Feb 20, 2014

[TV] Keeping Up Appearances

Social media platforms rely on the premise that people are more likely to buy things based on the recommendations of friends. And while I don't think this rule is an absolute for all of my social media contacts, every now and then I come across something that really tickles my fancy - and yes, these discoveries tend to involve closer friends who share many of my interests.

And as much as I'm quite the fan of British television, I admit that there are a lot of shows that they've come up with that I haven't even heard of before. Such was the case with Keeping Up Appearances, which has turned out to be quite the delightful comedy. I don't think it's all that intelligently plotted, but it hits the sweet spot of repetitive humor that just...works.

So my thanks to that Facebook friend who started a whole thread on celebrating British TV that inevitably degenerated into various meme-style images, a lot of them involving a quirky lady who goes by the name of Hyacinth.

Synopsis: Keeping Up Appearances is a British sitcom developed by Roy Clarke for the BBC. It ran for a total of 44 episodes across 5 seasons, including the various Christmas specials.

At the center of the show is Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge), a middle class housewife who seems amazingly determined to work her way up the social ladder. Thus she has a number of eccentricities, chief among them the insistence that her last name is pronounced as "Bouquet". She's willing to do almost anything to impress guests of higher influence and prestige including hosting candlelight suppers and serving tea using collectible China.

But her biggest challenge is her the fact she came from a working class family, and thus far only Hyacinth seems to have escaped her family's lot in life. Thus we get to contrast her pretentious middle class life with the struggles of her sisters Daisy (Judy Cornwell) and Rose (Shirley Stelfox / Mary Millar) and Daisy's husband Onslow. Almost every episode involves  a reason to bring in her extended family whether it's about her Daddy getting lost or Rose getting involved with another rich gentleman.

I figured that reviewing this series as a whole made a lot more sense since the show doesn't have that a firm continuity that needed to evolve across episodes. Sure, the odd characters introduced her and there, but on the whole each episode exists on its own in what is practically a series of sketches. And while at times it may seem somewhat repetitive, on the whole it's really all about having strong characters and seeing how they'd behave in different situations.

Hyacinth may seem like an almost impossible character,  but when you think hard enough you'll probably come up with a relative or two who does a lot of the things that she does. The only difference is that she's pretty much every single possible act of social climbing desperation that makes her almost sad to watch at times. And Routledge does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a manner that has made her quite the memorable character for generations of viewers. I actually feel bad that I did not have a chance to catch this show during its original 1990-1995 run, even though I was only in elementary school during that period. But I was a kid who loved Monty Python as early as then - so it's really not that big a stretch to think that I would have enjoyed the show even back then.

A lot of British comedies of older years seem dependent on running gags to drive things along. But I dare say that they use this particular device quite well, especially when you compare how American shows are unable to elevate the running gag to a higher form of comedy. And this show is full of all these little quirks that Hyacinth goes through over and over again and yet it never stops being funny. In fact, many times you may find yourself trying to anticipate when she's going to correct someone in terms of how to pronounce her name or when she's going to go on about the joys of her son regularly calling home to show his love even though he's almost always asking for money.

I think a large appeal of the show over the years is the creeping sense of familiarity we get when it comes to Hyacinth. While few will ever claim to be like her, a lot of us will claim to know of a friend or family member who's eerily close. In many ways, she seems a lot like a number of Filipino families who dance on the edge of the middle class and are determined to move to a more secure position, socially speaking. We've all had to rush to tidy up a home before a special guest is set to arrive and we've had our share of dinners with important people as someone tries to impress everyone with some elaborate story.

Keeping Up Apperances is a timeless gem of a show that manages to remain hilarious despite the years that have gone by. The core concept is brilliantly solid and the acting above par, thus leaving you with a desire to one day own a white slimline telephone with automatic redial. The series as a whole deserves a loving 5 afternoon coffee sessions where neighbor Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson) out of a possible 5.

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