Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Have You Been "Keeping Up?"

Over here in the U.S., we typically only get to see a select few British television programs (and yet I get the feeling that the opposite is true there and that many American TV shows are thrust upon viewers in the U.K.) Since we have so many commercials embedded within our own network programming, the shows from Great Britain (which run for practically the full allotted half hour or hour) cannot be played on TV here without either being edited to death or placed in an awkward time frame. One exception is PBS, our Public Broadcasting System, which is commercial-free and which shows programs in their entirety (though there are times during the year when fund drives and other events break up the schedule in order to help pay for the air time.)

It is through PBS that we've been able to watch several foreign TV shows and, without question, my very favorite is the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (1990 - 1995.) The show was created and written by Roy Clarke, known for his phenomenally successful Last of the Summer Wine, a show that lasted a staggering thirty-seven seasons in the U.K. (or series, as they refer to seasons there.) While Appearances had a colorful and memorable supporting cast, it mostly hinged on its primary character, Hyacinth Bucket, played by Patricia Routledge.
Hyacinth was married to poor, put-upon, henpecked Richard Bucket (played by Clive Swift), a frequently exasperated, but often helpless, man who was forced into all sorts of predicaments by his endlessly social-climbing and pretentious wife. Chief on the list of Hyacinth's priorities was that their last name of Bucket was actually pronounced “Bouquet,” something that almost nobody ever got right! Rarely dressed in anything other than vivid floral dresses (with the occasional smart suit) and hats that looked as if they were made by the same person who capped the Queen Mum, she strained to appear dignified and above everything at all costs.
Hyacinth seemed ever to be flitting about the house, tidying up, dusting and polishing her precious belongings such as her “princess phone with the automatic redial” (the cord of which proved to be her enemy on many an occasion!) Any time the phone rang, she sped to it, greeting the caller with this high-pitched pronouncement, “The 'Bouquet' residence, the lady of the house speaking...” She always answered with the hope that it might be her sister Violet, “the one with the Mercedes, a swimming pool (or sauna, or jaucuzzi) and room for a pony!”

Too often, however, it was someone mistaking her phone number for an Asian short order house, prompting her to squeal into the receiver that “this is NOT the Chinese take-away!” Her screamingly hilarious responses often had a tag like this: “No, I will not send over another portion of deep-fried squid. You are connected to a private residence on a white, slim-lined telephone with last-number redial facility.” It would be hard to come up with a less glamorous establishment for Hyacinth's phone number to be confused with.

There was also a decent chance that her son Sheridan might be on the other end. Sheridan (never glimpsed on the show) was off at school and frequently needed money. He also came with a plethora of hints that he was likely gay (not the least of which was his male roommate Tarquin who “makes his own curtains, wears silk pajamas and has won prizes for embroidery”), though all of this seemed to fly right over her head.

Sometimes it really was Violet on the line (who also went unseen for the longest time, but finally appeared halfway through season five, played by Anna Dawson.) Usually when Violet called there was some predicament with her husband Bruce. Though Violet's social standing was of tremendous pride to Hyacinth, it was often tempered by stories of Bruce doing something or other while dressed in women's clothing! Hyacinth's once-beaming face would then shatter into a symphony of blinks, tics and quakes as she strained to keep the information from others.

Typically, the most humiliating phone calls would come while Hyacinth was entertaining (to use the word loosely) her neighbor Elizabeth for coffee. Elizabeth (played by Josephine Tewson) lived next door and typically held it all together except for those dreaded occasions when Hyacinth would invite her over for coffee.
Invariably, she would be given a cup (initially bone china or one of Hyacinth's treasured "Royal Doulton with the hand-painted periwinkles," but in time a mug, or beaker) that would be spilled or sloshed all over during one of Hyacinth's trademark moments of abruptness. Occasionally, Hyacinth's mask of cheerfulness couldn't be sustained any longer and she'd simply give up and glare at the mess.
One year into the show, Elizabeth's brother Emmet moved in with her in the wake of a divorce and had his own share of frights from the exasperating and overly intrusive neighbor. Hyacinth learned of his hobby of staging amateur musicals and thereafter would catch him at vulnerable moments to sing (read: impromptu audition) Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein or some other type of song in a high-pitched warble.
Elizabeth, Emmett and virtually everyone else in the neighborhood (particularly the postman, but also – as in the case shown here – the milkman) would take pains to avoid contact with her, usually winding up in some physical contortion and practically always running into her anyway. She would query the postman about why second class stamps were appearing on mail delivered to her house or ask the milkman which grade of cows were supplying her milk.

