Although intrigued, I was also a bit wary of tackling the mid-1980s series MAPP & LUCIA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION, now on DVD from Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. Suffice to say, all my fears of the genteel soon evaporated into an addiction that had me quoting lines, laughing out loud at antics and even humming the theme music while attending to the lackluster events of my generally mundane world. Methinks you, too, will fall under the spell of these two memorable characters and their provincial universe as well. So come on, buy a ticket and take a chance.
MAPP & LUCIA, based on the bestselling novels by E.F. Benson, tells of a pair of adversarial, dominant women in the small British seaside town of Tilling in the year 1930. Elizabeth Mapp (the always welcome Prunella Scales) runs the vicinity like a friendly warden, collecting rents off of most of the residents, who either tolerate or outright despise her. In pops Emmeline Lucas, aka Lucia (an outstanding Geraldine McEwan), and her “confirmed bachelor” BFF Georgie (the wunderbar Nigel Hawthorne), looking for a summery diversion to their boring home base. Georgie, an artist of great potential (his words and thoughts), is hopelessly devoted to Lucia, a would-be sophisticate and accomplished musician (her words and thoughts). They are also masters of the putdown, and, using themselves as role models, can spot a phony a mile away. Thus, within an instant, Mapp and Lucia are at verbal odds with one another, grinning veiled insults while complimenting each other’s uninspired achievements with snarky disdain
Tilling responds in kind, championing the newbie who dares to buck their rent-obsessed landlord. Since what doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, Lucia and Georgie decide to leave their past behind, and permanently take up inhabitancy in the community. This serves to further enrage Mapp; from now on, it’s all-out war.
Watching the first few minutes of this two-season show (first broadcast in 1985) had me extremely respectful, if nothing else. And with good reason. The writing was aces (by Gerald Savory, who won me over with his classic 1977 BBC adaptation of Count Dracula, the one starring Louis Jourdan), the direction (by Donald McWhinnie) top-notch, the period design and art direction flawless and the acting – c’est magnified, as Lucia and Georgie might say (among their various traits, this duo engage in gibberish French and Italian. Their fond farewell of “au reservoir” soon has the entire populace of Tilling going continental, au reservoiring everyone all over the place). Lucia’s staging of a historical pageant becomes a fete worse than death, and, by the end of the debut episode, I was thoroughly hooked and eager for more.
How can I best describe this show for those who still aren’t getting it? Imagine a Masterpiece Theater version of I Love Lucy (well, Lucia), that is if Lucy and Ethel were mortal enemies (but still likely to end up in that chocolate factory). Or, better yet, Downton Abbey meets Keeping Up Appearances with the former’s Dowager Countess Granny of Grantham in middle rather than old age.
The town characters are nearly as sublime as the leads, and comprise Godiva (Mary MacLeod, Mapp’s confidante and supposed pal), who pays her crony the rent blood money by transforming her flat into a gossipy tea room; Major Benjy Flint (Denis Lill), a besotted, thoroughly inept officer (Ret.) who ends up betrothed to Mapp; the nouveau riche Wyses (Geoffrey Chater, Marion Mathie) whose taste can be defined by Mrs. Wyse’s screaming demands to the local butcher (“One saddled venison, well hung!”), the thickly-brogued Reverent Bartlett (James Greene) and, my favorite, avant-garde lesbian artist Quaint Irene (Cecily Hobbs, who, natch, falls madly in love with Lucia), whose work leans toward Tilling historical tableaus featuring naked women with breasts hanging down to their toes.
As each of the ten episodes in this four-disc set progresses, so does the on-screen craziness. There are marriages, fads (anything Lucia touches becomes an instant town phenomenon), art competitions, political races, stock market bull and bear purges (Mapp’s doing the opposite of Lucia’s buying causes her to go broke), rumors of pregnancies (it ends up being gas) and way more.
