In 10 Words or Less
Class warfare disguised as classic sitcom comedy
Dislikes: Trashy people
The Story So Far...
A British sitcom that ran for five years in the early '90s, Keeping Up Appearances follows the comic misadventures of Hyacinthe Bucket (pronounced only by her as Bouquet), a middle-class woman obsessively focused on rising above her social status. Her extreme ambition and low-rent family always manages to work against her though, giving her a bit of the comeuppance such an attitude deserves. The show's been released on DVD in season sets, multi-season collections and the massive complete run of the series that was released in 2004, and DVDTalk's got a review of the three-season set, "Hyacinth Springs Eternal."
Though we've learned a lot as a nation from "The Simpsons," one of the most important lessons was offered up when we first met Sideshow Bob's brother Cecil, and were informed by Krusty that embarrassing someone isn't funny unless that someone has self-respect. If that self-respect is inflated or, better yet, undeserved, the comedy is all the grander. Exhibit A: Hyacinth Bucket.
Patricia Routledge plays Mrs. Bucket (who will always remind you (incorrectly) her family name is pronounced Bouquet,) a middle-class British housewife obsessed with social status, real and especially perceived. Thus, she attempts to live a live that's prim and proper, an ongoing annoyance to all those around her. Her sense of competition is the impetus to everything she does, whether it's vacationing or volunteering at church. Everything she has has to cost more or be more exclusive, or she simply won't be satisfied.
This is difficult, as her own family isn't overly cooperative with her quest for perfection. Her husband Richard (Clive Swift) may be the most abused spouse in the history of television, as Hyacinth's tendency to bully him into obedience and general fear of her disapproval leads all who know him to pity him. Thanks to her aggravating treatment of him, what starts simply as a doormat of a character slowly builds into a cauldron of frustration that never quite gets to boil over. It makes one question how he ever married Hyacinth in the first place, as he seems far too laid-back to have ever been attracted or attractive to her.
The couple's unseen son Sheridan is also a source of strife for Hyacinth and Richard, as he is a constant mooch and a disappointment, studying poorly at a trade school, while his mother tells people he's a top student at University. Piecing together the clues from his one-sided phone calls to his mother, it's believable he would spring forth from her, crafted into a relative mess of a human being and an embarrassment worthy of a cover-up.
When you meet the rest of her family, it's odd to see Hyacinth attempting such a posh lifestyle, as her sisters, Daisy (Judy Cornwell) and Rose (Shirley Stelfox, then Mary Millar), live together in a low-income housing project, with their father, a senile WWII vet prone to chasing women and getting naked (another mostly unseen sister Violet is living the good life battling with cross-dressing husband Bruce.) Daisy, joined by her slovenly, yet modestly intellectual husband Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes), and Rose, who today would be termed a cougar on the prowl, are a constant source of embarrassment for Hyacinth, and just coincidentally show up at just the right time to wreck some scheme by Hyacinth to make herself look impressive. Daisy, who desires romance, and Onslow, who desires TV and a beer, are genuinely good, though lazy, people, which makes them a perfect dual-opposite to Hyacinth.
If her family gave her trouble, she was trouble to everyone else, including her timid neighbor Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson), Elizabeth's divorced brother Emmet (David Griffin), and the local vicar (Jeremy Gittins). Elizabeth and Emmet, who moves in with his sister in Season Two following his break-up (but oddly never leaves), are like prisoners in their own home, afraid to run into the opinionated social climber, while the vicar gets it from two sides, trying to avoid Hyacinth and her trampy sister Rose. It stretches the boundaries of the suspension of disbelief that this one family would be such a pain to an entire town, but hey, comedy is often in the exaggeration.
On "Keeping Up Appearances" though, created by Roy Clarke and guided by Harold Snoad ("Are You Being Served?",) the comedy is often in repetition. Too often, you can see the jokes coming from a mile away, and you've seen it done many times before, whether it's how Elizabeth is going to nervously spill her coffee at Hyacinth's house or what emotional relationship is breaking down for Rose. The show seemed at times to just build around these moments, introducing disposable bits with the milkman and mailman that served no other purpose than to show how snobby Hyacinth is, which is the same thing the rest of the show was taking care of.
Though the comedy certainly plays to the actors' strengths, like Routledge's skill with monologues fueling Hyacinth's many one-sided phone conversations, and Swift's bowed, but unbroken pride keeping Richard going, too often the show feels too broad and too padded. At over 28 minutes, the episode's seem to feature scenes that don't really do anything for the story, often in order to inject an appearance by Daisy and Onslow, while an extra-long episode, like the 60 minute "Sea Fever," is torture at times. The lengthy run around the boat by Hyacinth and Richard needed to be cut by at least half to be at all effective, and there didn't need to be so many scenes with Daisy and Onslow sitting in bed before Rose bursts in with news about Daddy. We get it. Move on.
Part of the problem was likely a seeming lack of interest in the stories being told. This was literally a situation comedy, focusing entirely on getting Hyacinth into a moment or place and seeing how she would react. Thus, a storyline like the Buckets hosting a dinner aboard a boat exists only to get them to a boat. Once there, the predictable chaos ensues and we fade to credits. As long as Hyacinth mugged a few times in horror at her social status being threatened and Richard shrugged, all was right in the world. Catch an episode every week or so, and that's fine, because when it's funny, it's very, very funny, but in bulk it gets tiresome quick.
