Today is the birthday of the brilliant British comic actress Dame Patricia Routledge (b. 1929). What a testament to the importance of luck in the creation of performance magic is Routledge’s career. Her resume is stuffed with substantial credits: a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, winner of an Olivier Award and a Tony. I’d previously seen her in films many a time without particularly noting her. She’s in To Sir With Love (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). Her list of credits is much much longer than this, and she is much better known to British audiences to American ones, through tv, film and theatre.
But talent and experience are only part of what makes for greatness. Sometimes the right actor gets the right part at the right time and alchemy occurs. Such is the case with Routledge’s role as the ever-striving (upward) housewife Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced “Bouquet’!”) on Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995). I was instantly smitten with this comic creation the first time I saw it. Hyacinth is a middle class provincial woman who makes life hell for everyone around her with her insufferable pretensions.
Meanwhile, reality is always giving the lie to her schemes. Her origins are in the lower classes. Her crass relatives are always showing up to her embarrass her. She’s always being appalled, chagrined, exasperated. And she herself is never quite up to what she attempts. She mispronounces words. Her attempts at a posh accent and manners are transparently silly. Her efforts to claim her modest home and surroundings are somehow grand are at once heroic, sad, and obvious. In her denial of the world around her, she is definitely a spiritual heiress to Don Quixote. And Routledge has the prodigious talent, skill and intelligence to play it that way. She has the range to give us the pretentious elocution and rolled “R”s, but at the same time she’ll go for broke and rob the character of ALL dignity, and just go into utter slapstick in her desperate attempts to keep her subterfuges going. She pulls funny faces, and falls into the mud. She’s constantly peeking from behind things to see how her plans are playing out — and not liking what she sees.
Along for the ride is her long suffering husband Richard (Clive Swift), a minor local official whom she is forever trying to turn into a big shot. If Hyacinth is Quixote, Richard is less like her Sancho than her Rocinante, the pathetic, elderly horse who passively accepts his miserable lot in life. He grumbles but he doesn’t fight Hyacinth’s plots and schemes. He just does what she tells him, always with full knowledge of impending disaster. Her constant cycle of failure gives the show a poignancy, and elevates Hyacinth to one of the great modern comic creations.
Credit must be given to the show’s writer/creator Roy Clarke (obviously not the country singer) who conceived and built this perfect comic engine. Not only does it contain everything Routledge needed to give full-on broadly comical performances, but there’s something inherently, timeless, eloquently English about the theme of class-jumping and the clash between reality and fantasy in Hyacinth’s head. She wants to be “somebody”. She is not to content to be herself. The theme is also modern and universal, which is why Keeping Up Appearances has proven to be the BBC’s biggest export. It certainly resonates here in America. It struck an enormous chord with this correspondent.
A few months ago, the BBC launched a prequel series called Young Hyacinth, without Routledge’s participation. She’s 87 today; she’s earned a rest. Happy birthday Dame Patricia. How glad Hyacinth would be to know that she’s being portrayed by one of the nobility!
For more on slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc