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In Praise of Hyacinth Bucket

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When I first started this blog, I said that narratives build moral universes and ask us to live in them. 

That is, narratives create a structure that assumes a set of judgments on the behavior of the characters in them, and invites us to (at least implicitly) accept those judgments, to live for a while as if what is morally right and what is morally wrong is what the narrative assumes they are.

An obvious example of the thing of thing I mean are the Ocean movies, where George Clooney, Brad Pitt and half the rest of Hollywood play master theives out to make big scores by stealing from casinos or stealing rare art.

In real life, we do not (most of us) condone this sort of thing.  Placed on a jury, we’d send their asses to jail in two minutes flat.

Within the movies, however, these characters and what they do are not only morally acceptable but admirable, and with less fussing than you’d think they’d need.  The people they’re stealing from are vaguely assumed to be “bad guys,” and that’s enough.

For Donald E. Westlake in the Dortmunder novels, you don’t even need that.  Dortmunder is a thief, and his status as a hero rests on the simple fact that he’s not also a murderer.  Since he’s often trying to catch one of those, well, we forgive him for the stealing.

Or just forget about it.

Successful narratives draw you into their moral world seamlessly, without your even noticing that you’re being led into moral territory at all, never mind moral territory you might not approve of if  you knew what you were doing.

That’s why Plato hated poetry, why he wrote about morality as being first and foremost the countering of the works of Homer.  Homer’s moral universe was everything Plato thought was bad, and Homer was more effective at recruiting people to  his side, because narrative is more effective for that than argument.

But it occurred to me that not all narratives are successful in this way, and not all narratives are successful with everybody who is exposed to them.  Part of that is the skill of the author.  Part of that is the strength of the surrounding moral culture. 

Which brings me to the title of this post, and the British sitcom it refers to.

The British sitcom is a silly little thing, called Keeping Up Appearances, and it was never one of the ones that really caught on in the States. 

I’ve got my suspicions as to why, but let me outline the situation in the situation comedy first.

Hyacinth Bucket is one of four sisters from a very poor, very downmarket family.  She’s married to Richard, who is a good, straightforwardly middle class professional man who works for the local council (the local government).  They have a nice house in a nice neighborhood that is also very solidly middle class, next door to Elizabeth, who is yet again solidly middle class, and her brother Emmett, who is the same.

I may have mispelled Emmett.

Anyway, Hyacinth is, in many ways, a thoroughly awful woman.  She’s pretentious in the extreme, always pretending to know things she does not, always “putting on airs” and making herself out to be practically an aristocrat.  She also never listens to anybody. and never shuts up.  Worse–in British eyes–she tends to talk about personal things and intrude herself into personal spaces.  Richard’s last name, she insists, is pronounced “Boo-kay.”

The awfulness of Hyancinth is contrasted repeatedly with the good, down-to-earth authenticity of her sisters, especially Daisy and Rose.  Daisy is married to Onslow and Rose screws everything that moves, but the real point is that they’re all on the dole, and have been for all their lives.  Their house is a mess, their yard has a derelict car in it, and the front gate is rotted and falling apart.  All the middle class characters like them, however, because the middle class characters aren’t really class snobs, they just prefer people who are “real.”

As I said before, KUA never did as well as some other British sitcoms in the states, and I think I know why.  The strength of the surrounding culture does matter, and I think Americans instinctively feel uncomfortable with the fun being made of Hyacinth Bucket.  Yes, the woman is ridiculous, but…but it looks like class snobbery anyway. 

I actually like Hyacinth Bucket, and when I sat so on an Internet forum, a guy from Australia announced that that figured, that was just the kind of person I’d like.

Well, I agree with him, but that’s because I see Hyacinth as a different “kind of person” than he does.

Think about it:  here is a woman born not just into poverty, but into squalor and generational welfare dependence.  She not only got out–her sister Violet did, too, by marrying a very successful “turf accountant” (bookie, legal in England)–but she has managed to maintain the essentials of middle class life every since.

She has a lot of energy, which is presented as awful–but lack of energy leads to that broken front gate back at her sisters’ house, and the dirt and garbage that is everywhere there.  Lack of energy is why Onslow spends his life either betting on horses or watching the races on television, all on the government’s dime, and dressed in scruffy, torn and worn garments that wouldn’t get him past the front door at a job interview.

I keep trying to remember the term for the energy it takes to achieve liftoff into space, and I can’t come up with it–but the fact is that sometimes you need more of it than you do at other times.

Elizabeth and Emmett can be relaxed and casual about their lives because they’ve always been middle class.  Hyacinth has to achieve middle-classness by actively fighting a contravaling tendency, the thing she was born into, the thing she can never fight too hard against.

The other stuff–the silly social pretentions, the pretense at knowing and understanding the things educated people are supposed to enjoy (like classical music)–seem to me to be essentially spin off from the other thing.  The British educational system being what it is, Hyacinth can’t go back and get the education she missed, so she pretends to it.  Like Oscar Wilde’s hypocrisy, Hyacinth’s pretentions are the tribute ignorance pays to education.

