Mapp and Lucia, BBC1, review: Proof that middle-aged women can be interesting

No doubt this series will have new readers seeking out Benson's books

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The Independent Culture

Miranda Richardson wears a big set of false teeth in Mapp and Lucia (BBC1), all the better for gritting and smiling through. She plays Miss Elizabeth Mapp opposite Anna Chancellor as Mrs Emmeline "Lucia" Lucas, two small-town snobs locked in a never-ending battle of one-upmanship in this jolly 1930s-set comedy of manners.

Prosthetics are to be expected when the script has been adapted by League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton, who also stars as Lucia's loyal gentleman-in-waiting Georgie Pillson. The costumes are rather more flattering, however, and the supporting actors wearing them are delightful too. Paul Ritter (the dad from Friday Night Dinner) as the Rev Bartlett, Joanna Scanlan as Ursula, one of Georgie's trouble-making sisters, Mark Gatiss as the dipsomaniac Major Benji Flint, and it was nice to see Felicity Montagu, who's best known for playing put-upon Lynn in I'm Alan Partridge, asserting herself for a change as Godiva Plaistow.

These names will already be familiar to readers of EF Benson's original Mapp and Lucia novels, as will the fêtes, sketching competitions, cocktail parties and bridge games that make up the social whirl of the fictional seaside town of Tilling. This three-part BBC production brings it all to life beautifully, with several scenes shot at Lamb House in Rye, where Benson once lived. This is the world that Mapp hopes to conquer when she decided to rent her home out to newcomer Lucia. But Mapp's plans to make a trophy of this glamorous stranger soon backfired, and for the first time in Tilling history, she found herself confronting a serious social rival.

TV has only relatively recently caught on to the idea that middle-aged women might make complicated and interesting protagonists, and with excellent results including Happy Valley, Olive Kitteridge, Last Tango in Halifax and Puppy Love. Benson's deliciously bitchy books predate all these by more than 90 years, of course, yet happily also fit well with the zeitgeist. No doubt this series will have new readers seeking out Benson's books, and a second BBC series wouldn't go amiss either.

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