Television's Mapp and Lucia a remorseless send-up of class
A worthy runner-up to PG Wodehouse in reducing to its absurdities the English snob tradition was E F Benson, who created Mapp and Lucia, Vibe's new Monday comedy-on-cobblestones.
From the minute the town bossy boots and Queen Bee Elizabeth Mapp waddles self-importantly into view, nothing springs to mind so quickly as that great Wodehouse line about interfering aunts calling to one another "like mastodons bellowing across the primeval swamp". Trouble is, Mapp isn't anybody's aunt or anything else, so in lieu of a family to terrorise, she domineers the blameless seaside village of Tilling.
Into this fiefdom glides Lucia, an elegant widow, drama-prone and utterly fraudulent, who tacitly threatens to steal Mapp's oxygen.
It's fair to warn that the caricatures and lurid over-acting will get on some viewers' nerves. To be reductive, this is a silly series of carryings-on by two women with too much time on their hands and a nasty bent toward narcissism. But those with a threshold for Wodehouse will delight in what is also a comedy of manners and a remorseless send-up of class distinctions. With ingenuity, these attention-junkie harridans can wage vicious war using the unpromising weapons to hand: floral decorations, tea settings and musical recitals.
These stories were first dramatised beautifully in the 80s, with Prunella Scales as the seething Mapp and Geraldine McEwan the infuriatingly fey Lucia. It's a hard act to top, but Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor are just as engaging, in their different, maddening portrayals.
Richardson sports subtly protuberant teeth, which she flashes and gnashes in such a way as a smile from her is like the threat of battery acid. Bristling with suppressed fury, she heaves about behind that scary rictus beam, plotting the downfall of the affected, but instantly popular woman who is her new tenant – watched by various town oddballs who quietly remark that Tilling is now on a war footing, but dare not volunteer for either side.
Lucia is outwardly languid, but all the time feverishly co-opting allies and ever so subtly putting the skids under Mapp's supremacy.
Setting aside the outmoded 1920s British class dimension, there's a timeless quality to Mapp and Lucia, as bossy-boots and manipulative slypusses will always be with us – albeit with better teeth than Mapp's and without the benefit of Lucia's teagowns.
ONE TO WATCH
Our Zoo, TV One, 8.45pm.
The penultimate episode of this dramatised history of the founding of the Chester Zoo, in which the Mottershead family has by now all but bankrupted itself, only to be met with council refusal for their permit.