Mapp and Lucia: How to best the ultimate social snobs

A new screen adaptation of EF Benson's 'Mapp and Lucia' will do well to beat Channel 4's 1985 version, says Gerard Gilbert

The news that the League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton has written a new BBC adaptation of E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels snared my interest – and not just because Benson's fictional town of Tilling seems as far as it is possible to be from the grotesquery of Royston Vasey. It will be filmed this summer in Rye, East Sussex, which was the template for Tilling, a hot-bed of snobbery depicted by Benson in his series of interwar novels. The cast has yet to be announced. When it is, I hope the actors don't look over their shoulders, because in 1985 and 1986, Channel 4 screened a two-series, 10-episode adaptation of Mapp and Lucia featuring some truly great players at the very top of their game.

Rarely have an actress's eyes been used to such comic effect as when Geraldine McEwan gave one of her greatest performances as Emmeline "Lucia" Lucas, the feline schemer who rules the upper middle-classes of Tilling with a fake smile, caustic asides and a pretence at understanding Italian. McEwan's performance is theatrical in the best sense (naturalism here would as off-key here as in a Ken Loach pantomime) and required a sparring partner the equal to her.

Enter Lucia's confidante and companion in piano duets, the fey and bizarrely dressed Georgie Pillson – portrayed with undisguised relish by Nigel Hawthorne, straight off the back of his Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister. Perhaps the intensely private Hawthorne, before he was involuntarily "outed" around the time of the 1995 Oscars, felt liberated in playing a gay man – although with Mapp and Lucia being set in 1930, the question of Georgie's sexuality is never directly addressed.

Lucia and Georgie's chief opponent in social one-upmanship is the woman whose house Lucia has (maliciously, one feels) rented for the summer: Elizabeth Mapp, played by Prunella Scales in a bustling performance every bit as skilled as her Sybil in Fawlty Towers. As a threesome, McEwan, Hawthorne and Scales are so in command of the material that their delivery of the script, by Gerald Savory (who, having been born in 1909, would have fully understood the milieu), almost has a musical quality. And that's before we get to a support cast that includes Denis Lill, as the hard-boozing Raj army veteran Major Benjy, and Cecily Hobbes as "Quaint" Irene, a straight-talking, pipe-smoking "modern" artist with a crush on Lucia.

Lucia flirts with Irene and, in the same year, 1985, that Stephen Frears' adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette was exploding taboos with an inter-racial gay screen kiss, this supposedly escapist costume drama was also suggesting that oranges are not the only fruit. (McEwan's decidedly less comic monster of a mother in the 1989 adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's novel being, in my opinion, her only other screen performance to match the one in Mapp and Lucia.)

It is surprising that the programme only managed to bag one Bafta nomination, and quite extraordinary, given the digital universe's voracious appetite for bygone telly, that the series has only been repeated once, on ITV3 in 2007. Both Scales and Hawthorne can be found any old night of the week being Sybil or Sir Humphrey, but as for Mapp and Lucia, I long ago decided that I had no choice but to buy the DVD box set.

But then perhaps the reasons are not too hard to discern. Mapp and Lucia might be pigeonholed, and then dismissed, as "drawing-room comedy". The milieu is upper-middle class, which might be off-putting to some, and other great TV dramas of 1985-86 – Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective – have more prominence in the British television canon, probably because they were ostensibly more "serious". But in its own way, in its meticulous dissection of interwar social mores, its satirical teeth so sharp you hardly notice them, its colourful characterisation and, above all, in the unbridled joy of its performances, Mapp and Lucia is not necessarily the lesser.

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