Old Friends As We Are. December 2014.

Dear Rowley,

Being something of a Luciaphile, I have on more than one occasion been asked what I thought about the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of E. F. Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels. Like Noël Coward, W. H. Auden and Nancy Mitford I would pay anything for just one more novel starring – and I use that word advisedly – the sublime Emmeline Lucas. Benson’s tales of genteel war and one-upmanship in the idyllic villages of Riseholm and Tilling written between 1920 and 1939 stand with Wodehouse and Waugh as some of the greatest 20th century comic novels.

When I heard that Steve Pemberton had been commissioned to write a new TV adaptation I was rather dreading it: old friends as we are as Miss Mapp would say. The Lucia novels were dramatised in 1985/6 starring Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Lucas and Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp. I have probably watched each episode more than I’ve seen most family members in the past decade and am still enchanted.

Geraldine McEwan’s performance is mannered, angular and as precise as a bird of prey with that gimlet glance Benson describes. She looks like a Tamara de Lempicka come to life with her bobbed hair and scarlet lips in sharp contrast to the dowdy Edwardian dress of her her fellow Tillingites. Prunella Scales is equally magnificent as the oft defeated Miss Mapp. Her crocodile smile and obsequious manner that hides the heart of an admittedly porcine Valkyrie is played with great art and subtlety.

This being the 1908s, the art direction and set decoration of the old Mapp & Lucia is stagey and artificial. Though some of the exterior scenes are shot in Benson’s home town Rye most of the interiors are so obviously studio sets. But the ensemble cast and the outstanding script made each performance an absolute joy. Having seen Geraldine McEwan overshadowed by Maggie Smith as Miss Jean Brodie and Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple I’d like to think that her Lucia was untouchable. Turns out it is.

When the cast was announced for the 2014 Mapp & Lucia I immediately thought Miranda Richardson would be Lucia and Anna Chancellor Miss Mapp. Having seen two episodes I could have been right all along. To accentuate the positive, the entire series appears to have been filmed on location in Rye. This includes the Garden Room at Lamb House where Benson wrote the Lucia novels. Every frame is gorgeous.

Steve Pemberton has already earned his spurs as a comic writer with The League of Gentlemen and Benidorm. But did he have the finesse to write for Miss Mapp and Mrs Lucas? I would say on balance yes but would question playing with E F Benson’s plots. Both TV adaptations begin with Lucia’s invasion of Tilling where Miss Mapp holds court. The 80s version establishes Lucia, her chevalier Georgie and Miss Mapp so much more subtly.

Strike one against Anna Chancellor is her accent. Geraldine McEwan’s quivering, Old Vic RP was absolutely right for the pretentious, theatrical but ultimately triumphant Emmeline Lucas. Hers is an entirely different style of acting to Chancellor’s who plays Lucia as a sympathetic, earthed character with a flat understated brogue. From the moment she wakes Lucia is on stage. She emotes. Chancellor tries to make you like Lucia. McEwan doesn’t bother because she knows Benson gives her all the best lines and storylines.

I didn’t know what to make of Miranda Richardson’s Miss Mapp other than to hope she wins best supporting dentures at next year’s BAFTA awards. Richardson’s Mapp isn’t so much prickly as utterly malignant and bordering on the deranged. She’s a hateful human being that you can’t imagine being a benign chatelaine of Mallards or friend to the Haute Ton of Tilling. In Benson’s books and the 80s TV adaptation, Miss Mapp is a worthy adversary of Lucia’s whose anger is occasionally righteous when Lucia is being a prig. Richardson’s Miss Mapp is positively diabolical.

Perhaps Chancellor and Richardson have brought too modern an approach to Mapp & Lucia when what’s called for is artfulness and artifice. I thought Pemberton’s performance as fey, delicate Georgie was absolutely pitch perfect for being camp and mannered. Same goes for Mark Gatiss as Major Benjy who had some terrific banter with Georgie’s tweedy, Sapphic sisters in the second episode involving the alcoholic curry cook Guru…a story line stolen from another book.

Benson paints his characters with a broad brushstroke reserving the detailed work for the dialogue. On the detail Pemberton does occasionally fall down. Miss Mapp would never say she was ‘under a lot of stress’ neither would she invite a bridge party to take ‘more food’. He might not have allowed Miss Mapp to become apoplectic with rage when confronting Lucia because such emotions would be out of character or suppressed in polite society.

For the most part I adored seeing Benson’s Mapp and Lucia come back to life in 2014. The supporting cast of Diva, Quaint Irene, Mr and Mrs Wyse and the Padre and Evie were for the most part terrific. But muddling Benson’s story lines is not the way to a Luciaphile’s heart. A number of novelists have been given permission to write new Lucia books and none could step as lightly as Benson around the social minefield he planted. The 80s TV adaptation was true to Benson’s novels. As pretty as the new version might be it doesn’t come close to the glory of McEwan and Scales in all their pomp.