Hip Ennui has no place here: Why BBC’s Keepin Up Appearances is great.
In 1994, kids cooler than I, were mourning the death of Kurt Cobain. In 1994 Weezer released their Blue album. In 1994 I lived on a dairy farm. There was no computer, no internet, no myspace or itunes. I had ABC on television. In 1994 I loved a show called Keeping Up Appearances. I was 11 years old. I loved this show so much that when I had to have an MRI scan, I chose that as the show that I would watch on the little screen to pass the time (1 hour) inside the narrow tunnel. I was not allowed to move at all I was told. The Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine would take pictures of the inside of my body. The doctors were not interested in only one part. I was special. I was interesting, from tip to toe. A spectacular medical marvel. The Doctors wanted to see it all, in a bid to understand and fix.
Even though I was small and skinny like a baby bird, the space seemed very small when they lay me on the narrow bed and pushed me, gently in, head- first. The noise was deafening. A loud clanking and banging that hurt my head and made me wish my mother could have come inside the room with me. She was not able to as she was pregnant with my third sister at the time. It was the show about a woman obsessed with appearances, both etiquette and social standing, that made the time pass. The only problem was that the show made me giggle a bit and as a result I had to have a second MRI scan. The second time they gave me an anesthetic and I slept through the whole ordeal.
Why did I love that show so much? Why do I love it still? Then, I loved it because it was a welcome distraction from how very uncool and hapless I was compared to the other girls in my class. They were getting breasts and their periods. They were getting asked out by boys and then not really hanging out with them or talking to them much. It looked so cool. Then I loved it because I had no idea about all the awesome music that was happening all over the world. Keeping Up Appearances did not have cool young things in the show at all. They were all old and silly. They were not trying to get boyfriends. They were married or divorced. They were living rather wholesome lives. This must have been why my Mormon parents let us watch it. We were not allowed to watch Friends because of the sexual references. Also because my father could not stand ‘’That Amarican crap.’’ A term that I now find myself using when anyone mentions Two And A Half Men. This rarely happens, because I am not friends with people that watch that American sitcom crap.
Recently I was sick with the flu and decided to revisit Keeping Up Appearances, in its entirety. The show was first aired in 1990 and finished in 1995. Patricia Routledge, plays the matriarch of suburban snobbery, Hyacinth Bucket. She spends the series correcting everyone’s pronunciation of her name. ‘’It’s bouquet,’’ she says so often throughout the series that even you find yourself replicating her expression as she says it. I love her. She represents a exaggerated version of all of us. We all have our ways of keeping up our own appearance, be it what it may. With Hyacinth she is merely trying to uphold the values and ideas of class structure that are imbedded in British culture. Is she really so bad though? You ask yourself as you watch her get avoided by all the church ladies and how her neighbors, the brother and sister duo of Elizabeth and Emmet, try and get out of the house without gaining her attention. When looked at closer it can be seen that what Hyacinth suffers from is an over exuberance of good intentions. She practically smothers her long suffering husband in kindness. The episode where he gets foot fungus and she insists to everyone he has gout because it is the disease of nobleman and aristocracy, shows just how far she will go in order to be seen as important. She is important, just not for the reasons she thinks. Hyacinth may be over baring and obsessed with status but when her husband is asked by his neighbor Emmet, how he can stand being with someone like Hyacinth, his answer is touching and telling. ‘’She is very kind.’’ He answers simply. Kill them with kindness seems to be Hyancinth’s mantra, philosophy and action plan. She has many weapons of it at her disposal. Her famous candle lit suppers, inviting her neighbours Elizabeth and Emmet over for coffee, Singing at Emmett every time she sees him because she wants to be in any of the musical productions he is working on at anytime, volunteering at the church, her many phone conversations with her son Sheridan, and her 3 younger sisters and spear heading activities aim to keep up the appearance of a refined and distinguished lifestyle.
It is her and her sisters that really drive most of the story lines. Hyacinth truly loves her sisters but not equally when it comes to social standing. Violet is the one she speaks of to strangers, ‘’You know my sister, Violet. The one with a spa and room for a pony.’’ What she does not tell people, is that Violet’s husband is a little odd and erratic. We rarely see Violet but we get a strong idea of her plight through the conversations Hyacinth has with her on Hyacinth’s ‘’white slim line phone.’’ Violet has money but her marriage is volatile and her husband is often having a crisis of some sort, with hilarious consequences. They are proof that money does not buy happiness, it merely creates a better backdrop for the constant tragicomedy of existence. Hyacinth and her husband Richard, live on a respectable street, filled with large and well-kept houses, green lawns and rose bushes.
This sort of upper class serenity is a far cry from where the rest of her family lives. Daisy and her husband Onslo, Rose and their senile and active father.
They are lovely kind hearted and hopeless. They live in an old and unkempt house. The gate is constantly off its hinges and the dog lives in the car and barks at Hyacinth every time she visits, causing her to fall into a hedge in startled surprise.
