Mapp and Lucia
Monday, 30 November -0001

Snobbery, Shenanigans & Social Skirmishes

EF Benson’s comic creations are returning to the small screen. Paul Barnes speaks to Mapp and Lucia (aka Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor)

Written by Paul Barnes
In a cobbled street before a tall Georgian house called ‘Mallards’ a man stands waiting. Over his arm is a dainty basket lined with a pretty cloth. Big blue lights look down from tall stands, and there is a camera, locked to a hefty tripod, aimed towards the house door. When a man calls for quiet and says ‘Rehearsing’, the basket is handed to the middleaged woman who is standing on the front steps, smartly dressed and wearing a hat. She is Miss Elizabeth Mapp.

An imposing maid in black, called Grosvenor, fills the doorway. She advises Miss Mapp that the mistress is unwell, and in bed. This is an untruth, and Miss Mapp suspects as much. Trying to see beyond Grosvenor, Miss Mapp tilts her head to the left and then to the right. The maid’s response is a mirror image of Mapp, head tilting to the right and then to the left, blocking the visitor’s view. To the left, to the right, their heads perform a little ballet to a raucous accompaniment furnished by two large seagulls, ignoring the call for quiet, shrieking as they strut along the parapet.

This is the fictional town of Tilling, easily identified as real-life Rye, jewel of Sussex, and the real name of that fine Georgian residence is Lamb House, once the home of the novelist Henry James, and later occupied by Edward Frederic Benson, author of a celebrated series of novels, wryly comic tales of social skirmishing in and about Tilling in the years between the wars.

In the books, Miss Elizabeth Mapp goes unchallenged for tribal supremacy here until the arrival of Mrs Emmeline Lucas, known to all as Lucia. It is she who is the absent mistress of the doorstep scene, feigning illness in order to evade Mapp.

MappLucia-Dec12-02-590Lucia (left) with loyal lieutenant Georgie Pillson (Steve Pemberton) and arch rival Mapp

Now the BBC has adapted EF Benson’s comic novels into a television drama, and where better than Rye to stand in for Tilling? The casting is inspired, too. Miranda Richardson plays the unctuous, devious, sweetly smiling and spiteful Mapp, a woman who is doomed to lose. From the moment the immaculate, chauffeur- driven Lucia, played by Anna Chancellor, sweeps smartly into town, all Tilling society dances to the new arrival’s tune.

‘I like her a lot,’ says Anna Chancellor, cackling with pleasure beneath the trees that shade the Lamb House lawn. ‘She’s a sort of domineering, snobbish fake. What’s not to like about Lucia? Lucia’s hilarious.’

Certainly she fakes her grasp of Italian, and her piano playing, with her limited, well-worn repertoire. But she’s no fake when it comes to her political manoeuvring among the Tillingites. Mapp might score the occasional little victory, but Lucia goes on winning the war.

The town is rich with Benson’s comic characters, absorbed in their watercolours, rubbers of bridge and, above all, gossip. There is the Padre from Birmingham who speaks (and writes), inexplicably, with a broad Scottish accent; his wife, who speaks hardly at all, but squeaks; the perpetually bowing Algernon Wyse and his perpetually sable-wrapped wife Susan, who are incapable of travelling even 100 yards in Tilling’s narrow streets without their huge Rolls- Royce and chauffeur. Then there’s crop-haired Quaint Irene, scandalous painter of naked wrestlers, and wicked mimic; the short-legged Diva Plaistow ‘with that twinkle of feet that was like the scudding of a thrush over the lawn’. They seldom say ‘goodbye’; instead they say ‘au reservoir’, an invention of Lucia’s that Mapp steals and claims as her own.

MappLucia-Dec12-03-590-quote

But they and Mapp and Lucia are more than merely figures of fun. ‘EF Benson is not a fool,’ says Anna. ‘He’s a thoughtful person, very, very highly educated [Marlborough and King’s College, Cambridge], intelligent and sensitive. He sees these women, thwarted women with nothing to do. This is the backdrop. They have lost a whole generation of men. It’s hard for us now to understand the implications of the First World War, but to them it would have been fresh.’

