BBC Radio 4 Extra, 17 April 2011
The genteel world of Tilling, a quaint village in south-east England
seems so attractive: nothing seems to disrupt the endless procession of sunny days, while the gentrified inhabitants have
sufficient wherewithal to pursue leisurely lives of bridge parties, coffee mornings, and golf club lunches, secure in the
belief that their every need will be attended to by legions of faithful retainers.
However nothing could be further from the truth: in Celia de Wolff's production the
inhabitants, spearheaded by the formidable Miss Mapp (Frances Barber) engaged in perpetual social guerrilla warfare. Every
public occasion became a battleground; beneath the surface politeness, everyone wanted to suppress everyone else.
The narrator (Nickolas Grace) had great fun at the characters' expense, emphasizing
their foibles while exposing the meaninglessness of their lives. Major Benjy (David Calder) made everyone believe that he
was writing his memoirs, when in truth he spent most of his evenings quaffing whisky. Quaint Irene (Sylvestra le Touzel) fancied
herself a painter, when in truth she just liked to see people posing semi-nude in front over. Mrs. Mapp fussed and fumed over
her front garden, but she could not tell whether her wisteria was actually in bloom or not.
As the adaptation unfolded, however, I did become a little tired of the narrator's
enduring superciliousness. While the Tilling folk led empty lives, there was no need for him to satirize them all the time;
they were no better and no worse than other small-town folk in fact and fiction, whose existences likewise revolve around
social minutiae (think of Jane Austen's novels as an example). Director de Wolff did not help matters by encouraging broad,
over-the-top performances. Barber's Miss Mapp seemed a thoroughly nasty piece of work, revelling in her social victories while
vowing a speedy revenge if ever she experienced any humiliation. She lacked that studied politeness that rendered Prunella
Scales's performance in the same role so memorable in Donald McWhinnie's 1980s television version. Calder's Major Benjy was
little more than an old sot whose love for the whisky-bottle far exceeded his feelings for Miss Mapp. By the final episode
I confess I had had enough of them all. For a far more subtle comedy of manners, I'd recommend Jane Austen on radio any time.