Thursday, 1 January 2015

On Reading (and Watching): E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia

It was my Dad who first mentioned E F Benson's wonderful books to me. "If you ever come across a book called Miss Mapp," he said, "grab it." As I was just moving to a new job in a new town I had access to a new library and, by one of life's nice moments of synchronicity, it had a copy. This was the early eighties and I think the books must have been long out of print but around that time they were re-published by Black Swan in six jolly paperbacks. (They made a great Christmas present for my Dad!) Tom Holt wrote a couple of sequels and a very new Channel 4 did an excellent TV adaptation of the last 3 books by Gerald Savory. 

Benson wrote his Mapp and Lucia series between 1920 and 1939 and they were hugely popular at the time. Original readers such as Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and the poet W. H. Auden, famously said they "would pay anything for Lucia books". Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas were at first in two entirely separate spheres, each dominating their own small worlds of Tilling (based on Rye in Sussex) and Riseholme (based on the Cotswolds village of Broadway) respectively. The comic potential of bringing them together and giving each a new and more formidable foe is achieved in book four of the series, Mapp and Lucia, and the subsequent two. Apparently readers wrote to Benson begging him to allow Miss Mapp to win at least one round over Lucia but he never did. I think Gerald Savory paid homage to this in one scene he created for the Channel 4 series which was not in the original books: Mapp, played by Prunella Scales, and now married to Major Benjy, has a typically 'poisoned sweet' go at Lucia, played by Geraldine McEwan, on the eve of her marriage to her long-standing friend, the effeminate Georgie Pillson. As she leaves Mallards House (once her home and now Lucia's) she twirls her handbag in triumph. It's a nice touch (perhaps also a coded reference to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?). I regularly watch my DVDs of this series and I recently re-read all six of the books, so you can definitely say that I'm a Benson fan!

Now the BBC has offered a new adaptation, with a screenplay by Steve Pemberton. Given the popularity of the 1984 Channel 4 version it was important that Pemberton felt a sense of creative freedom from the constraints of that success. He certainly takes a lot more liberties with the stories and plot-lines than Savory did but that could work if the essence of the thing is captured. Savory left quite a bit out but those who knew the books could spot the various ways he hinted at these points without it interfering with the re-telling. Pemberton's version has received good reviews - both Michael Pilgrim in the Telegraph and Julia Raeside in the Guardian like it.  Raeside makes a valid point about not keeping either the books or the previous adaptation under glass. As a self-confessed fan of Savory's screening, I was aware of my prejudices and tried to keep an open mind. I'm sure there was room for a good, fresh adaptation; sadly this wasn't it.

There is really nothing to like in Pemberton's Tilling, apart from the genuine Rye location. I wonder what a viewer coming to the series with no prior knowledge would make of it all. The main problem is that it just isn't funny. All Benson's subtlety and charm have been squeezed out and replaced with a kind of grand-guignol. There's an over-reliance on contorted facial expressions, with incessant music playing over the dialogue, which has little of Benson's sparkling wit. It's as if we are being asked, do you get it yet, do you get it? Well, frankly, no. Pemberton's changes, while not necessarily inconsistent with the characters, seemed mostly unnecessary and underplayed the brilliance of the words, situations and characters Benson actually did create. There was a good switch in Episode 1 when Lucia performs a tableau of Elizabeth I (as she had in Riseholme) at her Garden Fete in Elizabeth Mapp's home Mallards, which she is renting, rather than the more accurate Britannia; this allows for a nice moment when Mapp thinks that the cries of 'Elizabeth' are for her. I think Benson might well have appreciated this. However, we then have Episode 2 almost entirely taken up with a story about an Indian Guru who turns out to be a London chef. It's a good story but it occurs in Queen Lucia, a book set in Riseholme with other characters. It seems strange to twist the plot so much to include this story when there is so much going on in "Tilling proper". It surely can't be just to introduce Georgie Pillson's two rather grotesque sisters, who never appear in Tilling in the books and seemed more like characters from Pemberton's earlier success, the League of Gentleman?

In general, the cast were also a real letdown. One review said that the players all looked like they wanted to be there but I disagree. It didn't look like they were enjoying themselves at all, or if they were, it wasn't due to anything to do with Benson. Neither Miranda Richardson as Mapp nor Anna Chancellor as Lucia seem to have really got stuck into the essence of their characters' motivations and purposes, partly because Pemberton has ditched the progressive nature of Benson's narrative and muddies them around in ever-decreasing circles. I think Richardson is trying to be appropriately nasty and Chancellor to convey Lucia's insecurities but lingering shots of knotted eyebrows and protruding teeth don't really cut it. On the plus side, it was good to have the vicar's wife back, Mrs Evie Bartlett (missing in the Channel 4 adaptation), nicely played by Poppy Miller. Mark Gatiss as Major Benjy and Nicholas Woodeson as Mr Wyse also showed potential,but weren't really allowed to fly. Pemberton's casting of himself as an uber-insipid Georgie Pillson was uninspired. The fact that he has left out significant characters and plot-lines, such as those involving Lucia's purchase of Grebe and its subsequent exchange for Mapp's home Mallards, the opera diva Olga Braceley and a certain Cotswolds' recipe for Lobster, suggests he is hoping to come back for a second go. Let's hope not.

Too much Pemberton, too much League of Gentleman, not enough Benson: what a disappointment the BBC's new Mapp and Lucia has turned out to be. I won't be downloading Episode 3. You'd be much better off reading the original books. Indeed, I strongly encourage you to do so.