Remembering 'Keeping Up Appearances', a True British Sitcom
The early 90s story of social climbing was basically Mike Leigh with a laugh track.
For five golden years at the beginning of the 1990s, Keeping Up Appearances was the ultimate Sunday Night TV. With its cast of troubled suburban characters, it perfectly embodied that quiet, sweaty panic that descends as the sun sets on a Sunday, and the nation waits with a feeling of stodgy dread in the pit of its stomach for Monday.
As a child I found Keeping Up Appearances not funny, but depressing and sad. Everything in it was a brown, sludgy colour: the clothes, the set, the sky. All of the characters seemed to me to be desperately unhappy, either with each other or their lot in life.
Anyway, I was only about eight at the time, and probably not the show's intended audience. Now I can see Keeping Up Appearances for what it was: a precious jewel in the fading crown of the British sitcom. Now it's coming back as part of the BBC's rejuvenation of old sitcom classics, under the provisional title Young Hyacinth – a comedy which will follow the iconic protagonist Hyacinth Bucket from the age of 19, when she was but a humble working class gal.
It's not difficult to see why the nation was so enamoured with Keeping Up Appearances (it lasted for 44 episodes, spanning five series and four Christmas specials). It had all the great British comedy tropes: snobbery, curtain-twitching, eccentric English customs. A naughty vicar and a nervous postman. A silly woman spilling her tea.
If you haven't seen it (it's on Netflix now, so no excuses) the "action" centres around the bosomy Hyacinth Bucket ("pronounced 'bouquet'"), a social-climbing middle-aged woman whose attempts at being accepted into the higher echelons of suburban society are constantly thwarted by her lower-class family and their clapped-out car. Her downtrodden husband has been forced into early retirement, and her feckless brother-in-law only eats Mini Cheddars and watches TV. It's basically Mike Leigh with a laugh track.
The characters were ludicrous caricatures then, and borderline inappropriate now. Daddy, Hyacinth's geriatric father who spends most of his time locked in a bedroom, is trapped in one long hallucination of WWII and is almost certainly suffering from PTSD. He also can't keep his hands to himself. And, you know, he's called Daddy. Then there's Rose, a sex-crazed fortysomething who is almost frothing at the mouth at the thought of shagging the vicar. Hyacinth's son Sheridan (whom we never actually meet) teaches embroidery at a polytechnic and lives with a man called Tarquin. Next door neighbour Elizabeth lives with her brother Emmet (a cohabiting situation I knew not to aspire to even at the age of eight). Of course, Hyacinth ignores all of this. No-one is mentally ill, no-one is having extra-marital sex and no-one is gay. And middle-aged siblings living together is fine.
There are only about five gags in total, each wheeled out in slightly different circumstances in every episode: someone phones Hyacinth's home thinking it's the Chinese restaurant, Daddy goes missing, the postman has to take his shoes off every time he delivers a letter, Emmet dives into a bush to avoid speaking to Hyacinth. These are jokes designed to be durable, to not test us. It's British farce at its purest. And it's utterly stupid.
The themes of the original – class, marriage, family, sex – may be as pertinent now as they were 20 years ago, and the faux naivety and slapstick comedy will probably stand the test of time. And that's what was great about KUP – its kitschness, and how brilliantly naff it was. Although the rosy glow of nostalgia may be able to momentarily dampen criticisms of the BBC's inability to create anything new, relevant or, indeed, funny, that can only last so long. The news that Young Hyacinth will be coming to screens, comes amid rumours that The Brittas Empire is getting a reboot, and a couple of years after Birds of a Feather found its way back on telly. But these shows are all curious, treasured relics of 90s comedy, and the internet is where they live now, and where they should stay.
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