A Game Of Croquet

A set of all 6 Mapp And Lucia novels has been on the shelf in the Book And Record Bar in West Norwood for a while now – if you stare hard enough, you can make out the titles of Lucia In London and Queen Lucia faded out after years sunbathing on a shelf somewhere. Rather than read them all I thought I would first of all try the TV adaptations. I do at least remember trailers for the 1980s version, since they seemed very odd in the Channel 4 schedule at a time when Channel 4 was still the station known for Brookside, The Tube, and absolutely all “alternative culture” that was too tasty for BBC2 (Veronica 4 Rose and so on).

The adaptation ran in 2 series of 5 episodes, each 50 minutes, and altogether taking up the stories from the 3 later novels that had both titular characters.

We start with a title sequence based on the style of 1930s advertising imagery of the countryside, scrolling past until we see the 2 ladies together, Mapp (Prunella Scales) and Lucia (Geraldine McEwan).

We start with Lucia in mourning, in her home in Riseholme.

The first series all occurs in 1930-1. The second is not dated exactly but we can infer it is set in 1936-7 due to references to Anglo-Italian relations now being fraught (after the Abyssinia Crisis) and Lucia mentioning the failings of the League Of Nations when she needs to feign an interest in current affairs; also notice a reference to Stanley Baldwin.

Lucia’s friend and dear companion is the rather petulant toupee-wearing bachelor Georgie Pillson, played in this version by Nigel Hawthorne.

Georgie and Lucia loved to chatter childishly and overuse the small number of Italian words and phrases they have learned, and also plinking away at the piano together. “Lucia” is in fact just a pet-name, she is Emmeline Lucas, and in this version she lives in a state of constant delight at her own existence and the games she and dear Georgie play together.

They travel to Tilling in Kent to rent a house available in the summer from Elizabeth Mapp, who they met when she stayed in Riseholme on holiday. They also meet the local characters that include Major Benjy, who retired to Tilling after 25 years in the King’s service in India, and Mr and Mrs Wyse.

There is also “Quaint” Irene Coles, local artist, who dresses rather unusually for a young woman and is notable for mainly putting nude figures in her artworks.

Before leaving Riseholme, Lucia gives a triumphant performance as Queen Elizabeth knighting dear Georgie in the role of Francis Drake, and calling on her nation at Tilbury.

In Tilling she is soon trying to establish herself in the same Queenly manner, and coming up against Mapp’s sense of authority. We are set for a long game as Mapp tries to expose the pretensions of the outsider, whilst Lucia tries to build influence and alliances to establish her own pre-eminence. Prunella Scales seems to be developing an early version of what we later see as her own Queen Elizabeth in A Question Of Attribution.

In this world, not everything is spoken about, but no one is in any doubt that not everything is what it should be. Quaint Irene does her turn as a sailor boy reciting a dirty version of “The Boy Stood On The Burning Deck” at the Tilling Fete that Lucia organises.

PADRE: Miss Coles – ma wee choir are askin’ for ya to repeat ya Hornpipe, or they won’t go home.

IRENE: Oh well – the boys all know I’m a girl, and the girls know I look like a boy, so here goes…

Lucia is simply radiant as Britannia, and even Mapp is moved by the beauty of the moment.

There are of course servants making everything work in this world, and they’re not stupid, in fact we can see them chuckling and plotting amongst themselves a few times. It’s not quite Loving, but it’s not so far away. When Lucia dabbles in local politics she makes a point of wanting to clear slums and provide work for the unemployed – not out of any particular radicalism, but simply as a safeguard against tiresome unrest. “Socialists” and “the Bolsheviks” are the troublemakers who have stirred up discontent amongst the lower orders, though luckily it doesn’t seem to be focussing on any action. The real gentry – represented by “the Duchess of Sheffield”, played by Irene Handl – are rather overpowering for poor Lucia and it seems she feels left out and rather small in their presence.

The filming is mostly studio sets and there are a limited range of tricks – having the characters chatting in a car is the most sophisticated we can stretch to, and when they do a scene on bicycles we just have to watch them approaching the camera from a distance.

The 2014 version is a different world. We don’t have a regular title sequence, but rather sweep in to a scene and make the most of the fidgety eyepiece jumping around and giving us multiple angles and blowing the faces up to fill the screen, and lingering over details in case we missed them. We are given no opportunity to miss the fact that Major Benjy has a drink problem, for example. The story now cuts out Riseholme entirely, apart from a newspaper reference to the Fete and the performance as Elizabeth.

We start in with Mapp (played by Miranda Richardson as a curtain-twitching gossip) whose world is interrupted by the newcomers who have answered her advert. Anna Chancellor and Steve Pemberton (who wrote this adaptation) are the summer visitors.

Mark Gatiss is Major Benjy.

