Delicious. Acorn and ITV Studios have released Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection, a 4-disc, 10-episode collection of the 1985-1986 U.K. comedy based on the beloved novels of E.F. Benson. Starring Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales, Nigel Hawthorne, Denis Lill, Mary MacLeod, James Greene, Cecily Hobbs, Geoffrey Chater, Marion Mathie, Geraldine Newman, Ken Kitson, and Lucinda Gane, the snotty, arch, and frequently hilarious Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection is perfect light summer viewing for those who prefer their British humor served up with a condescending smile (and fear not if you've haven't read the celebrated novels--I hadn't). It looks like the same minor text extras from the 2002 DVD release are included here, so there's no need to double-dip--nor for the same acceptable fullscreen transfers again utilized in this release.
Wealthy, imperious, delightfully forward, and recently widowed Emmeline "Lucia" Lucas (Geraldine McEwan), of the village of Riseholme in the Cotswolds, is ready for a summer adventure: renting a house in the seaside village of Tilling, from nemesis--and Tilling's society queen--Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales). Coldly peeved at Mapp's usurpation of one of her own quaint play-on-word phrases--"Au reservoir!"--several years ago, Lucia intends on evening the score somehow, so she takes along her fey, foppish friend, Georgie Pillson (Nigel Hawthorne), for the trip. When Mapp proves to be just as unctuously snobby and condescending to Lucia as she was in their previous encounter, the monstrously shallow and vindictive Lucia's course of action is set: she'll rent Mapp's house, "Mallards," and convince Georgie to take a nearby cottage to watch the inevitable fireworks (to the delight of expectant, simpering Georgie), as Lucia takes the reins of Tilling high society. Tilling's "smart set," weary of Mapp's tyranny, immediately cotton to the bold, entertaining Lucia: always tipsy former Army Major Benji Flint (Denis Lill), blowsy Godiva "Diva" Plaistow (Mary MacLeod), multi-accented (depending on where his last holiday was) Reverend Kenneth Bartlett (James Green), decidedly unorthodox painter and "free spirit," "Quaint" Irene Coles (Cecily Hobbs), and town "royalty" Mr. Algernon Wyse and his MBE wife, Susan (Geoffrey Chater and Marion Mathie). The obsequiously poisonous Mapp isn't giving up her exalted position in society without a fight, however, and soon she and Lucia are engaged in mortal combat of one-upmanship.
I'm fairly sure that I read the first book in the often-called Mapp and Lucia series from English author E.F. Benson, but seeing as how that was decades ago, and that this television series from 1985 begins with the fourth of the six novels (where Mapp and Lucia first share their comic adventures together), Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection was entirely new to me. And as such, I can't attest to the fidelity of it to the original novels--a point of contention, it seems, with the small but absolutely ferocious fan base that Benson's novels continue to engender (so in that spirit of disclosure, please don't email this enthusiastic-but-unschooled Benson novice if I get something small wrong...). What I can state is that, despite some lumpy script construction over the course of these ten episodes (originally broadcast in the U.K. back in 1985-1986 as two 5-part "series"), Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection, for the most part, is a spirited delight: a snide, sly British comedy of manners predicated on the deeply mean-spirited pride one takes in besting someone one thinks socially inferior...as only the English can do.
This kind of class-conscious verbal sniping seems to be an acquired taste, one I've always appreciated (a brief glance at some newer reviews of Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection indicates a dangerous strain of humorless, faux-proletarian reviewers decidedly non-plussed by the well-spoken, well-heeled snots found here). Simply put: I like a vicious, condescending bully who graciously smiles through their put-downs, and with Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection, you'll get a Master's class in sarcastic slurs. Of course this stuff is "mean-spirited" (today's original sin for the dour, dire P.C. brigade)...that's why it's so much fun. Frequently in the episodes we cut back briefly to Mapp's and Lucia's servants, and their pragmatic awareness of their employers' fanciful follies and depreciatory backbiting, as if we're supposed to identify with those dull schmoes' weary condemnation. But importantly: the servants are all the more boring for their practicality (I'll take a self-important, supercilious, flamboyant villain any day over a lumpish, working class "regular Joe"). The viewer (should) love Mapp and Lucia's blown-up, vile little squabbles--made gargantuan due to their misdirected zeal and cunning, and made doubly hilarious due to their absolute meaninglessness--because they're both so good at verbal jousting. Lucia and whimsical Georgie are (temporarily) interesting and amusing and charming, with their simultaneously ostentatious and exclusive "high society" Italian phrases, precisely because they're completely inconsequential people (maybe the funniest line in the whole series comes when Lucia, fearful that her professed mastery of Italian will be shown up as phony, angrily states, "It is ridiculous that we have to break ourselves of the habit of doing something we can't do,"). We only root for the equally abhorrent snob Lucia to win over Mapp because Lucia is obviously the more powerful, deadly viper...as well as being the more attractive and chic (shallow considerations, of course...that fit right in). And when she does win...her converts become just as wary and weary of her as they did with Mapp. It's important to remember that haughty Lucia's final triumph over plodding Mapp, after months of involved, painful warfare that include her actually pulling up stakes and moving to her enemy's village, was all instigated by the cosmically overblown snit of Lucia remembering that Mapp had stolen one of her precious little play-on-words, for god's sake ("Au reservoir!"). That's all it took to set the grinding wheels of retribution and revenge in motion (and for Benson to skewer...and perhaps celebrate?...such foibles of the British upper middle class).