This set adds a ninth disc, which features another hour-long clip show, this time featuring Onslow, who is teaching a class in successful relationships (tying it into his obsession with Open University in the series.) Onslow's thoughts on how a couple can work are supported by clips from the show, though many of them were included in "The Memoirs of HyacinthBucket" and are obviously in the episodes in this set. Onslow's not as funny as he can be in the series, which makes this a bit unnecessary, but for fans, having it included is a nice touch (especially for the extras.)
Aside from the additional disc, where this collection really differs from the original 2004 release is in the packaging. The previous colossal set brought together all of the separate releases, in their original keepcases, in the confines of a cardboard slipcase, but this release is about a fraction of the size, with a stack of nine trays holding the discs inside of a thin cardboard "book" cover, which is inside a sturdy slipcover. The discs themselves are simply the original versions, which means the season names (like "Hyacinth Springs Eternal") are found on the menus, but not referenced anywhere else, which could be confusing to anyone who hasn't seen the previous releases.
The DVDs feature slightly animated full-frame menus, with options to play all the episodes, select individual shows, choose scenes inside the episodes and check out the special features. There are no audio options and no subtitles, though closed captioning is included. Included in this collection are all five seasons of the series, spread over seven DVDs, a disc of the four Christmas specials, and a DVD of the recently-released clip show featuring Onslow.
The full-frame transfers look pretty tight for their age, though they suffer from that look that's unique to BBC shows of the pre-HD era, making them seem older than they are. Exterior scenes look brighter and sharper than interior segments, like due to a switch is style for outdoor filming, but overall they look rather good, with pretty vibrant color and a decent level of detail, though grain or noise is often present. There aren't any real issues with dirt or damage though, nor are there noticeable digital artifacts.
The audio is plain vanilla, doubling up the mono mix across a Double Digital 2.0 track that does its job, but doesn't impress in any way. Considering the source, an early-'90s BBC sitcom, there's no reason to expect it to anything other than keep things clean.
I can honestly say I am rather surprised at the decent spread of extras on these DVDs, mainly because of the age of the show, and a prejudice built up by the lack of bonus material on A&E's British TV releases. Considering BBC-Video's releases of "Spaced" and "Little Britain," I should have known better though. The boilerplate extras included are "Hyacinth's Social Register," text bios for the main cast, along with "Hyacinth's Guest Book," text bios for guest stars, where applicable. These are actually written in an entertaining fashion, though they aren't very complete (where's Trevor Bannister's entry?) You'll also find some BBC trailers on the first four DVDs.
Seven of the DVDs feature outtake reels (almost 30 minutes in total) under the title "Keeping Up Appearances...or Trying To!" These clips, featuring the cast screwing up lines or breaking character are fun to see, especially when it's Routledge breaking out of her very proper role to make a silly face. Some of the footage is in rough shape, but you can see everything you need to enjoy it.
There's an assortment of found footage rounding out the collection, starting with the half-hour episode of "Funny Women" on Disc Three, which is a bio of Routledge's career. It's a solid retrospective, though a bit slow in the presentation, which is filled with interviews with her contemporaries. There's more Routledge on hand on Disc Four, where there's 19 minutes of monologues by her character Kitty from the series "Vicki Woods - As Seen on TV." Another opinionated older lady, Kitty could easily be the prototype for Mrs. Bucket, as she rants about topics and people in a mildly amusing manner.
Disc Six has one of the odder inclusions, a 1:13 commercial featuring Hyacinth and Elizabeth, for an educational campaign in England. It's not all that funny, but having it here is nice for fans. (It's listed as "Second Chance Shorts," but there's only one.) Disc Seven brings a nine-minute 1993 interview with Routledge and Swift from British talk show "Pebble Mill," which is more about a play the duo were doing, as the show was on break, while Disc Eight offers up a clip show, "The Memoirs of Hyacinth Bucket," which has Daisy and Onslow reading from Hyacinth's diary to set up popular clips from the show.
Disc Nine has some dandy bonus material, starting with a half-hour episode of "Comedy Connections," which is a series I'd love to see more of. Using "Keeping Up Appearances" as the starting point, the show goes back and looks at the careers of those involved, and tells some of the backstory of the show. There are some interesting tidbits shared, including info on the character's backgrounds and some problems in the production of the show. This is a great concept and should be immediately stolen and brought to Comedy Central.
There are also a pair of interviews (27 minutes in all) on this DVD, with Cornwell and Routledge, separately. Again, there's a lot of good from-the-set info shared by these two women, in chats that range from personal to professional, with a nice sense of pace throughout.
The Bottom Line
"Keeping Up Appearances" is a quality comedy, but when your lead character is someone as dramatically deserving of contempt as Hyacinth Bucket, getting so much of the series in one bunch can get oppressive, and the repetitive jokes start to wear thin. The package is an impressive one though, with solid quality and a decent mix of extras. Thankfully for those who purchased the first version, the new ninth disc is available separately, because this set is really for those who enjoy the show, but have yet to fully dive into the world of the Bucket woman.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.