Even the local vicar (a downright adorable man played by Jeremy Gittens) runs at the mere sight of her, though he is often torn by his duties to serve the community (which, unfortunately, includes her.) As he was sometimes described on the show, the “dishy” vicar provided one of the few opportunities for young-ish male handsomeness.

All of these people pale in comparison to the rest of Hyacinth's family. Her other two sisters Rose and Daisy, Daisy's husband Onslow and the sisters' senile father. Rose (initially played by Shirley Stelfox, but mostly by Mary Millar) was a hot-to-trot, mini-skirt-wearing tart who seemed to have a new love interest in every episode and whose romantic entanglements were a source of frustration to Hyacinth.
Daisy (portrayed by Judy Cornwell) was far more laid back; too laid back, in fact, and scarcely lifted a finger to keep her house clean or free of overwhelming clutter. Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes), who Daisy was often trying to get romantic with, was a beer-swilling, dismissive slob (with a hidden heart of gold) whose mere presence anywhere – usually in a filthy “wife-beater” - sent Hyancinth into a fit. His ramshackle car rarely exited wherever it had been parked without emitting a huge, dark, loud puff of smoke!

On special occasions, Onslow might dress up his wife beater by adding a dingy, striped, woolen vest on top of it!
No matter how many times Hyacinth came to visit Daisy and Onslow (and to her regret it was fairly frequently), she would toddle down the driveway towards the front door next to a stationary jalopy and an excitable (but harmless) dog would jump out and bark, causing her to careen into the nearby shrubbery! (A couple of months ago, this very thing began happening to me! My next-door neighbor got a new dog who didn't know me yet and every time I would exit my car and head to the back door, “WOOF!,” and he'd jump up on the fence and give me a heart attack.)

“Daddy” (George Webb), the girls' elderly, usually silent, father, was forever heading off to join up for WWII or riding a bicycle naked or looking up a female companion, all to the immense consternation of Hyacinth. She retained a level of affection and pity for him, but not enough to take him in herself. (“I'd love to take Daddy in, but he would so monopolize the bathroom...”)
Throughout the run of the show, Hyacinth took pains to hobnob with all the right people, the typical outcome being that just as she'd jumped a thousand hurdles to make everything happen, she would be humiliated by the presence of one or more of her relatives trundling in either filthy, noisy or badly-dressed.

Car rides offered further opportunity for mirth. Richard was often impelled to take his wife to this place or that and rarely has there been a worse backseat driver. As he toddled along safely, at the correct speed, she would suddenly bark, “Mind the pedestrian, Richard!” (with the person safely located on the sidewalk) or “Mind the horse, Richard!!” (while the beast was safely tucked away in a fenced-off field.) I love to do this to my friends in the car even today and a remarkable number of them still speak to me!

Sometimes, Richard and Hyacinth took little trips. There was an infamous yachting trip, in which they were decked out in nautical gear as well as a golf outing and a trip to the stables where, in typical fashion, Hyacinth had remarkable trouble with her horse.

One time, she and Richard purchased a holiday cottage in which the bedroom was so tight and congested that the mere act of rising out of bed resulted in a konk on the head. The kitchen of the place was also hilariously snug.

U.S. sitcoms used to produce remarkable numbers of episodes per season (Bewitched and My Three Sons each had seasons of close to forty episodes, to name just two!), but in more recent times twenty-four episodes per season tends to be the norm. Keeping Up Appearances, despite running for five seasons, only had forty-four episodes in all! The makers weren't pressed into filling up a multitude of required episodes, but were free to just produce the stories and scenarios they wished to pursue.

There are detractors of Keeping Up Appearances who find Hyacinth repellent and who balk at the continuing series of jokes, which are done over and over – with variations – in nearly every episode. Maybe its because my own mother is not entirely unlike Hyacinth, though not nearly as insufferable, or that I just appreciate the comic talent of Patricia Routledge, but I find her intoxicating.

