In the U.S., either you get the appeal of the grating, social-climbing, oblivious-to-all-but-herself Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet”), or you don’t. Few Americans I know who’ve seen the 1990s British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, starring the one-of-a-kind Patricia Routledge, find themselves indifferent to its comically overdrawn characters, its broad and endlessly repeating jokes and slapstick, above all its monstrous central personality of Hyacinth. Love or hate – those are the two common reactions.
The brilliance of Keeping Up Appearances derives in large part from the way its stellar cast brings to exceedingly colorful life their cleverly written characters, created by reclusive writer Roy Clarke, who, I learned from watching the interviews included in the new 10-disc box set from BBC Home Entertainment, visited the set only once during the show’s entire run. I also learned that there was considerable friction between Clarke and producer-director Harold Snoad during the run, but I’d never have guessed that from the creatively consistent (if not entirely consistently creative) final product.
Routledge decided to move on with the show at the height of its popularity, a wise move in retrospect, as hints of self-parody and bits of wan plotting were starting to crop up in the later episodes. Watch in one go the unbrokenly brilliant five half-hours of the first series, try to stop laughing, then pop in one of the last discs and you might note a bit of a droop.
What I’ve always loved about the show, besides the merits noted above, is its comfortably self-contained world, the kind of creation that can take the viewer entirely away from the stresses of real life. Hyacinth and her long-suffering, henpecked husband Richard live in a modest house in a bland if pleasant suburb somewhere in England, where Hyacinth constantly talks to anyone in earshot about her prized Royal Doulton china “with hand-painted periwinkles” and her “white slim-line telephone with last-number redial.” (In a late episode she does some very funny business with a newly acquired mobile phone too.)
In a down-and-out neighborhood across town live the banes of Hyacinth’s existence, her slovenly sister and brother-in-law Daisy and Onslow and trampy sister Rose. These folks, a British version of what Americans might disparage as “white trash,” constantly intrude on Hyacinth’s snobbish aura of gracious living and ruin her attempts to insinuate herself further into higher society.
As Hyacinth is constantly reminding her nervous next-door neighbor Elizabeth (played by the wonderful comic actress Josephine Tewson), she does have relatives who make her proud. Her sister Violet, who married a successful businessman (alas for Hyacinth’s pretensions, he’s also a cross-dresser), lives in a large house with a “Mercedes, sauna, and room for a pony.” There’s also her fey son Sheridan, away at University and clearly (to anyone but his adoring mother) gay. We encounter Sheridan only through Hyacinth’s side of their phone conversations, in which he inevitably asks for money. And there’s the sisters’ elderly and senile but randy father, who lives with Daisy, Onslow, and Rose when he’s not running away and getting into all sorts of comical and embarrassing trouble.
“Everyone knows a Hyacinth,” says Tewson in one of the informative if repetitious interviews collected on one of the Extras discs. I certainly did. Hyacinth is just an exaggerated version. “She’s larger than life,” says Routledge of her most famous role, “she’s overwhelming, and I think people who are overpowering and overwhelming and see life only on their own terms are monsters, minor or major.”
“Monster” isn’t a word we usually associate with comedy, but think about it. Take your own traits, your own foibles and flaws, to their extremes, and wouldn’t you be monstrous? Wasn’t Al Bundy a bit of a monster? Even Archie Bunker had his monstrous side.
Keeping Up Appearances ran for five seasons (five “series” in British TV terminology) during the first half of the 1990s for a total of 45 episodes. They’re all included on this 10-DVD set, including the four Christmas specials, one of those an extended-length installment in which Hyacinth and Richard set off for a cruise aboard the QE2, miss the boat at Southampton, and catch up with it in Copenhagen, only to find Onslow has one-upped them by winning first-class accommodations for Daisy and himself on the very same cruise. The final scene, in which Hyacinth dances with Onslow, cutting loose yet magically not breaking character, is one of the great comic moments of the series, Hyacinth finally finding herself in a gracious milieu to which she’s dreamed of becoming accustomed, but forced to resign herself to sharing the dance floor with the oafish Onslow in order to truly fit in.
“Pretension is the very stuff of comedy,” says Routledge in one of the included interviews, “pretension that doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do.” She mentions characters from classic theater like Shakespeare’s Malvolio and Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop as antecedents of Hycacinth. “They’re all over the world.” Modern American audiences might see a descendant of Hyacinth in some of the characters on the currently popular Portlandia. (A character on that show wanted to know if the chicken on the menu was happy on its farm. Hyacinth wanted to know that her milkman is delivering a product deriving from cows who graze on a stately farm.) Or they might see Hyacinths in the real-life hipsters walking the streets of places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Maybe the Hyacinth in your life is your aunt or your mother-in-law.
The first of the two Extras discs has two long and gimmicky clip shows you won’t need to see if you’ve watched the series lately. The second disc includes a batch of interviews, a Funny Women profile of Routledge, and a set of her “Kitty Monologues” from the 1980s sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen On TV. The latter confirm the observation that some British comedy, Keeping Up Appearances being a fine example, translates well for Americans, while other British comedy remains well-nigh incomprehensible. Fortunately, there’s nothing hard to understand about Hyacinth and her world, as two generations of public television fans have found out. Now you can too.