At first glance, BBC1’s Christmas comedy of manners seems a world away from The League of Gentleman, the macabre cult sitcom in which Steve Pemberton made his name in the late 90s.
Whereas the latter was set in a bleak northern town overrun with grotesque eccentrics including a cannibal butcher, Mapp and Lucia takes place in the fictional Sussex town of Tilling, and is all quaint cobbled streets, church meetings and sunny garden parties.
Don’t be deceived, says Pemberton, who both adapted Mapp and Lucia from the books by EF Benson and plays Georgie Pilson, Lucia’s fey confidant. “Tilling also has its own rules and is in its own bubble, and what stirs it up is the arrival of the outsiders.”
Pemberton grew up in Chorley in Lancashire – his inspiration for the League – and believes you can find the same territorial battles and social one-upmanship in every village, town and city. Even in the prosperous corner of London where he resides nowadays.
“I’ve got kids at primary school so I’m very familiar with that north London hotbed of competitive mums and PTA committees. There’s an awful lot of what Benson is writing about.
“Any small community will have those universal things going on. I’ve always loved that kind of humour: the fact that every ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ is actually a dagger; that it’s all through smiles. It’s Dynasty with strawberries and cream.”
While there was no need for prosthetics or cross-dressing, Mapp and Lucia also allowed Pemberton to re-embrace his flamboyant side.
“In real life, I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy but I love dressing up. We’ve used the same costume designer we had for League of Gentlemen so I knew I would get some great creations.”
In addition to cape and colourful waistcoat, Pemberton as Georgie sports a toupee (he whips it off to reveal a monkish bald patch he’s conscientiously shaved underneath), and a carefully cultivated bushy moustache dyed garish red.
“I wanted to be very faithful to what Benson had written – and as the person who’d written it, I couldn’t really complain. It was fun to film like that but it wasn’t fun going home at the weekend and seeing my children run in absolute terror!”
Gloriously camp Georgie is certainly a change from the last time we saw him: as a corrupt accountant in Happy Valley. There’s also a deliciously brazen lesbian character – “Quaint Irene” – believed to be based on the openly lesbian author Radclyffe Hall who was a neighbour of Benson’s in Rye, which Tilling is based on.
“It’s assumed Benson was gay,” explains Pemberton. “He was one of six children. None of them married and they were all assumed to be gay or lesbian.
“He wrote a lot about female friendships and male friendships, and about Georgie’s terrible fear that Lucia will want to marry him, so I played on that with a couple of sequences where he has nightmares in which Lucia looms over him in a suggestive way – and enjoyed his discomfort!”
Pemberton discovered Mapp and Lucia as a teenager in the mid-80s. Entranced by a Channel 4 adaptation starring Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan, he sought out the original books and devoured them.
It was their mutual love of EF Benson that he and Mark Gatiss first bonded over when they arrived at Bretton Hall College in West Riding to study theatre arts a couple of years later. His first visit to Rye was for that other League alumnus Reece Shearsmith’s stag do: Pemberton was best man and organised a ghost tour.
Unsurprisingly, Gatiss didn’t take much persuading to play another of Tilling’s residents: whisky-supping, Bridge-obsessed Major Benji. Bar cameos, it’s the first time they’ve worked together since the League.
“That’s been one of the highs – one of the many highs – of doing it. Some people would have maybe thought of me for his role and him for my role but we always enjoyed doing that with The League of Gentlemen: playing different roles from what people would expect. It’s been tremendous fun.”
Unlike the 80s adaptation, Pemberton’s is actually filmed in Rye and in the stately home where Benson lived, Lamb House, which doubles as Lucia’s residence. “When I was writing it, I didn’t know whether we would get the permissions. I didn’t even come here because I didn’t want to build my hopes up.”
“It’s been very special that we have and that we’ve been filming so much in Lamb House where he actually sat looking out of the window, seeing the women of Rye bustling around with their baskets on their arms, gossiping – that’s what gave him all the ideas.”
Mapp and Lucia continues 30th and 31st December on BBC1, 9.00pm