As for the repetitive gags, I also appreciate those. Didn't we watch The Golden Girls, hoping for and usually getting a St. Olaf story, a sharp retort from Dorothy (usually with a patented upward glare), a late-night discussion over cheesecake and so on? It's the familiarity with the structure and knowing what's coming that, for me, enhances the humor. Though there is little in common with The Golden Girls, at least one thing is that Appearances' primary cast ranged in age from forty-six to sixty-one when it premiered, with the (part-time) vicar a young thirty-four. This sort of casting would be at total odds with the demographic-minded television producers we have here, but the upside is that every member of the cast had decades of experience with expression, delivery and timing.

Much like Bea Arthur of Girls (who never wanted to overstay her welcome on that show or the previous Maude and quit both of them when others felt there was still life left in them), Routledge called a halt to her days as Hyacinth in 1995. She wanted to pursue other avenues of acting and didn't want to be known solely for her role on the sitcom. As Agnes Moorehead (Endora of Bewitched) could have told her, you don't create a character as memorable as Hyacinth Bucket and get off without people remembering it!

Routledge had been a stage actress in London as well as a television performer (including a stint on the long-running Coronation Street) before coming to Broadway in 1968 to costar in Darling of the Day opposite Vincent Price. The much-troubled musical only lasted a month, but she was described by Walter Kerr as having “the most spectacular, most scrumptious, most embraceable musical comedy debut since Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence came to this country as a package.” She was awarded a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.

Many character parts on stage and screen followed until she won the role of Hyacinth. She delighted in playing the delusionally class-conscious character and sending that type up because she couldn't stand those like her in real life. Something that also set her apart from many other amusing ladies was her downright gift for physical comedy. It's often a pleasure just to watch Routledge undulate through the wacky paces of her part. When Appearances was over, she immediately moved on to a popular series of mysteries called Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, which ran until 1998. Now eighty-three, she has slowed down her workload considerably since then. She never married and has no children.

Swift, who is seven years Routledge's junior, began acting on stage and television in the early-1960s. It may come as a surprise to some that he's essayed small roles in films as varied as Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) and David Lean's A Passage to India (1984.) Married for fifteen years to (but divorced from since 1975) outspoken novelist Margaret Drabble, they have three children together. He is now seventy-six and has continued to work on British TV with regularity.

Cornwell, like most of the others, began on stage and progressed to ingenue roles on television and in film. Some of her films include Those Fantastic Flying Fools (aka Rocket to the Moon), in which she's shown here, and Two for the Road (both 1967), Anthony Newley's opus Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) with Shelley Winters. An accomplished novelist, she has continued to work on TV in recent years. Married since 1960 to the same man and the mother of one child, she is now seventy-two.
Hughes began acting on stage as a youth and in time wound up on Coronation Street for a nine-year stint (1974 – 1983.) Also of note was his providing the voice of animated Paul McCartney in 1968's Yellow Submarine. A busy, useful character actor, he worked steadily until just recently when he was forced to battle cancer for the second time (he'd overcome prostate cancer earlier.) Now sixty-eight, he lives with his wife Susan, who is giving consistent care during this illness.

Stelfox (the first Rose) was replaced after one season due to a scheduling conflict, but eventually went on to success on the long-running British soap opera Emmerdale (which is broadcast in the early evening versus the daytime hours.) She's worked on that from 2000 to the present. She was married to actor Don Henderson from 1979 until his death in 1997. She is currently seventy-one.

Millar, Stelfox's far zanier replacement, was primarily a stage actress until landing the role of Rose. She'd been treading the boards since her teen years and in 1986 originated the role of Madame Giry in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Millar didn't do any more television after Appearances ended in 1995, but did play Mrs. Potts in a West End Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer in 1998 at only the age of sixty-two. She'd been married to the same man since 1962 and they had one daughter together.

