Keeping Up Appearances is a British sitcom created and written by Roy Clarke for the BBC, centred on the life of eccentric and snobbish middle class social climber Hyacinth Bucket, who insists that her surname is pronounced “Bouquet”. The sitcom follows Hyacinth in her attempts to prove her social superiority and to gain standing with those she considers upper class; attempts that are constantly hampered by her decidedly lower class extended family whom she desperately seeks to hide. Much of the humour comes from the culture clash between Hyacinth’s vision of herself and the reality of her working class background, plus the farcical situations she finds herself in as she battles to protect her social credibility.
The show spawned five series (seasons) and 44 episodes, four of which are Christmas specials. Keeping Up Appearances was a great success in the UK and also captured large audiences in the US, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, but ceased production in 1995 when its star Patricia Routledge wanted to move on to other projects. Since its original release, all five series—including Christmas specials—have been available on DVD. It is regularly repeated worldwide (Public television stations including PBS member stations in the US; BBC One, Gold, and Drama in the UK and Ireland). It is also available for viewing on Netflix. In 2004, it came 12th in the poll for Britain’s Best Sitcom.
In February 2016, it was confirmed by BBC Worldwide that Keeping Up Appearances is the corporation’s most exported television programme, being sold nearly 1000 times to overseas broadcasters. A prequel titled Young Hyacinth, featuring Hyacinth as a 19-year-old maid in the 1950s, was made that year.
Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge)— who insists her surname is pronounced Bouquet (although in reality, her husband Richard has said, “It was always ‘Bucket’ until I met you!”) — is an over-bearing, social-climbing snob, originally from a poor working-class background, whose main mission in life is to impress others with her lifestyle and perceived affluence and refinement. She’s terrified that her background will be revealed, and goes to great lengths to hide it. Hyacinth likes to spend her days visiting stately homes (convinced she will meet and strike up a friendship with the upper class owners, especially if they are aristocratic) and hosting “executive-style” candlelight suppers (with her Royal Worcester double-glazed Avignon china and Royal Doulton china with “the hand-painted periwinkles”). She ostentatiously brags about her possessions to others, including her “white slimline telephone with automatic redial,” which she always answers with “The Bouquet residence, the lady of the house speaking.” (Frequently she receives calls asking for a Chinese take-away, making her very angry.) She speaks in an exaggerated RP-like accent with Northern undertones, while her relatives speak in broad Northern accents. Her neighbours speak in milder RP accents. When flustered, Hyacinth regresses to her native Northern accent for a while.
Hyacinth’s attempts to impress make the lives of those around her difficult; her continual efforts to improve her social position usually involve inviting her unwitting neighbours and friends to ‘exclusive candlelit suppers’. Although Hyacinth is not deterred by the lack of response to her attempts, nearly everyone around her lives in fear of being invited, and will usually make frantic attempts to excuse themselves. The one who suffers the most is her husband Richard (Clive Swift). He initially worked for the council but, at the beginning of series 3, reluctantly accepts early retirement. Although he loves her with a long-suffering endurance, he is notably exasperated by her plans and her habit of making extravagant and unnecessary purchases. Although she lives to impress others, Hyacinth regularly competes with the upper-middle-class people (whom she considers snobbish show-offs), such as Sonia Barker-Finch, Delia Wheelwright and Lydia Hawksworth (who alone of Hyacinth’s rivals seems to be an actual snob, as she disdains kiwifruit as “lower middle class”.) Hyacinth sometimes says things like “I haven’t a snobbish bone in my body” or “I can’t abide such snobbery like that” when talking about those she considers her competition.
Always hindering Hyacinth’s best efforts to impress – and providing an unwelcome reminder of her less-than-refined roots – are her underclass sisters Daisy (Judy Cornwell) and Rose (Shirley Stelfox in series 1; Mary Millar thereafter), and Daisy’s proudly “bone-idle” husband Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes). They, along with Hyacinth’s senile father, frequently turn up inconveniently (usually in their clapped out Ford Cortina Mk IV – which always makes a characteristic backfire when it pulls up), with Hyacinth going to great lengths to avoid them (saying “Richard, you know I love my family, but that’s no reason why I should have to acknowledge them in broad daylight!”). Hyacinth’s senile father frequently has flashbacks to the Second World War, and often exhibits bizarre behaviour, sometimes involving embarrassing situations with women (Onslow describes him as “barmy”). Two relatives Hyacinth is not ashamed of are her wealthy sister Violet (Anna Dawson) and her unseen son Sheridan. Violet frequently telephones Hyacinth for advice, allowing her to loudly announce to anyone in earshot, “It’s my sister Violet – the one with a Mercedes, swimming pool, sauna and room for a pony”. However, Violet’s social acceptability is damaged by the eccentric behaviour of her transvestite, equestrian-loving husband Bruce, whom she violently attacks because of his behaviour. Hyacinth also tries to impress people with the intellectual prowess of her beloved Sheridan (who actually only takes courses in needlework at a polytechnic). Hyacinth boasts about the “psychic” closeness of their relationship and how often he writes to her and phones her, although he never writes to her and usually phone calls her only to ask for money (much to the despair of Richard). Hyacinth is blissfully oblivious of the seemingly obvious hints that Sheridan, who lives with a man named Tarquin (who makes his own curtains, wears silk pyjamas, and has won prizes for embroidery), is homosexual. It is at one point implied that Sheridan has come out to his father.
Hyacinth’s neighbour Elizabeth Warden (Josephine Tewson) is frequently invited round to the Buckets’ for coffee. Though she is ordinarily calm, Liz’s nerves go to pieces in Hyacinth’s house, causing her to smash Hyacinth’s china and spill coffee and biscuits on Hyacinth’s Burmese rug. She is married with a daughter away at University, but her husband works abroad and, like Sheridan, neither character ever appears. Elizabeth is occasionally able to ‘one-up’ Hyacinth herself by reminding her neighbour that her daughter is at University, whilst Sheridan is studying at a lesser Polytechnic. Liz’s brother Emmet (David Griffin) moves in with her at the beginning of series 2 after a messy divorce. Hyacinth, upon learning that Emmet is a musician, frequently and abruptly sings out-of-key at him in an attempt to get a part in one of his productions, making him terrified of leaving the house, lest she see him (“She’ll sing at me!”). Emmet’s problems are further complicated by Hyacinth’s mistaken belief that his frightened reactions indicate that he is infatuated with her, which in fact could not be further from the truth.
Hyacinth frequently confronts the postman with complaints, such as having to receive mail bearing second class stamps, harassing him to the point that he will go to extreme lengths not to face her; and she often forces workmen and other visitors to her home to remove their shoes before entering. Michael, the vicar of the local church (Jeremy Gittins) is also loath to face the overbearing Hyacinth, whom he refers to (behind her back) as “the Bucket woman.” The vicar and his wife sometimes exact comic revenge on Hyacinth for her snobbishness; on one occasion, when she was one of a group of volunteer helpers at the church, the vicar’s wife saw to it that Hyacinth’s hand went up prematurely and assigned her the job of cleaning the church toilets.
by simon schofield