Mapp and Lucia: A tale of two genteel rivals revived for TV
A comic saga of two staunch rivals, their one-upmanship and eccentric friends in a 1930s Sussex town has been revived for the small screen.
Mapp and Lucia, based on the books by EF Benson, has been dusted off for a three-part series by Steve Pemberton, best known for surreal comedy The League of Gentlemen and his role in Benidorm.
Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor play the title characters - a pair of middle-aged ladies locked in a bitter contest to become social queen of the pretty town of Tilling.
Behind the genteel invitations to bridge games, musical evenings, pet names and air-kissing, the women are waging war.
"Playing passive aggressive and waging war with a smile on your face is fun. It's all repression upon repression with a saintly smile," says Chancellor, who plays the imperious widow Lucia. She makes Tilling her summer residence and upends its social order.
The actress, forever remembered for her role as Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral, recalls her "face-offs" with Richardson, who plays pompous, buck-toothed spinster Elizabeth Mapp.
"Miranda and I were in scenes where there was a lot of hidden drama and squashed, huge macho emotions under big hairdos," Chancellor adds.
Scriptwriter Pemberton - who also appears on screen as Lucia's fey, toupee-wearing friend Georgie - said he "wanted to add a little more pathos" to the story's wry social observations.
"Sometimes on the page you don't get to see when Mapp's closed the door after she's suffered a defeat - I was very keen to bring this out."
He makes clear the importance of the clutch of characters who orbit Mapp and Lucia - known as Tillingites - featuring a vicar who fakes a Scottish accent, the ultra-snobbish Wyses and "quaint" Irene with her androgynous dress sense and eye for Lucia.
"It's very useful if you have an enclosed community. I enjoyed that with The League of Gentlemen which had its own bubble.
"A lot of what Benson was writing about I think is true of many small English towns where you always get that element of one-upmanship.
"I've got kids in school in that north London hotbed of competitive mums!" laughs Pemberton.
While Benson's creations have their eccentricities - such as bidding one another farewell with 'au reservoir' - it remains free of the terrifying monstrosities that filled the dark comedy co-written by Pemberton, in which he played Tubbs, Pauline and other macabre creations.
Notably, his League co-star Mark Gatiss is also in the ensemble cast as whisky-swilling retired army officer Major Benjy.
Long before The League of Gentlemen came to our screens, a first adaptation of Mapp and Lucia was screened in the early days of Channel 4 in the mid-1980s.
It starred Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan as the polite enemies, an incarnation which Richardson and Chancellor say has not coloured their performances.
"We're doing this script, it's now and the credentials of the team are so fantastic," says Richardson, forever remembered for portraying the spoilt tantrum-prone "Queenie" Elizabeth I in Blackadder.
"I didn't watch and haven't yet watched the older adaptation, but have seen it forever on my parents' shelf in a box set. I'm actually quite pleased because I don't feel any particular pressure."
"I wasn't quite sure what they were asking us to do. I thought it was Hinge and Bracket - they wanted us to be men dressed as women - interesting!" jokes Chancellor.
MAPP AND LUCIA'S CREATOR
- EF Benson (1876-1940) spent a period of his life in Rye, East Sussex, on which he based Tilling
- His house, where he wrote the books, was used as Mallards in the new adaptation - Mapp's beloved home which she rents out to Lucia
- Filming was allowed in the garden for the first time
- "Benson looked out of his window seeing the women of Rye bustling about with their baskets on their arms gossiping which is what gave him all his ideas," says scriptwriter Steve Pemberton
"I haven't watched as I'm a huge fan of Geraldine McEwan and you're either going to be thinking 'Oh, Geraldine didn't do it like that' so you'd always be pivoting towards or away from that.
"It was better almost to view it as new writing and be exactly in what's happening right now," adds the actress, who says she zoomed around Paris on a motorbike seeking costumes for Lucia.
With the three-part series based on Benson's book, Pemberton says he has plenty more original material to draw upon.
"There are certainly more stories to be had. If people want more then there's certainly more in the books."
Richardson echoes his sentiments, having spent a summer filming in the town of Rye in East Sussex - the location of Benson's home and the basis for his fictional Tilling.
"It was too much fun. It was so much fun that I hope we get to do it again," she says.
Chancellor adds the show should find fans among women, gay men and her father, who she says will be watching with her on a big screen over the Christmas break.
Mapp and Lucia is on BBC One at 2100 GMT on 29, 30 and 31 December.