There are so many things to go ga-ga about in MAPP & LUCIA that space prohibits listing them all. That said, the ones most tickling me fancy encompass Georgie’s brilliant subterfuge to put to rest his and Lucia’s dubious linguistic talents (Neapolitan forgery extraordinaire). Then there’s the matter of Lucia’s prized lobster a la Riseholme, an epicurean delight that sets the stage for the first season finale. Mapp breaks into Lucia’s home to steal the recipe, is caught by Lucia just as a tsunami floods the house, causing them both to drift out to sea atop a kitchen table. Fearing them dead, Tilling erects a memorial, only to discover that the women were rescued by (and have been living on) an Italian trawler. Lucia immediately plans to do a lecture tour (A Modern Odyssey) while a smug Mapp clutches the now-waterlogged scrumptious crustaceous recipe in her fist.
Guest stars are notable as well, including one of the last appearances by Irene Handl, as a dotty duchess and Anna Quayle, as Georgie’s old pal, vulgar Olga, a renowned opera diva, performing a sensational original epic called Mafia, highlighted by her Ode to the Tommygun.
I also can’t resist mentioning a sidesplitting exchange between Lucia and Georgie with an irate McEwan condemning those who condemn them for speaking foreign tongues incorrectly (“It is ridiculous that we have to break ourselves of the habit of doing something we can’t do!”).
Savory’s savory dialog is chock full of gems, and particularly shines when Lucia’s stock dividends help buy the church a new Wurlitzer (“Say a few words about my organ,” requests Lucia to the visiting Bishop). Food prep is very important, and the mere mention of Mapp or Lucia can at once cause an indigestible response (“You pressured my poached egg!”). Lucia’s endorsement of bicycling culminates in a plethora of accidents involving the town’s female populace (“Tilling is full of ditches”). When looking for an excuse to avoid being unmasked for their non-existent foreign language abilities at an upcoming gala, Georgie suggests “…influenza – it’s very popular this year.” Or the Wyses’ announcement of their chairing the prestigious Tilling Art Exhibition is highlighted by couple’s impressive boast that “we’re on the hanging committee.” And on and on it goes.
MAPP & LUCIA is also very educational, divulging etiquette on skin disorders and afflictions. For example, when one gets facial shingles, it is, we learn, recommended to grow a beard over the intrusive blemishes, provided said follicles are perfectly dyed to match one’s toupee.
This is wacky stuff on any level, and I venture to say you’ll have as much fun as the three leads are – and they seem to be having a blast. Of course, we all are familiar with Scales, who made John Cleese’s life miserable on Fawlty Towers. And there’s the diverse departure of the cynical Hawthorne we embraced on Yes, Minister (and Yes, Prime Minister). But it’s McEwan who floored me. Most of us PBS fans recognize her primarily as one of the later Miss Marples; you’ll be astounded by her elegant beauty, wit and downright deadly cynicism. Gee, she’s swell (I should mention that the show was wildly popular in the UK during its initial run, and resulted in a 2014 remake, featuring Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor in the Scales and McEwan roles. I would love to see this for comparison, but I daresay Richardson and Chancellor had their work cut out for them!).
Acorn has included a brief apology on the back M&L jacket and slipcover indicating that these shows were mastered from the best elements currently available. Okay, so it isn’t widescreen, high-def, Downton quality; but, truth be told, it ain’t bad. In fact, d.p. Lisle Middleditch’s work is quite exemplary; the 1930s era colors pop, the images are sharp. What more can one ask? Furthermore, the 1980s crisp mono audio allows one to relish every snap (and there are plenty). As indicated, McWhinnie’s direction is spot-on and the score by Jim Parker (whose Midsomer Murders theme has become iconic) melds into the proceedings perfectly.
I would succinctly sub-tag MAPP & LUCIA as Queen Angst, or, more elaborately, two very funny women at the top of their game of thrones. Either/or, it is not to be missed.
MAPP & LUCIA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION. Color. Full frame [1.33:1]; 1.0 mono audio. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. CAT # AMP-2233. SRP: $59.99.