Scripted by Gerald Savory, Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection does suffer from an occasionally pell-mell, even sloppy construction, with some sequences failing to pay-off (the rushed seance for a budgie, the bicycle scene, and the crucial flooding of Lucia's home--poorly staged and far too thin), and some surprisingly crude and abrupt transitions between episodes. Certainly the second "series" isn't as successful as the first, if for no other reason than the central comedic dynamic--Lucia's and Mapp's feud--is diffused by sideline concerns (the final episode barely has Mapp's participation at all). Still, more scenes work than not, giving Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection a rather interesting low-key madcap feel (if such a thing is possible), as verbal sparring gives way to dead birds falling into raspberry souffles and historical tableaus that are the essence of the briefest incompetence (Georgie's Beau Brummell preens for one second before a wasp drives him off, before the nervous Major gets polite applause for his King keeling over dead drunk). Director Donald McWhinnie may not exactly be the most ambitious helmer when it comes to exploiting the possibilities of blocking or camera set-ups--all in all, he's pretty flat here--but at least he doesn't get in the way of the performances.
The seasoned cast adds enormously to the fun, particularly the well-chosen supporting players (Lill finds a hundred different ways to get a laugh sneaking a drink behind his wife's back, but Hobbs is a trial, flattening what should have been a cinch comedic character: the broad, Bolshie, avant-garde lesbian "Quaint Irene"). Scales, certainly best known over here in the States for Fawlty Towers, is horrifically obsequious and slimy as the jealous, wheedling cow Mapp, who simply can not bear to see murderous swan Lucia float in and effortlessly usurp her once unchallenged societal position (it's the least likable role here, and she's perfect in it). Hawthorne, of Yes, Prime Minister and The Madness of King George fame, gives one of the funniest turns I've seen in quite some time as the sweet, twittering, whining clothes horse Georgie, paralytically horrified at the thought that Lucia (or anyone, man or woman), might touch him. There's a scene here where the blustery Major invites a clearly terrified Georgie to sit down and have a drink, that's one of the most sublime bits of nervous, understated physical comedy (by Hawthorne) that I've seen anywhere. It's a tour de force comedic performance, both hilarious and unexpectedly quite touching, since we never feel Hawthorne is making fun of a character that could have easily slipped into contemptuous parody in the hands of a lesser performer...which I suspect may be the case when The League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton takes over the role in his upcoming M & L remake for the BBC. As for McEwan, one may be forgiven at times in thinking she's doing a camp send-up of Maggie Smith (they both played Jean Brodie, after all), such is the sheer over-the-top mugging she brings to scheming, merciless Lucia. It's the broadest of the three lead turns, but that outsized tenor is needed as a central axis for everyone else to satellite around, and for that, she's remarkably sharp and cutting and funny (and sexy, too, with her sculpted, impervious face and those pitilessly bright, cruel eyes lasering in on her latest prey). And yet, she can turn on a dime and show a concerned sweetness for "Georgino mio" (and vice versa) that almost makes us believe she might not attack us should we cross paths...although we highly doubt it. When Georgie pricks his finger doing petit-point, eliciting high-pitched squeals and coos from Lucia, as they both simper over this nothing event, the effect is painfully funny: do we laugh at these monstrous buffoons...or laugh with these eccentric, lovely charmers? I can't think of a better way to sum up the delightfully double effect of Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection's comedy.
The fullscreen, 1.33:1 transfers for Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection look about as I expected: decent-enough videography source material is presented here in medium-sharp transfers, with okay color and minor video noise.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is serviceable, with a decent-enough re-recording level. No subtitles or closed-captions available, however.
A few minor text extras--a bio on Benson, and cast filmographies--smack of early 2000s British TV DVD extras...which is exactly what they are.
Spiteful, hateful fun. If you like your British comedy full of well-spoken malice, then Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection is right up your alley. Despite some problems in the script construction, the dialogue and the performances are first-rate. I'm highly, highly recommending Mapp & Lucia: The Complete Collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.