Devotees of EF Benson’s 1930s series of comic novels, Mapp and Lucia, are in for a treat this Christmas: a three-part adaptation penned by Steve Pemberton (above, playing Lucia’s camp, platonic friend Georgie), and starring Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor as the eponymous heroines.
For those yet to make her acquaintance, Miss Mapp resides in a quaint Sussex town called Tilling where she’s always reigned supreme. That is, until she rents out her house to a widow – exquisitely fashionable, terribly cultured, Italian-speaking Lucia – and finally meets her match.
RadioTimes.com talks to the actresses about playing passive-aggressive with a smile, the 80s adaptation and whether it’s frustrating to still be best known as Queenie and Duckface after all these years…
Plays: Mrs Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas
After an uncompromising year of widowhood, Lucia’s decided to re-enter society, seeking fresh challenges and a summer’s lease of Miss Mapp’s home, Mallards. Vain, selfish, imperious, glorious, Lucia is a clear and present danger to Miss Mapp.
Best known as: Hugh Grant’s Charles’ whiny ex/fiancée Henrietta (aka Duckface) in Four Weddings and a Funeral
‘”I suppose it’s churlish to mind Duckface. Curiously, I’ve always adored ducks. It’s one of life’s ironies. I had a duck I adored and then lost, so in a way she stays with me.”
On Lucia: “Lucia’s just fabulous. It’s a part of a lifetime. She’s terribly overbearing and snobbish – and a total fraud. Lucia’s appalling. Luckily, Mapp’s appalling too.
“Playing passive-aggressive and playing war with a smile on your face is fun. There is endless manoeuvre with a saintly smile. Playing the big guns but with a cup of tea; macho emotions under a big hairdo.”
On Mapp and Lucia’s rivalry:
“They are alpha females. It’s just like Henry Kissinger said about American academia: ‘University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.’ They need to fight each other to feel alive.
“I personally like to be in a double-act, especially to be with someone that good. It raises your game. There’s always an edge of competitiveness with actors; there’s got to be. Even Judi Dench will be fighting her own stage.”
On EF Benson’s books:
“He’s got a very individual, very camp voice. It’s a world I know because I’ve done quite a lot of these gay 30s writers like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan. I enjoy this world. It’s a very articulate, funny world.
“EF Benson fondly recognises archetypes but they’re not caricatures; they’re more delicately drawn than that. That’s what you’re being asked to do: these broad characters delicately.”
On the 80s adaptation of Mapp and Lucia, which starred Geraldine McEwan as Lucia:
“I’ve never seen it. I’m a huge fan of Geraldine McEwan. You’re either going to be thinking: Geraldine didn’t do it like that or Geraldine was so successful doing it like that.”
On looking the part:
“Our French designer said: ‘‘Zere is nothing in London for you. Downton ‘as it all. We ‘ave to go to Paris!’
We went round the Parisian costume houses on motorbikes, the producer very worried we might not make it back. In fact, we didn’t: there was a strike, and we got stuck in Paris! So my costumes turned up in cardboard boxes and tissue paper, while Miranda’s were just hanging on pegs – very appropriate.”
Plays: Miss Elizabeth Mapp
A spinster with a shark-like grin and an appetite for social domination, Mapp is a formidable schemer. She considers herself the social arbiter of all things in Tilling – proud purveyor of garden produce, host of the most refined tea parties and woman in-the-know.
Best known as: Queen Elizabeth I (aka Queenie) in Blackadder II
“I don’t like labels of any kind but there’s nothing wrong with making people laugh and if that’s the legacy…I don’t think it’s something I particularly want perpetuated.”
“This was the heady period in between the wars when women inevitably took on different roles and had a purpose. I think boredom – she wouldn’t know it as such, it would be a sin to be bored – informs Mapp’s character.”
On Mapp and Lucia’s rivalry:
“They’re both cut from similar, competitive cloth. They become a codependent couple; by the end you can’t imagine one without the other.
“The director said he saw it like a military campaign, so that was fun to think about. What’s also fascinating is how easily everyone is harnessed – everybody except Mapp. Everybody gravitates to Lucia, like iron filings to a magnet. Mapp’s the only one going: ‘she’s a con!'”
On the 80s adaptation of Mapp and Lucia, starring Prunella Scales as Mapp:
“I didn’t see the older adaptation at the time and I haven’t yet. I think I saw about 10 minutes of one of them. I’m pleased because I don’t feel any particular threat from that.”
On looking the part:
“There’s a lot about teeth in the books and I felt mine were inadequate. So I asked if I could try false ones and I’m so glad I did. It was a little treat at the end of makeup: oh, there she is, there she blows.”
Mapp and Lucia begins on Monday 29th December, BBC1 at 9.05pm
Read Andrew Duncan’s interview with Miranda Richardson