The trouble with cutting out Lucia’s background and her playtime with Georgie is that she now seems rather more grown-up and sensible especially as she has her black mourning outfit on and we haven’t seen her giggling away indoors. She is an adult woman looking with amazement at the silly duplicitous teenager Mapp. This changes the nature of the comedy: in the 80s version, we have 2 spoiled princesses vying against each other. One of them is more entitled and self-indulgent and thus overreaches herself; the other is usually at bay, but forced into scheming more effectively. But now we have a straight, sensible Lucia reacting to the comically excessive Mapp.

There is another area in which ambiguities have been removed which were present in the earlier version: we now have no doubt at all about Quaint Irene and her lifestyle, but this Lucia does not respond to her rather gauche expressions of adoration when she’s leaving. So now one of them definitely is and the other definitely isn’t, whereas we were not so sure in the 80s how far the playfulness went and what other scenes were being discreetly left out. Irene is also now apparently aligned with modernism and in favour of strange abstract painting, which she didn’t care for previously. We now also have a moment where the servants explain to each other that Mr Georgie is “not the marrying kind”, in case we didn’t understand that either.

This version includes the story of the fake “guru” who turns up in Tilling and does well at hoaxing the ladies that he is a master of yoga.

Having Lucia seeming a calm, mature figure at the start makes it hard to bring in her own deceptions later, about her competence as a pianist and as an Italian speaker. They now just seem like moments of pretentiousness from an otherwise rather conventional, almost suburban personality, rather than her normal mode that is only occasionally dialled down. As I have not read the books I do not know which version is truer to the literary sources, but I prefer the McEwan Lucia in the same way I prefer Sean Connery’s “James Bond” to the one that Ian Fleming put in his books. I think it’s probably true that Daniel Craig’s version is “closest to the books”… but that’s a large part of why he’s my least favourite of the film Bonds.

Compare the two versions of the scene where Lucia and Georgie realise they will be exposed as frauds by the arrival of an Italian Contessa. When Geraldine McEwan says the line in full fruitiness and gesturing at her hapless companion, it’s perfection.

LUCIA: It is ridiculous that we have to break ourselves of the habit of doing something we can’t do.

When it’s Steve Pemberton doing a weaker version, there’s just no energy. These people are just fakes without any style.

GEORGIE: It’s odd we have to break ourselves of the habit of doing something we can’t actually do.

Whilst Lucia is quieter and calmer, everyone else has become louder and rather vulgar, in fact standards of etiquette seem to have fallen away quite a bit in this Tilling. Oddly, the servants don’t benefit, as they seem blander and less mindful of the antics around them. Miranda Richardson is pulling all sorts of ugly grimaces that a respectable lady should not let out, they belong in a TV sitcom about people much lower down in the ranks of the middle classes. There are many occasions when conversation simply dries up amongst the Tilling set, when any decent person would have politely kept it going. This is a version of Tilling that has been rather de-classed, and is following social standards that had loosened and coarsened over the post-war years, more like the Tilling as it might have been in 1985.

How would Mapp and Lucia have coped with the world that was coming after 1940, when their creator died? There seems to be quite a collection of works by other writers extending their universe, but I don’t go in for that sort of thing. Perhaps we can get an idea of post-war Tilling from a different novel I have read recently: Tea Is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex, first published 1950 and reprinted 70 years later by the British Library. I have tried to find an image of its original dust jacket but unfortunately the only copy for sale anywhere on the internet doesn’t have one, but here’s an image of its interior:

Tea rooms are not too lower-class – Miss Diva set one up in Tilling. Ex Navy officer David Tompkins has his heart on the project of running one in the village of Wellhurst, but he hasn’t done enough research on the difficulties as well as the extent of local resistance. The cottage he bought there wasn’t too good either, and he’s simply had to get used to its deficiencies, just as his wife Germayne – who left the financially more secure Digby in order to marry him – has had to adapt to all of his deficiencies that were only apparent once they were living together.

There are plenty of ways in which the world has become harder for those who were comfortable before 1939. A maid is described as “a vulgar-speaking girl, but these days one couldn’t be choosey about whom one engaged or not. One had to take what offered itself.” Some of those social improvements that Lucia was vaguely in favour of are now occurring, but not under the direction of gentlefolk.

Mrs Arbroath ran the village. She selected the incumbent, she directed the local doctor as to his duty, she found fault with builders who dared put up anything without her permission; even though it was on land she did not possess….

In the luxurious period before the first world war was here, nobody had questioned her rights; during that world war, which she had considered to be most irregular, she had had rows with special constables about her lights which were always showing, and she had written to The Times about the disgusting behaviour of young women in knickerbockers who tilled the land, they said, for patriotic purposes; but she was sure that they did it from an entirely different reason.

…Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan….