Sometimes this show does things that take me aback, and that seem to hint at deeper assumptions at work.

For instance, there is an episode in which Hyacinth and Richard are booked on the Queen Elizabeth for a ‘luxury cruise,” something Hyacinth has always wanted.  They have a good but not spectacular stateroom, but it is a good one, and they can afford it.  Years of work on both their parts–Richard’s at his job, Hyacinth at the house, both of them raising their son–have made this possible for them.

Hyacinth, of course, wants to be at the Captain’s table and invited to the Captain’s cocktail party, neither of which she gets. That’s for first class passengers only.

The joke is–Onslow and Daisy do get invited to both, because their on the ship in the most luxurious of the first class cabins.  Onslow won a radio contest, and there they are. 

The first time I saw this, I was almost shocked.  The underlying message seemed to be that hard work and dedication matter not at all–you’re more likely to get nice things and privileges by luck.  And that is, in fact, essentially what this series is about.  Hard work and energy are to be deplored, not celebrated.  They make you stupid and obnoxious,  not admirable.  If you were born into the kind of family that spends its time drinking beer and watching telly, you’re a better person if you stay right there and don’t go chewing up the scenery trying to be better than you are.

I think Americans found it possible to laugh at Hyacinth’s pretentions, but did not find it possible to laugh at her aspirations.  When I watch this thing, I’m always rooting for Hyacinth to get what she wants.  And I really don’t understand why she’s the one we should have contempt for and Daisy and Onslow the ones we should admire, when she’s paying Daisy and Onslow’s phone bill.

I do want to note, though–I own several DVDs of this series.  I do not want to change it, and I do not want to censor it.

I do want to analyze it, though, and in the end my strength of my moral culture is too much for the underlying premise.

It’s freezing here, and I need tea.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2010 at 6:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'In Praise of Hyacinth Bucket'

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  1. I think ‘escape velocity’ is the term you’re looking for.

    I’ve been vaguely meaning to try to get my hands on ‘Keeping up Appearances’ because it sounds like the sort of thing I’d like and I’ve seen and heard Patricia Routledge in “Ladies of Letters” and “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates”. I notice that one of the rural library branches has a copy of Keeping up Appearances I can borrow. Did you know that Patricia Routledge has played Hildegarde of Bingen? And Mad Margaret! I wonder if that performance is on DVD!

    I think an additional reason a Hyacinth character is funny is that she has such difficulty being middle class which is something a lot of viewers find quite easy. And it’s not because the British system doesn’t allow her to become educated in middle class mores; a lot of people manage that by observation! Seeing someone get something so easy (to us) so wrong gives a lot of guilty pleasure and amusement to a lot of us – me included, sometimes.

    Reversal of expectations is a basic aspect of comedy – the poor relations leapfrogging over the rich ones is classic. There might not be anything more than that in the rivalry over the Captain’s Table. Yesterday I heard a little radio story attributed to Chaplin, who was supposedly asked how he could make a joke out of a fat woman slipping on a banana peel. He said you show her walking down the street, show the banana peel, show her smiling with pride as she steps past it and then falls into a manhole. Same principle – set up one expectation, and then have the reverse happen.


    12 May 10 at 7:07 am

  2. See also the Agatha Raisin mysteries and to a lesser extent, E.F. Benson’s Lucia with her pretentions to culture.


    12 May 10 at 10:48 am

  3. Cheryl’s right: “escape velocity” is the term.

    I’ve heard of but not seen the series. It does seem to fit with the adage that “the British will tell you you can’t make it, and when you do anyway, they’ll key your car.” They aren’t all like that, and they can’t have been, but certainly self-made men and those who start their own businesses are less admired in Britain and Japan than they are in the US.

    But how you respond to having “made it” is a factor everywhere. From the French Revolution: Napoleon famously watched his quarrelling, haughty siblings with and observed that they “seemed to think his late majesty, our father, had bequeathed us thrones.”

    On the other extreme was Marshal LeFebvre, Duke of Danzig. He was a sergeant before the Revolution and his wife a charlady. The story goes that at one Imperial ball someone announced “The Marshal and Marshallesse the Duke and Duchess of Danzig” and she elbowed the servant, saying “hey, boy, what do you think of that?” (It’s also said they sent money to some of the once-wealthy families she used to “do” for–but anonymously, so they wouldn’t be embarassed.) No surprise that the Duke of Danzig and his wife–completely uncultured and barely literate–didn’t grate on people the way Napoleon’s brothers, the “Kings” of Westphalia, Holland and Spain did.

    It’s said that another of the Marshals was being mocked once for having no ancestors, and said “look at me: I AM an ancestor.” Well, fair enough.

    Fake family trees, newly minted coats of arms and staircases “going nowhere, just for show” ought to be fair game, but no one should be mocked for prudence, frugality, hard work and ambition.

    They often are, though.


    12 May 10 at 4:01 pm

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