There are some things that are easier experienced than explained, and Mapp & Lucia is one of them. Entertaining: yes; memorable: most certainly; easy to sum up: definitely not.
Mapp & Lucia Series 1, based on the 1931 novel of the same name by E.F. Benson, is a comic portrayal of the lives of a handful of eccentric, scheming socialites in small-town 1930s Britain. We meet Lucia (Geraldine McEwan), a widow with a penchant for dropping Italian phrases left and right (though her neighbors suspect that she doesn't actually speak the language), who effortlessly dominates the social scene of her home town, until one day she decides to take a holiday with her friend Georgie (Nigel Hawthorne). She ends up in the town of Tilling, which appears to offer a fresh field for her social manipulations, except that Tilling has until then been under the sway of Miss Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales), who is determined that she won't give up her rule without a fight. The irresistible force meets the immovable object: Mapp and Lucia. Who will become the undisputed queen of Tilling society?
Mapp & Lucia is over the top; so much so, in fact, that if it were much more over the top it would break free of the Earth's gravitational pull and fly off into space. McEwan and Scales in particular take their characters of Lucia and Mapp to the height of exaggeration... but somehow, in a peculiar way, it works. It's clear that the characters and situations are presented deliberately as being absurd, as being caricatures and satires on the behavior of the "upper crust" and its social circle.
The moment that I really began to enjoy Mapp & Lucia was when I realized that it wasn't necessary to actually like any of the main characters to enjoy the series. The more typical approach to presenting a story is to have at least one main character who is likeable, but in Mapp & Lucia... well, they're pretty much all hypocritical, back-stabbing social climbers. They're also very funny once their individual quirks start becoming evident.
The secondary characters do provide a nice counterpoint to the bizarre antics of the main characters. The servants, and in fact all of the "ordinary working folk," come across as quite normal and pleasant people; by the end of the five episodes of the series, several of the servants had taken on fairly solid minor roles and were quite likeable, especially Grosvenor (Geraldine Newman), Lucia's maid, who is by all appearances quite proper, but who enjoys helping out with a little bit of her mistress's scheming. Another member of the cast who acts as a foil to the "polite society" of Tilling is "Quaint Irene," (Cecily Hobbs) the pipe-smoking, completely unconventional woman who paints shockingly modernistic paintings ("women wrestlers!") and light-heartedly goes around saying exactly what she thinks and enjoying life exactly as she finds it.
E.F. Benson wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 1930s featuring the characters of Lucia and Mapp, and both appear as protagonists in their own books before meeting in this one. The fact that Mapp & Lucia picks up the story in the middle of the series of books explains the fact that as the series opens, we are tossed right into the lives of Lucia and her friends without much context for what's going on. Readers of the earlier books will immediately recognize the characters, of course; fortunately, it's not hard for other viewers to pick up on the characters and situation.
The fact that the series is based directly on a single book adds considerably to its appeal. Rather than being a collection of self-contained episodes, the five parts of Mapp & Lucia tell a continuous story from beginning to end. There's a bit of closure in each part, naturally, but the next picks up immediately afterwards and moves the story forward. In this way, the story of Mapp & Lucia stays fresh and engaging through all five hours of the series, with new twists and turns coming at various moments... at least one of which was quite surprising. The pacing is handled well, with every incident consistently developed in a considerable amount of detail.
The BBC produced a second series of Mapp & Lucia in 1986, this time based on the two following novels, Lucia's Progress and Trouble for Lucia, so those who enjoyed Mapp & Lucia Series 1 will want to keep their eyes open for the DVD release of Series 2.
Mapp & Lucia is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The DVD transfer comes in a bit above average for a television program, particularly one from 1985. The main problem that I noticed was the heavy use of edge enhancement, which results in a loss of detail and, occasionally, some rather peculiar effects: in a few scenes with the characters in front of a bright, light-colored background, they appear to be outlined in black. Apart from this, the print is clean and generally noise-free, and colors appear both accurate and lively-looking, though on occasion there is some color bleeding.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for Mapp & Lucia is adequate, though it does show some peculiarities. The sound pickup on some of the incidental sounds, like paper or cloth rustling, is often abnormally loud, while dialogue is sometimes slightly muffled. In its favor, the track never sounds harsh or tinny, even for the most high-pitched voices (and Lucia does get quite squeaky indeed at times).
The five fifty-minute episodes of Mapp & Lucia are presented on two discs: disc one contains the first three episodes, and disc two has the final two. Both discs are packaged in keepcases inside an attractively-designed slipcase. However, viewers are recommended not to read the summaries of the episodes on the back of the discs before watching, as they reveal everything that happens in the episode.
The DVD set includes cast filmographies, information about E.F. Benson, a list of his works, and contact information for the "Tilling Society" fan club.
Mapp & Lucia is nothing if not memorable. At first I was not sure what to make of it, but it soon began to grow on me, so that by the end I found myself laughing heartily at the eccentricities of Tilling society. It's certainly worth checking out, and is recommended.