Mapp & Lucia: Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor in Rye
PUBLISHED: 10:02 23 December 2014 | UPDATED: 10:50 23 December 2014
E.F. Benson's pastiches of upper-middle class society in Rye have been adapted for the BBC, with Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor sinking their teeth into the starring roles…and one another
Lamb House, Rye: on one of the hottest days of the year, Miranda Richardson, swaddled in layers and woollen tights, is fuming.
Or rather her character is. For Miss Mapp, one half of a social-climbing duo whose clashes provide much-savoured drama to the self-styled bohemian enclave of Tilling, is given to anger, susceptible to the smallest slight.
This new adaptation of E.F. Benson’s waspish, interbellum comedies of manners has been written by Steve Pemberton, a League of Gentleman alumnus and devotee of the books. The titans clashing against the picturesque backdrop of Tilling are the eponymous characters, with Lucia (real name Mrs Emmeline Lucas), played by Anna Chancellor, a master-manipulator who charms everyone except her embattled adversary.
Rye’s remarkably rich literary and artistic heritage is well-known, and E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories put it centre stage. Although he renamed the town, Tilling’s geography and character are recognisably those of Rye, where Benson lived and even became Town Mayor. The screamingly funny characters sometimes reveal a darker subtext, with frustrated women practising their schemes on a male population decimated by World War One, as well as each other.
A highly acclaimed previous series, with Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales in the starring roles, casts a long shadow. But this adaptation has a cast list so unassailably correct that it will surely eclipse its predecessor. Miranda Richardson is at her best playing fizzing and querulous and Anna Chancellor has just the right combination of dash and hauteur. Writer Steve Pemberton plays Lucia’s loyal lieutenant Georgie Pilson (“a wonderful character – as soon as I knew I was doing the adaptation I had my eye on him”). Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss plays Major Benjy. The ensemble cast also includes Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan and Felicity Montagu, the long-suffering Lynn of Alan Partridge fame.
A RYE SENSE OF HUMOUR
Filming took place over nine weeks in summer, with 12-hour days and high temperatures. “The locals have been very patient,” says Steve, “because obviously we have taken up nine weeks of their time. But we haven’t had people shouting at us or pelting us with stones.” Indeed, pedestrians happily stood by and watched filming, admiring the freshly painted façade of Quaint Irene’s house, Taormina, or the church noticeboard, adorned with handwritten notices in keeping with the period.
As filming wrapped, the garden at Lamb House was dotted with off-duty actors gossiping, cloche hats protecting them from the beating sun.
On the day I visited, there was something of a carnival atmosphere on set. Cast and crew, led by Anna Chancellor, were looking forward to a post-work dip in the Channel, near her home in Hastings.
The production found a welcoming home in Rye. Many of the extras were recruited from the area (the fishmonger played a fishmonger, the butcher skinned a rabbit in one scene). The producer and a lighting technician hail from Hastings. The only fly in an otherwise fragrant ointment was the presence of the local seagulls, who woke everyone at dawn and splattered original vintage costumes (not to mention their wearers), with guano.
“What’s not to like about Lucia? Lucia’s hilarious,” said Anna Chancellor, gleaming with pleasure. “She is very, very mean and…she’s just right into the corners of human nature. Everything that’s fun to play.” In the 1940s, authors including Nancy Mitford and Noel Coward took out an advertisement in The Times claiming “We will pay anything for Lucia books.” Out of print at the time, the books have a huge cult following all these years later, as attested by the number of E.F. Benson appreciation societies – The Friends of Tilling (whose President is Gyles Brandreth) enjoy an annual Gathering in Rye and acolytes share catchphrases like “au reservoir” (the de rigueur sign-off for Tilling’s socialites).
Part of the reason for that longevity is that Benson’s wit and lightness of touch conceal real pathos. Reading the books is almost like biting into a poisoned apple, as the characters conceal their Machiavellian intentions with exaggerated sweetness. Whole feuds are instigated because of mere trifles, reported Steve Pemberton: “There’s a quote attributed to Kissinger about academic politics, where he said that they were often so vicious because the stakes were so low. That’s what Mapp and Lucia is all about. It’s about elevating a snub in the high street to an act of war.”
Anna Chancellor agreed: “It’s a military operation. She is like a general and E.F. Benson was a very highly educated and sensitive person, so he’s writing what is very light and amusing, but he sees these thwarted women with nothing to do.
“One war’s just over and another is approaching and that is the backdrop to this generation: they have lost a whole generation of men. That’s not going to go for nothing. There are these dominant women.”
THE WELL OF LONELINESS
“This is a comedy, but there are serious issues, and I think the issues that are just below the surface are loneliness, boredom and lack of purpose,” said Miranda. “It’s absolutely good to have those undertones because it means you earn the comedy.”
She also pointed to parallels with the world political stage of the time: “The characters are looking for a leader and that might have political overtones in some respects. They get their comeuppance and they understand something more about themselves, as we might. The characters they look up to are also very frail.”
So Quaint Irene, a broadly comic and energetic character whose mockery finds its mark in Mapp, bears a tragic and unrequited love for Lucia. “Radclyffe Hall, who lived here at the same time as E.F. Benson, was, I think, a great influence on this character, so I read a lot about her and how she was accepted. It’s nice to have that reference and to be in the place where it happened,” commented Gemma Whelan, who plays the character.
Really though, there is no sex in Tilling. “It has no part to play,” laughs Steve.
MAPP TO THE STARS
Not having read the books, Miranda Richardson dipped into them on Steve Pemberton’s advice and was immediately drawn in: “I probably thought they would be quite frothy and superficial. There was some quite juicy stuff in the books. Behind the façade it is very perceptive and complex. A sign of good writing is when you can see different levels and hear different ways of interpreting it. These are not caricatures. They are satirical and timeless and you just want to give as many layers to them as possible.”
In the books, Lucia usually emerges victorious but, says Miranda, “The trouble is that Mapp is usually right about what she thinks, she just goes about things in the wrong way. She does ultimately have a win. In quite a childlike way, we don’t always want the person we think is going to win, to do so. I have a great friend who writes children’s books and she’s very aware that her rather wicked little creation should sometimes get the better of parents, teachers, or whoever.”
And so she disappears; Mapp returning to battle.
I didn’t want to leave the gardens of Lamb House that hot day in July. But the series screens on BBC1 this month as part of the Christmas schedule, so mercifully it’s not goodbye, just “au reservoir”.
FILMING IN RYE
Filming took place in and around Lamb House, West Street, Rye, as well as other Sussex locations, and the actors relaxed in the beautiful garden between takes. The production team even built a false window for the house. Unfortunately Lamb House is closed in December, but for opening times in 2015 visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lamb-house or telephone 01580 762334.
Other locations used in the production include: Camber Sands, Hastings Old Town, Royal Victoria Hotel Hastings and Bexhill seafront.
Recently the area has played host to many other productions such as Foyle’s War. Films have included The Invisible Woman, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, Mounuments Men (George Clooney), Byzantium with Gemma Arterton, and Mr Holmes with Ian McKellen.
Debbie Clifford, 1066 Film Liaison Officer, said: “The 1066 Film Office will continue to encourage the film and television industry to use our locations to bring added benefits to the local economy. Films depicting the UK are responsible for generating around a 10th of overseas tourism revenue and we are fortunate to be in a position to capitalise on the popularity of Foyle’s War and hopefully that of Mapp & Lucia, when it is viewed on TV.”