[5 January 2009]
From shrill harping to incessant “candlelight supper” invitations, Hyacinth Bucket (that’s pronounced “bouquet” – for additional social circle street cred) forces her vision of class and good breeding on her universally unwilling and generally captive audience: her neighbors, family, vicar, and ever-suffering husband, Richard (Clive Swift).
Patricia Routledge is outstanding as an abrasive British housewife who considers it her solemn duty to associate with the “right sort of people”, to maintain her spotlessly tidy house, and to keep the rest of her family in order. Routledge, in her 60s during the series, displays a finesse for physical comedy that balances the obnoxiousness of her character by making a bit of a fool of Hyacinth even as she strives for perfection.
Keeping Up Appearances consumes Hyacinth’s every waking moment, as she chastises her husband for chatting in the driveway – frightfully common, you know – and worries about her lower-class sisters from a nearby housing estate showing up and giving the wrong impression to the neighbors. Any tiny tidbit of gossip that she can use to her advantage is not wasted – and in her haste to one-up her neighbors and family she makes assumptions that prove comically false. Her senile father’s escape from home and adventures in the nude are always explained away by Hyacinth’s circular logic – “poor daddy” must have been saving someone from drowning!
Nothing clears a room like the promise of Hyacinth showing up to volunteer at a church fundraiser or local charity shop; even the vicar runs when he sees her approach. Passers-by the Bucket home actually hide behind shrubbery or duck below the low wall at the edge of the property to attempt to escape her notice. The milkman or any salesperson unfortunate enough to find Hyacinth at home is soon quite sorry; the postman attempts to put the mail through the front door’s slot without making any noise but he always gets caught on the doorstep.
Hyacinth is often to be found making bizarre phone calls – in season two she phones the local water supply station and wants to make sure that the water in her taps is her water, because it’s looking a bit less sparkly today – or receiving calls from her beloved university student son (who we never meet) on whom she dotes, though he always wants money. Hyacinth also manages to ignore every hint that Sheridan drops about his alternative lifestyle – she takes comfort in his disinterest in girls and thinks it’s marvelous that he has taken up needlepoint.
Sporadic calls to order Chinese takeout also filter in, as one of the ongoing jokes in the series – a mix up in the phone book for which Hyacinth at one point forces Richard to ring the Chinese Ambassador, as though it should be his problem. Hyacinth never fails to ring out: “Bucket residence, lady of the house speaking!” as she picks up her white Slimline telephone, and Routledge is superb at keeping up the one-sided phone conversations.
The Bucket’s cheerful neighbor, Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson), is generally unable to escape Hyacinth’s hospitality. British to a fault, Elizabeth considers it better to go along with Hyacinth’s frequent coffee break invites and homemaking quirks than to rock the boat. This is generally Richard’s philosophy as well, and he and Elizabeth share many knowing glances, as though sharing their lot makes it easier to bear. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Hyacinth’s sense of timing and unfortunate choice of fancy china teacups make for an extra-jittery cup of coffee, and Elizabeth often manages to drop whatever she picks up.
Elizabeth’s recently divorced brother Emmet (David Griffin) is a great addition to the neighborhood in season two; once he has met Hyacinth he becomes even more high-strung when threatened with her presence than Elizabeth does. As director of a local operatic society, Emmet is dismayed when every time Hyacinth glimpses him she bursts into song in a bid to secure a part.
The only person who finds Hyacinth’s manner charming is the Major, played by Peter Cellier. Married though he may be, he chases Hyacinth around whatever social situation they happen to find themselves in, calling her a “minx” and ignoring the presence of Richard or the protestations of Hyacinth herself. This may be the only interaction that finds her giggling like a confused schoolgirl even as she fends off the Major’s advances. Accustomed to being in control of most situations, Hyacinth’s discomfort with extramarital flirtation often finds her scrambling to retrieve her dignity, as her clothes or hair get wildly disarrayed.
As for the more frequent additional characters in the series, Hyacinth’s sister Rose (Shirley Stelfox in season one, Mary Millar from season two on) lives with their other sister Daisy (Judy Cornwell) and her husband Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes). Rose is a bit of a tart whose time has passed, and she is always dramatically running about praising one “gentleman friend” or waiting for another to call so she can verbally abuse him and assure all and sundry that she never wishes to see him again. Her theatrics go largely ignored by Daisy, who generally has her nose stuck in a trashy romance novel, and Onslow, whose focus is mainly bad TV, cheap beer, and remaining in his undershirt as much as possible.
Tidily packaged, just as Hyacinth would have appreciated, the special edition’s nine discs cover the entire series’ cohort of episodes, originally aired between 1990 and 1995. Disc four is entirely devoted to holiday episodes, which is a novel way to organize the series content, and highly enjoyable when in season. Special features abound, so true fans of the series will have lots of extra material to enjoy. Disc three boasts an extended look at Patricia Routledge’s acting career and singing ability, which she employs in Keeping Up Appearances to great effect. The final disc is entitled, “Life Lessons with Onslow”, with Hughes providing philosophical commentary as his character and looking back over many of the highlights of the series; the montage is inspired.
Each disc features outtakes from the episodes on the same disc, which is much better than sticking them all together on a final disc that the viewer is unlikely to ever take a look at. With the episodes viewed fresh in one’s mind, seeing the bloopers straightaway makes lots of sense. Overall this is a well-packaged, comprehensive set of the series that provided such a comical look at class, expectations and etiquette in British society. Bravo to the Buckets.