As I too have three younger sisters, there is something oddly familiar about Hyacinth’s exasperation at her family. Like Hyacinth I love my sisters very much, BUT, there are times when I am at a loss to understand as to how we all came from the same womb. It is hard not to shake ones head at Christmas and think if not for birth and biology, the four of us would probably politely ignore one another on the street.
It is Daisy and Onslo that teach you a lot about love and just how blind it can be. If you have a significant other that has lasted decades, may you always see them as Daisy sees her Onslo. Onslo is to the more discerning eye, an over weight bone idle man with faded tattoos and a uniform of a stained white singlet and dirty jeans. His main past times are watching the racing while drinking a beer or packet of crisps, sleeping and contemplating the implications of things he learns from watching Open University. He does have a certain charm, however. This probably stems from the fact that in comparison to the exhausting rigmarole of social climbing that is Hyacinth’s obsession, Onslo has a very relaxed outlook to life in general. He sees no point in being anything but himself, regardless of his faults. In this aspect you could argue that Onslo is more self actualized than Hyacinth. Daisy sees something different in Onslo that seems invisible to the rest of us and thus garners a great deal of amusement. She is often worried about his less than zealous interest in their sex life. ‘’It wouldn’t bother me so much,’’ Daisy says with a sigh, ‘’If he weren’t so attractive to the opposite sex.’’
We often catch her gazing at him all starry eyes and grinning.
Rose is the baby of the family and is constantly dating married men. She is a free spirit and in love with love. You never once hear her complain about not being married or having children. She swings from one romantic drama to the next. I find her incredibly sex positive. ‘’Don’t knock it, I’ve had some of my best moments being cheap and common.’’ She says. I did not relish that line so much when I first heard it at age 11 but re – watching it post sexual awakenings, it gave me a real gleeful kick. Of course her siblings affectionately slut shame her but, she never pays it any heed. She gives up men practically every second episode. She just as often takes them back up again. She is not in her 20s anymore and seems blissfully unaware of any implications to that. In the house of ill repute, life slugs along interspersed with father drama.
Daisy and Rose won Daddy and it astounds me as to why? I mean, they are the poorest and Hyacinth and Violet have more room in their better houses. Of course Hyacinth clears this up the best she can by saying, ‘’Poor Daddy. I’d have him if he was more reliable in the bathroom.’’ Throughout the series we are presented with variations of this expression. There are many reasons why Daddy cannot live with Hyacinth and Richard. There is an answer to this and that is that Daisy and Rose are simply more kind. Also there may be some sortof benefit they get from the government. The father figure takes up skateboarding, relives the war, rents out his room, invites a women back and forgets who she is by morning. It would not be such an issue except that everytime Hyacinth tries to rescue her father, people she knows come in and complicates everything. It is very difficult to present oneself as elegant and refined, when one is trying to get their father out of a toy shop, or, when one is involved in a car chase with ones own father.
What makes the show so amazing by todays standards is that it is completely free of self aware irony or dissonance. There is nothing cool or hip about this show at all. No edgy soundtrack or pop culture references. In the world of Hyacinth and her sisters, they run the show. They get the best lines and move the action forward. The men simply tag along bemused and resigned. This is a womans world. A world where you do not need to be young and beautiful and rich in order to be happy. Keeping Up Appearances makes older age look interesting and dramatic and just as unpredictable as being young. One year after this show ends An American writer has a magnum opus published for the first time. It has over 1000 pages and is a galloping ride through life in a tennis academy and a drug and alcohol rehabilitation hospice. The author is David Foster Wallace and the tomb of words is entitled Infinite Jest. In this book one of the main characters young and smart Hal Incandenza muses on the complexities of American art and culture.
“It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui.’’
This is why Keeping Up Appearances matters. It is a show that is unabashedly sentimental and niave. There is no nasty gritty edge or desire to be aloof and cold. Every character in the show cares about something and cares very much about these chosen things. Hyacinth loves Richard and desires to be part of the social elite. Richard wants to keep Hyacinth happy and to keep the peace. Daisy loves her Onslo and cares not a jot about his being bone idle and more rotund than muscular. Rose loves love. Onslo cares about his Daisy in his way. The most romantic thing he ever says to her is, ‘’there is no body I want with me more than you, when I’m working on me pipes.’’ They have the kind of relationship that is not widely shown on television or in films. The representation of the day to day drudgery of long term love, with humor and the odd flash of jealousy. There are many screen shots of them both in bed together, Daisy reading her romance novels and Onslo sleeping, or sitting up with her just contemplating the last horrible dream he had. What is more beautiful than that? There is nobody quoting someone smarter than themselves in order to make someone else feel stupid or out of touch. There is nobody telling you what you ‘should’ read, or what you ‘should’ listen to. The characters of Keeping Up Appearances illustrate what it is to be truly human. ‘’In order to do this you must be naive and overly sentimental be goo-prone.’’ as young and pot smoking Hal Incandenza speculates in Infinite Jest.
That is the thing with being naive; it is not until the last vestiges of it have faded away, that you realize how beautiful it can be. Which is why I love this cheesy show so very much. It provides a throw back to a time, and a version of myself I can never have back again.
I miss it, being naïve, from time to time.