After a hot, humid morning before the camera, Miranda Richardson talks in the car that ferries her to lunch. Before she was offered the part of Mapp, she’d never read Benson’s books. Even then she was happy to confine herself to absorbing her words in the script. But eventually, she concluded that perhaps she was being churlish and ‘inveigled’ herself into reading the novels. ‘I found them very helpful, and brilliant, and I really am a huge fan of them now,’ she says.

Armed with both the books and the script, what does she make of Mapp? ‘I think she’s necessary in a community,’ she says, ‘certainly in this one, and certainly between the wars. You know, she’s one of those women who’s a “doer” and people are, even if they don’t realise it, dependent on her. I think there’s at least one in every community.’

Mapp’s little tribe may be unaware of their dependency, but she is certainly aware of their need of her and always alert for any hint of dissent among her pliant following. ‘She’s been used to telling people what to do, and how to do it,’ says Miranda, ‘and it suited very well, until Lucia comes in. But actually it’s a new lease of life, a kick up the pants.’

MappLucia-Dec12-04-590Sable-wrapped Susan Wyse and husband Algernon, with Mapp

For Mapp, finding herself isolated and avoided by her one-time acolytes, the realisation that she might somehow benefi t from that kick is slow to materialise, and a bit hard to swallow. Miranda’s understanding of what makes Mapp tick impresses Anna deeply. ‘Miranda’s brilliant at getting that balance of pathos and ferocity,’ she says.

Lucia does not turn up in Tilling alone. By her side is her loyal lieutenant Georgie Pillson, a fragrant, finely manicured man in his late 40s with dyed hair. ‘Not an obtrusively masculine sort of person’, he spends hours at his needlework, and dusting his collection of bibelots (he trusts no one else, not even his maid, Foljambe). He and Lucia share their meagre Italian vocabulary, and play piano duets. ‘Ickle bit of divine Mozartino? Uno, due… pom.’

It’s a peach of a role, and Steve Pemberton plays it. ‘Georgie’s very much on Lucia’s side, of course,’ he says, ‘but he’s not above telling her when she’s overstepped the mark, when she’s got a little bit pretentious, when she’s overreached herself and when he feels the temperature of the town better than she does.’

Steve has another peach of a role, as the writer of the TV script. He says: ‘As a Benson fan I just wanted to honour what he had written. I wasn’t out to change it, I wasn’t out to shake it up, or do anything different with it, other than reflect the wonderful, waspish wit of Benson. I’ve been up to his grave at Rye cemetery to say, “Thank you for the books”, and I hope he wasn’t spinning too madly.’

MappLucia-Dec12-05-590‘I like her a lot,’ says Anna Chancellor of Lucia

The writing and the performances are inevitably filtered through the vision of the director, Diarmuid Lawrence. On set, is Steve ever tempted to cough discreetly and point out that he didn’t really see it in quite the same way? ‘Well, if I need to say something, I do. But it’s only been minor stuff .’

Anna leans over and rests her hand on his. ‘You know, when Steve says something, everyone listens – because he says so little. He always does have a point. He’s always right, which is rather irritating.’

She beams, and so does Steve. ‘The director looks happy to see him,’ she continues. ‘He’s pleased when he comes on set and happy to share the burden. That must be rare for a director – to want to see the writer and one of the main actors. His face lights up when he sees Steve.’ Steve beams even more broadly.

Mapp and Lucia made EF Benson almost as famous as some of his fans. ‘We will pay anything for Lucia books,’ declared Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Nancy Mitford and WH Auden.

Inspired by the film, a new generation could be saying the same. Au reservoir.

Mapp And Lucia will be broadcast on BBC One on 29 December.


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