BBC Video // 1990 // 1400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // November 17th, 2004
"People who try to pretend they're superior make it so much harder for those of us who really are." Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge)
One of the finest Britcoms of the last decade or so, Keeping Up Appearances is a smartly-written satire of snobbery that was a huge hit in Britain, and proved equally popular in North America when it popped up on PBS several years later. Buoyed by a cast of first-rate talents led by Patricia Routledge, the show recounts the misadventures of tireless social climber and self-styled etiquette authority Hyacinth Bucket, who constantly has to remind everyone that no, in fact, "it's pronounced bouquet."
BBC Video has finally collected all five seasons of the show into a new eight-DVD box set, Keeping Up Appearances: The Full Bouquet. With 44 episodes and a generous smattering of extras, this is an essential DVD release of a truly hilarious show; an absolute must for Britcom fans.
Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge, To Sir, with Love) spends her days planning elegant Candlelight Suppers and drawing popular attention to the her "sophisticated" lifestyle, much to the dismay of her henpecked husband, Richard (Clive Swift, Frenzy). Unbeknownst to her, the only fact that Hyacinth is really impressing on anyone is that she's an insufferable snob. Frazzled next door neighbors Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson, The Two Ronnies) and her brother Emmet (David Griffin, Trog) bite their tongues and smile when taking coffee with her each morning, taking secret delight when things go wrong -- which they invariably do. No matter how carefully her plans are laid, Hyacinth is always humiliated when her lower working class family shows up, including her sexually excitable sisters Daisy (Judy Cornwell, Santa Claus) and Rose (Shirley Stelfox, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Mary Millar), Daisy's boorish husband Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes, Yellow Submarine) and her senile father (George Webb).
Social class humor has never really found a home in American sitcoms, but it's at the very heart of British farce, which has always featured self-important protagonists that are invariably taken down a few pegs over the course of an episode. Whether it's Absolutely Fabulous's Patsy and Edina taking the Concorde to New York to track down the perfect door handle or Basil Fawlty obsequiously trying to attract desirable clientele for his hotel, the Brits love to show that those who think that they are better than others rarely are.
While many beloved Britcom characters are truly arrogant, none have surpassed the mind-boggling pretentiousness of Keeping Up Appearances's Hyacinth Bucket, perhaps the most ludicrous aristocratic sycophant ever seen on the small screen. In Hyacinth's eyes, a simple cookout becomes an "Indoor/Outdoor Luxury Barbeque and Finger Buffet" and lunch on a dock is elevated to a "Gracious Waterside Picnic with Riparian Entertainments." From giving her husband skis for his birthday just to show them off on the roof rack to seeking out an exclusive European high fiber breakfast cereals endorsed by the Dutch Royal Family, Hyacinth is the absolute queen of one-upmanship. Although fond of saying that "I cannot abide people who run around making a meal out of their little social triumphs," Hyacinth's hypocritical snobbery makes her one of the most recognizable and enduring characters in British sitcom history.
Although in essence Keeping Up Appearances is really just a one-joke show based on Hyacinth's social pretensions, it's the ability to keep that joke entertaining that makes the series so remarkable. Produced and directed by Harold Snoad, the man behind the Britcom classic Are you Being Served? and penned by seasoned writer Roy Clarke, the show seemingly recognizes its own conceptual limitations as endless variations on a theme, but succeeds on its own terms with razor-sharp wit. While the plots of the episodes are sometimes startlingly similar -- throughout the hilarious 44 episodes of the series, Hyacinth is embarrassed roughly 44 times by her relatives -- the series concentrates on finely honed dialogue and the dazzling performance of Patricia Routledge to remain fresh and consistently funny for five years and almost 50 episodes.
To Clarke's credit, Keeping Up Appearances did try to offer the viewers something new and push the characters forward, even if that was really besides the point. The short first season, consisting of only six episodes, generally lays the groundwork for the show, while the second season brings Emmet, Elizabeth's brother, on board for a new running gag: When Hyacinth discovers that Emmet directs musicals, she takes auditioning with off-key show tunes during their morning coffees. The third season has Richard forced to take an unwanted early retirement that finds him spending a soul-crushing seven days a week with his wife. The show peaks in the fourth season, with Hyacinth on a quest for a "stately" country property and a fan favorite hour-long special in which Hyacinth and Richard book a "quality cruise" trip on the QE2 luxury liner. The final episode of the waning fifth season has Hyacinth starting a business as a dinner party planner, an interesting direction had the show continued, but it is fully apparent by this time that the premise of Keeping Up Appearances was spread about as thin as it could go.