She saw Wellhurst spread and grow larger; its character altered, and not for the better. Not only the character of the village street but of the people. Really, she would never have believed that a people could alter so much. Where are we going? was her constant moan.

Furthermore:

It was entirely the fault of the government. All the poor people were becoming so rich in such an atrocious way that it left well-intentioned ladies of the manor like herself to study their passbooks very closely indeed.

Rationing still exists, including petrol and the regulations around the different kinds that are restricted for special uses. The very earliest forms of teenager are appearing, but they haven’t become their own tribe.

Yet in many ways this is still a world Mapp and Lucia would appreciate. Major Benjy still exists here, in the form of Colonel Blandish, who also served many years near Poona, though he has nothing to say about the process of Indian independence that would be occurring at the time of this story.

Colonel Blandish was a middle-aged, rather obese gentleman who lived at The Hawthorns and strutted about Wellhurst proclaiming his somewhat spirited plans for recruiting the manhood of England. He was something important in the Conservative Party; he sat on all the platforms and presided over all meetings, always making his voice heard….

He had never married.

Colonel Blandish, the great white hope of all the spinsters and widows, had been stationed in India with the Madras something-or-others, which had given him a passion for curry and a liver like lead. He was relict of Simla and Poona, the little magnet of all the hill stations, and sought after most unprofitably by mothers with unmarried daughters. But he had managed to stay the course. He could do anything with the women, for he had charm. He called it the Simla finesse, and the Poona technique. He had been called the Casanova of Calcutta – he was a good-looking man – and his reputation had gone far.

At the end of his army career a thoughtful aunt of his had died leaving him sufficient money to buy The Hawthorns, and he was now running Wellhurst much as he had run the Madras something-or-others.

Wellhurst is a place where gossip spreads fast and it plays to old prejudices, for example against a couple who are living together without being properly married. Even if the paperwork is sorted out soon after, the stain remains. The local vicar can be urged to “say something”, although he prefers to avoid such confrontations (he is more concerned at hearing that some households are becoming “chapelish” in their worship).

But there’s a terrible sadness in all this, of lives set to run on rails that no longer exist or are heading off into sidings.

The heart of Mrs Arbroath was extremely lonely. She hungered and thirsted for love, and had never really had it, for, although she was for ever eulogising the departed Derek, in truth he had been a poor thing; he had done what he was told on all occasions…

Every night she went to bed with one of those entertaining books sent to her by post from a London library; it was the kind that she felt she ought to read but would like nobody else to see. She ordered these books surreptitiously from the librarian, who, as she packed them up, would say wearily, “Here’s more dirt for Wellhurst”.

Another outsider in Wellhurst is Mimi, the refugee from Vienna who turns up to fill the vacancy for a cake cook at the new tea house. Mimi is a rather morally ambiguous character, despite her Funny Foreigner accent. We understand she has done whatever was necessary to get to England, and is not being at all honest about her background or intentions. When two men from her past finally turn up, she goes on the run again. In the mean time she can turn the heads of all the soft men in the vicinity and get them to believe that the new tea house might actually be a good idea. Men are really idiots; in this new world it’s time for women to stop standing behind them and come forward to be in charge for themselves.

”I’m terribly sorry for her.”

”We’ve got to do something.”

”But what?” asked Digby amiably. It was plain that he had no ideas. (Men never have, thought Gertrude, they always expect women to think up something for them.)

Although poor old David is in the end literally knocked down and out by events, there’s something terribly sad about his failure, after trying so hard to get everything ready and being fooled and cheated at every turn. I really wanted a surprise happy ending for the sad tea house “with the melancholy umbrellas like futurist mushrooms”. What is striking when reading his scenes now is that his author may – in all the sniggering about his lack of “grey matter” – without realising it, be describing a person that we would now call “neurodivergent”.

He felt dull. The trouble was he was beginning to realise that life was passing him by; few people really understood him, and he was one of those men who ached to be popular. Perhaps that was the one thing that had stood out prominently in the whole of his life, this yearning to popularise himself, and it didn’t seem to matter what he did or said, he could never popularise himself, because people didn’t really like him. In the Navy he had never been able to swagger into the Gun Room in the comfortable, matey way that some of them did. He had hardly made friends with anybody, because somehow or other he seemed to become gauche and awkward, whilst he was frantically trying to summon the grey matter and find something clever to say.

At the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., he had been left out of it. The trouble was that he could never forget himself and therefore be carefree and happy; he was always wondering what kind of an effect his conversation was making on the listener, and whether he was showing up in the right light, or something of that kind.

Something is wrong and nobody has a word for it, or at least not any time to find out what that something needs to be named. But in the meantime the jolly old world goes on as the sad people put on their faces and pass the gossip with a little dose of salt or sugar as it requires.

Because I don’t have the original cover of Tea Is So Intoxicating, or Prunella as the Queen, instead here’s Prunella with some tea.

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