On Keeping Up Appearences

I have loved watching Keeping Up Appearances for years, so it would be no surprise to talk about this very funny show. According to “Women in the Box: Hyacinth Bucket, Keeping Up Appearances“:

The mere mention of an invitation to her candlelight suppers sent people fleeing, milk men tried to hire scouts to venture to her door rather than approach it themselves, and if you ever dared called her “Bucket” instead of “Bouquet” she could make your blood run cold with little more than the dreaded wince/withering stare combo.

If she lived in Westeros, even Tywin Lannister would say, “screw this” and hand over the Iron Throne rather than listen to another story about her dear son Sheridan. The “she” in question is Hyacinth Bucket, the lady of the house and star of the wildly successful British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995).

Keeping Up Appearances often treated Hyacinth, who was played by the great screen and stage actress Patricia Routledge, as if she were Godzilla with exquisite table manners and an impressive collection of hats. Hyacinth came from a lower class background, one that her sisters Rose (Shirley Stelfox, season one; Mary Millar, seasons two-five) and Daisy (Judy Cornwell) were living reminders of, and she spent nearly every episode dreaming up schemes to climb the social ladder.

Thanks to her long-suffering husband Richard (Clive Swift), Hyacinth had a comfortable lifestyle, but without realizing it, she always carried with her the whiff of new money. Many episodes revolved around her attempts to one-up the neighbors by touring expensive country homes (season four’s “Looking at Properties”), pretending to shop for an expensive vacation (season three’s “How To Go On Holiday Without Really Trying (Travel Brochure)”), or forcing poor Richard to smile while gardening so the neighbors would assume they didn’t have a gardener because Richard enjoyed the hobby so much. In fact, Richard’s gardening techniques were always up for critique. “If you have to perspire, I wish you’d go into the back garden, so as not to disturb the people who respect us socially,” Hyacinth informs him in season one’s “The New Vicar.”

The sad truth is as outlandish as Hyacinth’s behavior seems, she is, at least to some degree, an accurate representation of the small section of the middle class that are both socially-obsessed and snobbish. Part of what made the series so entertaining is that, chances are, you’ve met a Hyacinth. During the recession, the phrase “Hyacinth Bucket Syndrome” was floated to describe the refusal to downsize for fear of what the neighbors might think. Of course, Hyacinth’s behavior is in no way exclusive to her gender; there are plenty of male Hyacinths out there as well, and Hyacinth owes a great deal to at least one of them.

Most of the women we’ve discussed prior to Hyacinth have been essentially likable characters, and while I believe it’s easy to admire Hyacinth’s headstrong nature (she may be totally oblivious, but you have to give her credit for her unwavering confidence), she is the first truly abrasive protagonist we’ve discussed. But there’s a fine line between abrasive and funny and she has her male counterpart Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) of the classic Fawlty Towers to thank for drawing that line in the comedic sand. Basil paved the way for Hyacinth to be as obliviously awful and pretentious as she possibly could be without speeding by hilarious into insufferable territory. The key difference between Hyacinth and Basil is that Basil had human foils. His wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) was always around to call him on his schemes to weed out the riff-raff and attract a more bourgeois clientele for his decrepit hotel, and in the 1979 episode “Waldorf Salad,” he meets his match in an easily outraged American. But Hyacinth? Hyacinth was too terrifying to illicit anything beyond whispers of “that Bucket woman” behind her back.

Much of the series’ humor came from Hyacinth’s complete lack of awareness that the people she foisted herself upon were appalled by her antics. To Hyacinth’s mind, she was a beloved and indispensable member of the community. To everyone else she was a nuisance. The one person she could count as a true friend was Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson) her nervous next-door neighbor who was routinely held hostage at tea time where Hyacinth would jangle her nerves so badly that Elizabeth always found a way to either spill her tea or break a piece of Hyacinth’s “Royal Doulton china with the hand-painted periwinkles.”

What Hyacinth lacked in human foils, she more than made up for with her own foibles. Hyacinth’s grand schemes always went awry, creating situations where the series was most definitely asking us to laugh at her, rather than with her. Routledge was so gifted at physical comedy it is no wonder the writers found plenty of creative ways to orchestrate situations where Hyacinth would fall overboard from her “yacht” (in actuality it was a tiny boat) or become trapped in a compromising situation with her husband (see the classic scene in this 1993 interview with Judy Spiers). Hyacinth was an expert at backing herself into social corners she couldn’t wriggle her way out of, simply because she couldn’t be content with the lifestyle she had. It was the overreaching that always did her in.

Hyacinth’s supposed acts of kindness were always covers for social advancement. In the season five outing “Skis,” she purchases Richard, who has no interest in skiing, a set of skis for his birthday and then forces him to parade them around town sticking out through the windows of their car, so the neighbors can see their affluence in all of its ski-shaped glory. The situation becomes even more ludicrous when they happen upon two elderly women Hyacinth would like to become closer to and Hyacinth insists that they allow her to give them a ride in the car, where they’re trapped by the skis, and then rather than taking them where they want to go, she takes them to see her wealthy sister Violet (“the one with a Mercedes, swimming pool, sauna, and room for a pony”—as well as a cross-dressing husband and a crumbling marriage, but Hyacinth tends to leave that bit out).

It wasn’t until season five (in “A Barbeque at Violet’s”) that Richard snaps and yells at Hyacinth for provoking a man in a telephone booth. “Well done, sir. In war-time, you would have gotten a medal for courage like that,” the man tells Richard, but Richard’s outburst is a one-time only occurrence.

For five seasons, Hyacinth is allowed to blithely insult and rule over everyone she encounters. She is particularly nasty to her sisters and brother-in-law Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes) who often insists on speaking to her while wearing only a vest just to annoy her. Whenever Rose and Daisy show up at functions or at the Bucket house unexpectedly, Hyacinth either orders Richard to send them away or she does her best to usher them out of sight herself—a feat made all the more difficult by the trademark backfire of Onslow’s car that heralded their arrival.

In her own way, Hyacinth did love her family, she just preferred for them to stay out of sight. Her interventions in Rose’s (whose love life was as legendary as her moody post-breakup dramatics) attention grabbing theatrics were admirable in a way. But Hyacinth’s most interesting familial relationship was the one she had with her senile Daddy. While she spoke fondly of her father, she never allowed him to move in with her and Richard, instead she left him in the care of Rose, Daisy, and Onslow. This led to a series of misadventures where Daddy would occasionally ride naked through the streets on his bicycle, collect horse manure for his chilblains, accost any and all women he encounter and have the occasional war-time flashback and stand guard at the door wearing a gas mask and carrying a bayonet (a situation only Hyacinth is daring enough to defuse). Of course, Hyacinth would always find a way to spin his behavior to come off as heroic or innocent, both to save face and to encourage her own delusions of her perfect lifestyle.

Still, despite her many flaws and oppressive personality, Hyacinth is a trailblazer of sorts. Few female characters have ruled over their world with such a pristine-white gloved clad iron fist, and in an age when we prefer our protagonists to wallow in their worst features (paging Walter White and Don Draper), Hyacinth would fit right in– while proudly standing ten feet away from them with her head held high because she would never stand so close to a dirty meth dealer or a boozy ad man. After all, what would the neighbors think?

According to the blogcritics DVD review:

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.


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