucia, we always side with Lucia, for all that she is a dreadful snob and obscenely self-delighting. Viewers (and readers) feel part of the wicked, cliquey friendship of Lucia and Georgie, and share their delight in each other's company. (Especially fun is the fact that they play duets on the piano in lieu of sex: 'Georgino! We finished together!') Indeed, Georgie and Lucia’s friendship – and eventual lavender marriage – is the emotional heart of Mapp and Lucia. They speak to each other in baby-talk ('Georgie - Oo have had dweffle disappointy') and, brilliantly, in cod-Italian, energetically fostering the rumour that they speak it like natives. In fact, their repertoire in ‘la bella lingua’ is limited to a few oft-ungrammatical phrases, including ‘Georgino mio!’, 'these piccoli disturbi',‘a little divine Mozartino’, and ‘un giardino segreto!’
This affectation not only leads Mapp to start dropping equally awful French into conversations, but nearly proves their social undoing. In one of the most brilliantly realised episodes of the comedy, Lucia and Georgie hear to their horror that Mr Wyse’s sister, the Contessa di’ Faraglione, is coming to stay. Married to an Italian, her command of the language is reputed to be perfect. All Tilling looks forward to hearing the three of them converse, especially Mapp, who rightly suspects that Lucia speaks no more Italian than she does.
Facing imminent social catastrophe, Lucia and Georgie are forced to scheme as never before. Georgie is promptly despatched to a hotel in Eastbourne for the duration of the Contessa’s visit. Lucia is reduced to pleading infectious influenza and shutting herself away. Mapp, in triumph, realises that she has Lucia on the hop, all the more since she knows that she can spy into Lucia’s giardino segreto from the top of the church tower. She climbs, she looks – and espies the supposedly bedridden Lucia performing her speciality ‘callisthenics for those no longer young’ in the garden. Mapp plans to release this incendiary information at the party Mr and Mrs Wyse have arranged for the Contessa.
However, in the interim, Georgie meets a charming lady and her daughter in his Eastbourne hotel. The lady is Italian, but her husband is English and their daughter has been educated in England. Her mother is improving her daughter's Italian by setting her little exercises. Georgie sees his chance, and asks the mother if he might not set a translation for her daughter, to which the mother delightedly assents. ‘Well’, says Georgie to the daughter, ‘why don’t you write a letter apologising to an Italian Countess, whom you’ve never met, for having to miss her musical party, on account of influenza.’ Charmed by the request, the daughter sets to work, and at Georgie’s request, a fair copy, duly corrected by her mother, is presented to Georgie as a keepsake. This copy is sent to Lucia posthaste, who copies it out in her own hand and sends her servant Grovesnor to deliver it personally to the Contessa. Just as Mapp, nearly bursting with glee, is about to reveal Lucia’s underhandedness, the note is delivered – in Lucia’s handwriting, and, as the Contessa remarks, ‘not just in Italian; in perfect Italian.’ Mapp is utterly crushed.
So even though Mapp was absolutely right - Lucia was faking illness, and she and Georgie can't speak Italian - we rejoice at her downfall. 'Georgino! She was malicious!' carols Lucia, self-satisfiedly - 'and that never pays.' As the series progresses, with its twists and turns and petty schemes of revenge, we find that we never pity Lucia, but intermittently feel slightly sorry for Mapp. She is both outflanked and outclassed, yet cannot – must not – accept this state of affairs. To acknowledge the fact that she has lost her position in her own town would be an abject, soul-destroying humiliation for her. As a result, sometimes - just sometimes - we enjoy seeing Lucia get too big for her boots and come a jolly good cropper, usually led to it by her own pretension.
In a surreal sequence of events, extraordinary floods trap both Mapp and Lucia in Lucia's kitchen. (Where, to be precise, Lucia has caught Mapp in the act of attempting to steal her prized recipe for Lobster a la Riseholme.) As the floods rise and the dykes burst, Lucia and Mapp are swept out to sea on the upturned kitchen-table. 'Au reservoir!’ calls Lucia to the aghast onlookers, brilliantly throwing an arm around the hysterical Mapp.
Two days later, the brine-soaked table is found washed up on the beach, with no sign of either of the lamented ladies.
Tilling’s spirit is utterly broken. Quaint Irene, who has been in love with Lucia (‘Queen of my heart!’) from the earliest, breaks down and storms off. To his amazement, Georgie discovers that Lucia has left him her house, and eighty thousand pounds – a vast fortune. Major Benjy finds that Mapp has left him her house, and a much more modest sum. He promptly packs up his tiger skins, golfclubs, and whisky tumblers, and moves in. Georgie, on the other hand, cannot bear to move into Lucia’s much grander house, but keeps it going, and pays the servants, ‘just as if she had gone away on holiday and forgotten to leave a cheque for expenses.’ He commissions a memorial stone for the pair, and by an unfortunate mistake on the part of the stonecutter, ‘Emmeline Lucas’ ends up carved thereon in much bigger letters than ‘Elizabeth Mapp’. (The memorial's marvellously ironic legend: 'In Death They were not Divided.')
Tilling settles into a waste of grief.
But then, months later – two figures clad in oil-skins trudge up the Tilling mudflats, and slop through the churchyard, only to find their own memorial-stone. In one of the most touching scenes in the series, Georgie is sitting listlessly at home, doing his needlework. The telephone rings.
‘Georgie! Georgino mio!’
His heart stood still.
‘What? What?’ he cried.
‘Yes, it’s Lucia,’ said the voice. ‘Me’s tum home, Georgie.’
Eighty thousand pounds (less death duties)…seemed to sweep past him like an avalanche, and fall into the gulf of things that might have been. But it was not the cold blast of that ruin that filled his eyes with tears.
And ours, if watching this scene for the umpteenth time after a few too many. Whereas Lucia finds that Georgie has preserved her house perfectly, even though she had bequeathed him both it and eighty thousand pounds, Mapp goes home to find that the Major has entirely taken over her home, drunk her wine-cellar, 'and eaten a whole row of my beetroot'. And once again, we rejoice with Lucia and Georgie, and laugh at Mapp's fury. As Hensher comments, 'In the end, we love Lucia because she is a radiator, whereas Mapp is a drain.'
But Benson is too skilful an ironist to let Lucia get away with it completely. The table had bumped into a fishing-trawler in the Channel, and she and Mapp have had to spend three months fishing for cod off Newfoundland. But, disastrously, it was an Italian trawler. Lucia's inability to speak Italian was finally proved to Mapp, and she is forced simply to brazen it out. ('I told her the sailors spoke an obscure Neapolitan dialect and that Captain wanted to practice his English', she tells Georgie, ever so faintly abashed.)
So there we have it. Rivalries, at once volcanically magnificent yet small-scale, squabbles and acid put-downs, all set in the kind of society which betcame utterly impossible after about 1930. No one in Mapp and Lucia actually seems to need to work for a living, and all lead lives of luxury in which the passing on of gossip and the stoking of social tensions is the main occupation. I highly recommend the series, now available on DVD, as a source of pure pleasure, and as the origin of some fabulous bon mots. Au reservoir!
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Below there is a collage of some moments from the series: the dumpy character at the beginning is one of Lucia's acquaintances from Riseholme, Daisy Quantock. Notice how Lucia (in deep mourning) bristles at the suggestion that anyone but she might play Elizabeth I in the town's Elizabethan Pageant. Also included is my favourite put-down from the entire series: Diva is shocked that Tilling-newcomers Lucia and Georgie are staying together (in one room, so she thinks) in the local pub, and Mapp brilliantly says: 'Diva dear, old friends though we are, I should be sorry to have a mind like yours.' Genius.