When the BBC made the decision to dramatise Mapp and Lucia, EF Benson’s series of comic novels that parody the snobbery and pretensions of the upper-middle-classes in 1930s small-town Britain, the only possible place they could film the series was in picturesque Rye in East Sussex.
In the novels, Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas goes head-to-head in a humorous battle for social glory with busybody Miss Elizabeth Mapp in the fictional seaside town of Tilling. And Tilling is based firmly on the charming town of Rye, ten miles north of Hastings, which is where Benson lived and penned his stories.
“Remarkably, Rye is not that different from Mapp and Lucia, and the locals would admit that themselves,” explains series producer, Susie Liggat. “It’s a bohemian and eccentric place that’s very proud of its literary connections.”
Rye’s creative connections run deep. “A lot of literary characters and figures have lived in Rye over the years. It’s got a very artsy and creative feel about it,” says actor Steve Pemberton, who adapted the books for the small screen, and who plays fey Georgie Pillson, Lucia’s devoted best friend.
Anna Chancellor, who plays Lucia, agrees. “It’s extraordinary to actually film within the tiny little world that Benson wrote about. Everything that obsessed him is all here for us. It’s like being in a ready-made studio. And it’s so pretty.”
Rye’s Georgian Lamb House (inset, right) has been home to a number of literary greats. American novelist Henry James lived here from 1897 until 1916, a year later Benson moved in, and later still, novelist Rumer Godden, and publisher Brian Batsford took up tenancies.
Now owned by the National Trust, Lamb House became the model for Mallards in Mapp and Lucia, and doubled for the home of Elizabeth Mapp (and subsequently of Lucia). “It’s really interesting to be in the place where the story was set. You can see where the writers got their material. It feels like a lovely place to write and observe. You totally get it,” says Liggat.
Today, the public can visit Lamb House and wander around, viewing mementoes of its former occupants, and learn about its distinguished guests, including George I, who stayed at the house after a storm drove his ship ashore at Camber Sands in 1726.
“It really is a timeless place. You could close your eyes and open them and it could be the 1930s,” says Liggat. The jewel of the house is the pretty walled garden, which features in Benson’s novels.
“Henry James had designed this amazing garden room, which is referenced throughout Mapp and Lucia.” The room was hit by a bomb in the Second World War. “Luckily it only destroyed Benson’s wine collection!”
The production team had to build a temporary conservatory on the side of Lamb House to stay true to the original text. The National Trust is hoping that an increase in visitor numbers in the wake of the TV series will fund a permanent reconstruction of the garden room.
Meanwhile, Rye’s citadel area, filled with picturesque cobbled streets and clay-tiled roofs, serves as the backdrop of the comedy drama. The production took over the town last summer, shooting scenes in the peaceful Church Square and at St Mary’s Church (which has the oldest functioning pendulum clock in England).
Rye Castle, which is also called Ypres Tower, sits just above the Traders Arms pub in the series, and is seen on screen when Georgie paints a watercolour of its facade, while Rye’s Rectory doubles for Wasters, where Mapp is set to take up residence while Lucia is in town.
“It was delightful to be able to walk around and say, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s where that is’. Benson must have meant this!” says Miranda Richardson, who plays busybody Mapp.
Shopfronts in the old centre of town were transformed into 1930s-era greengrocers and butchers’ shops. Benson’s vision of Tilling was a seaside town, but Rye is four miles away from the nearest beach. All the seaside scenes were filmed at the spectacular Camber Sands, which are just a few miles away. Meanwhile, 24 miles inland, the production team used the vintage Tenterden Town Station to film the arrival of the Prince of Wales. As Liggat says, “It’s a beautiful steam train journey through East Sussex. We hired a couple of their trains, and they were kitted out for the 30s period.”