Much of the show's success is attributable the classically trained cast. Clive Swift, Geoffrey Hughes, and Judy Cornwell all boast extensive theater experience; however, it's stage and screen veteran Patricia Routledge who really makes the show so enjoyable and memorable with her shrill voice, her motley collection of elaborate hats, and the way she terrorizes everyone from the weak-kneed mailman to the neighborhood vicar. It's really an example of model casting, as Routledge is undeniably brilliant in the role, handling both witticisms and physical comedy, from quivering lips all the way up to scaling walls in festive dresses and falling in mud puddles. But there's more to Keeping Up Appearances than just Routledge's mugging, and as a tribute to her talent, two of the best characters in the show -- her son Sheridan and her sister Violet -- rarely, if ever, appear on screen. Violet does finally appear in a few episodes of the final season, but for the most part, like Sheridan, the audience only imagines her through Hyacinth's one-sided phone conversations. Hyacinth is completely oblivious to the fact that her pride and joy Sheridan is clearly gay, and in one instance, is glad to hear that he has joined a "social club" called The Sword of the People. Likewise, Hyacinth is quick to point out to neighbors that Violet has a Mercedes, sauna, and room for a pony, but often forgets to mention that her husband Bruce, who afforded her these luxuries, is a cross-dressing S&M buff with a jockey fetish and sleeps with his secretary.
Like most British sitcoms that satirize snobbery, Keeping Up Appearances tends to rely a little heavily on a reverse snootiness of its own, in which those like Violet in the higher classes are fraught with problems and seem to be the least deserving of social standing, while the working classes are lionized as the salt of the earth. As the show progresses, the beer swilling Onslow evolves from simply trying to justify his laziness, to an armchair philosopher who watches Open University on TV, to reading books on nuclear physics. It's is this kind of lackluster characterization that gradually turns the characters into cartoonish stereotypes, and while five seasons is certainly an admirable accomplishment for all involved, it's best that the series stopped when it did.
BBC Video has released all the volumes in this set in the past individually, as well as in two sets of four, but this is the first time that the entire series has been collected together. The series is presented in broadcast order, except for the fourth volume, which contains four Christmas/holiday specials. The quality of these episodes probably won't have you mailing out gold embossed invitations on ivory stock with lavender scent for all your friends, but it's quite adequate. The first season episodes, all conveniently located on the first disc, exhibit a touch of graininess, but as you make your way through each season, the quality markedly improves. Clarity and contrast are generally good, with adequate black levels and realistically rendered colors. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is, again, just fair. I would have liked an option for subtitles, because occasionally the dialogue can be a little muddled. A solid, but unexceptional presentation.
The best extra on the set is a 1998 profile of Patricia Routledge on an episode of the BBC series Funny Women. Tracing Routledge's career from the stage through to her then-current show Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, it gives a nice overview of her acting range and talents while revealing the actress as a very charming woman; the complete polar opposite of Hyacinth Bucket. The same can be said of an included interview with Patricia Routledge and Clive Smith on British talk show Pebble Mill at One, a brief but rare chance to see the actors interact out of character, even if they are only promoting a book about their show.
Less essential is The Kitty Monologues, five short pre-Keeping Up Appearances comedy sketches performed by Routledge. While interesting for fans, I found these segments only sporadically funny. Advertised as a short, "Second Chance" is really just a TV commercial for a job service, which briefly features Hyacinth and Elizabeth meeting on the street. Finally, "The Memoirs of Hyacinth Bucket" is a clip show that aired on PBS several years after the series had ended in an effort to get new American viewers up to speed on Hyacinth's less-than-regal adventures. Judy Cornwell and Geoffrey Hughes reprise their roles as Daisy and Onslow, reading aloud from Hyacinth's social diary to conjure up highlights from the past. This show no doubt has been included for completion's sake, but the newly taped segments aren't really interesting enough to warrant a viewing, especially after all the episodes have been watched. Also on each disc you'll find a short two-to-five minute selection of bloopers pertaining to the selection of episodes on that particular volume, as well as some text biographies of the main cast and occasional guest stars.
This eight-DVD set of Keeping Up Appearances carries a hefty price tag, but fans of the show -- and there are quite a few of them -- shouldn't hesitate in picking up this release. Besides, it will look simply stunning when shelved beside your Royal Doulton with the hand-painted periwinkles or a similar priceless objet d'art.
Keeping Up Appearances is guilty of a distasteful lower-middle class humor that is completely unacceptable in my social circles.
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1400 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Funny Women" Profile of Patricia Routledge
* "The Kitty Monologues"
* The Memoirs of Hyacinth Bucket
* "Pebble Mill" Interview
* "Second Chance" TV Commercial
* Cast Bios