Posh comedy Mapp and Lucia brought back from obscurity by unlikely author
- Credit: BBC/Nick Briggs
Belsize Park author’s love of EF Benson’s small town gorgons helped inspire new TV adaptation, finds Bridget Galton.
Every year, on the anniversary of his death, a small group of enthusiasts gather in the East Sussex town of Rye to toast the author EF Benson.
Among their number is Belsize Park author Guy Fraser-Sampson whose devoted fandom has extended to self-publishing three sequels of Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series.
Written between 1920 and 1935 the six comical books about a duo of warring upper class women in the fictional town of Tilling - closely modelled on Rye - were as popular as Jeeves and Wooster at the time.
But since a 1985 TV adaptation, the author’s gorgon-like creations had slipped into obscurity, until Fraser-Sampson’s books were picked up by a publishing house.
His editor tipped off a TV producer friend about the annual ‘Gathering’ which led to a commission for Benidorm and League of Gentleman star Steve Pemberton to write a three part adaptation of the original books.
Filmed on location in Rye including Benson’s former home Lamb House, it airs on BBC One after Christmas starring Miranda Richardson as Mapp and Anna Chancellor as Lucia.
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“We’re eccentric British enthusiasts, everyone dresses up, we start by going to Benson’s grave then have dinner at The Mermaid with readings and silly awards handed out by Gyles Brandreth, and as Lucia would say: a po di mu,” says the former lawyer.
Fraser-Sampson’s sequels, Major Benjy, Lucia on Holiday and Au Reservoir have been optioned for a further series if the first proves popular.
“No-one had heard of Mapp and Lucia when I first wrote the sequels, no agent would represent me or publisher publish them. I had given up on the books until (publishers) Eliott and Thompson picked them up.
“Now I feel I’ve singlehandedly revived interest in these wonderful characters who are so real to me.”
Fraser-Sampson first read the books as a teenager.
“Ever since I have carried that world of small town English life around with me, imagining things people in Tilling might have said to each other.
“I hope the new series brings a whole new audience to Mapp and Lucia.”
Pemberton plays Georgie the camp sidekick of Lucia, who during a summer stay in Tilling vies to be queen of the town with her bridge and music parties.
Her arch rival Miss Elizabeth Mapp is furious that Lucia has dethroned her and ropes in old colonial Major Benjy, the vicar, and tomboyish artist Quaint Irene in her war of attrition.
“They are set between the wars but there is something timeless about them – and their small town conflict of one-upmanship and people being nasty to each other.
“The first books are about them separately but when Benson brought these two frightful women together, he really hit his stride with the chemistry and interplay between them.”
The son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Benson, lived in Lamb House – the model for Mapp’s house Mallards, and become Mayor of Rye.
“He had a weird and wonderful family,” says Fraser-Sampson, who gives talks about the author.
“His father would probably be on the sex offenders’ register today.
“He groomed his future wife Mary from the age of 12 - with the connivance of her mother - but she poor dear was gay and had an extremely unhappy life because she had several female lovers and felt terribly guilty – one was the model for Quaint Irene.
“All six of her children were gay and many had mental health problems, one of them wrote the lyrics to Land of Hope and Glory.
“But after her husband died she set up home with the daughter of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury and lived a long life.”
For his next project the former investment banker is writing a detective series set in Hampstead and has completed the first book: Murder in Profile which features a body in Burgh House and is out in February.
“Hampstead is just a wonderful locale for a detective series and I hope it will become as Oxford is to Morse and Cornwall is to Wycliffe,” he says.
“I feel that many detective books strain credulity and have characters you don’t empathise with. I wanted a likeable protagonist who, as in real life, gropes their way to the right result through a combination of slow painstaking process, mistakes and chance.”
Mapp and Lucia is a three part series broadcast on BBC One between December 29 and 31.