Goggle-eyed Tewson had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and enjoyed a busy career on stage and television since the early-1960s. After the cancellation of Appearances, she took a break for a few years and then moved on to Roy Clarke's long-running success Last of the Summer Wine, where she appeared from 2003 to 2010. Married once for three years (to actor Leonard Rossiter) and with no children, she is currently seventy-three.
Griffin, again like many of the others, had been on British TV since the early-'60s, but also worked in films including If.... (1968) with Malcolm McDowell, the all-star Battle of Britain (1969) and the infamous Trog (1970), Joan Crawford's last film. From 1984 – 1988, he worked on Hi-de-Hi!, eventually joining Appearances in 1991. Married to a French woman and with two children, he has done little TV work since the cancellation of the show. He is sixty-eight.

Compared to the rest of the cast, Gittins was a baby (and a babe!) He'd appeared on quite a few television shows including Dr. Who before playing the vicar. He still works on British TV and in the occasional movie. Married and with a grown daughter, she is a student and works at creating horror makeup with the hopes of becoming a movie specialty makeup artist.

If you've never watched this show, I urge you to try it out once or twice and see if you don't become hooked. It's one of those series that I can watch again and again and that is still funny each time.


NotFelixUnger said...

This is a shocker [I know] but this has got to be in my top 10 TV shows of all time!

Still, I have to mention, no conversation of KUP is complete without mention of the very last episode when after years of lying about having sailed on QE II, she finally gets to cruise on it! Little does she realize that Daisy and Onslow have won a radio raffle and are on the same scheduled itinerary...

The very last scene of the last episode has Hyacinth TRYING to dance with Onslow on the dance floor in order to win a cherished spot at the Captain's table. [comedy genius!]

I first started watching this show in the mid to late 90s. It was still rather current at the time. The first time I saw the dishy vicar my heart started thumping like mad. Needless to say, I would scrub and polish the vicarage any day of the week.

Oh, ever notice his wife was a bit plain? Towards the start she was prettier but she looked downright frumpy later on. Rose on the other hand was always sexy and attractive by comparison.

Great post!

CharmedLassie said...

A wonderful trip down memory lane - thank you! My favourite KUP moment is probably when everybody's hiding under the stage to avoid Hyacinth!

Poseidon3 said...

NotFelix, it truly is freaky how we seem to share the same taste in people and show business product! I think I subconciously left out the vicar's wife because I'm jealous that she gets to sleep with him! LOL She's nice enough and all, but frankly when she's onscreen with him, I lose all interest in anything but the dishy vicar. I could almost sit through church with him in the pulpit!

Lassie, thanks for commenting! Good to see you again.

I'm happy to see that some others enjoy this show as I do.

NotFelixUnger said...

@Lassie Though I love the episode you mention [was that also the one where she kept singing from "Annie get your gun?"] but it's not in my top 5 episodes. One episode in my top 5 favorites is the "indoors/outdoors bar-b-q with finger foods!" I do remember she bought so many potted bushes and palms to decorate the dining room that no one could find anyone else [let alone the food] amongst all the foliage in the house.

Of all the episodes going through my mind right now, a contendor for the top spot is when she went to the estate auction and bid on [and won!] the Lady Dowager Ursula's Famous Gooseberry Wine. I still see that episode and laugh myself silly. I defy anyone to say "Lady Dowager Ursula's Famous Gooseberry Wine" quickly after a few drinks.

It might be my imagination, but I could swear I've read somewhere or heard someone say that an original idea for the ending of the show was to have Elizabeth and Richard run away together. [Can't remember where I got that idea from.]

I haven't seen the show in a couple of months. I always have previously. Saturdays, 8pm, EST, I'm normally in front of the TV. I'm gonna watch it this weekend. I might even get the collection.

@Poseidon I think it's probably generational. We are only a couple of months apart. [in real time not "Felix" time] We were stamped with 70s and 80s TV in much the same way.

vinniepop said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who appreciates this hidden(well, hidden to North American audiences, that is) gem! Routledge's Hyacinth is a masterful creation and I can't help but chuckle any time I think of her and her many classic KUP situations("Mind the horse, Richard!")

Colonel Potterby said...

This is a great post! This is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, American or British. Have you read the book "It's Bouquet-Not Bucket!" by Harold Snoad? I highly recommend it, as it provides behind the scenes information from the original idea to the end of the series. There is even a list of synopses of proposed episodes that never were produced. Two that come to mind are Hyacinth in the hospital for a minor operation, and Emmett having to stay with the Buckets while Elizabeth's house is being renovated.