In the week when the comedy world bid farewell to comedy actor Clive Swift, it seems the perfect opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate his most celebrated role as the downtrodden but ever-reliable Richard in Roy Clarke’s ladder climbing sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. First broadcast on the 29th October 1990 the series followed the lives of husband and wife Hyacinth and Richard Bucket as they reflected the social climbing culture of the late eighties. For over five years and forty four episodes, the series gave birth to some of sitcoms memorable characters which helped to make it one of the most popular sitcoms of the nineties. Yet there were many contributing factors that made it so as we are about to find out…
With an unrivalled pedigree of sitcom triumphs, writer Roy Clarke has been responsible for some of British comedy’s finest moments. Getting his first writing break on the ITV sitcom The Misfits in 1970, Clarke was selected as one of the writers on the 1973 Ronnie Barker series Seven Of One which saw seven individual pilots centred around the versatility of Barker which gave birth to Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais’ Porridge and Open All Hours which was based on Roy’s upbringing in South Yorkshire. By 1976 Roy had two successful simultaneous sitcoms on the go, making him one of the hottest TV writers around following the success of the geriatric madcap series Last Of The Summer Wine which began in the previous year. Clarke’s other offering for Seven Of One eventually made a series in 1984 entitled The Magnificent Evans yet the costume design and overall production lead to the show’s downfall. But by 1990 Clarke was ready to put this disappointment aside and work with the BBC in creating a new sitcom. Of course Last Of The Summer Wine was still going strong but had failed to pen something which would reinstate him as a British comedy heavyweight.
Clarke based the character of Hyacinth on a combination of people who he had grown up with. In fact he is always adamant to highlight that everyone knows a Hyacinth Bucket who thinks they’re way above their station and would love to be accepted within a world where they don’t belong. He told the Daily Mirror “ “Hyacinth Bucket was the least invented of all the characters I’ve found in my head over the years. I took her largely from life,” This is right at the heart of where the comedy stems from as Hyacinth so desires to be in the world of aristocracy but time after time her working class routes and earthy family led by council estate slobs Daisy and Onslow always let her down. To create this illusion, she goes to lengthy extremes including organising candlelight suppers for those who she deems the social elite.
After Keeping Up Appearances, Roy Clarke continued to pen the scripts for the long running Last Of The Summer Wine until 2010 after an unprecedented 295 episodes making it the longest sitcom in history. Yet the veteran writer wasn’t done with TV comedy yet and for his next venture he made the surprising move to return one of his most endearing sitcom characters to the small screen. A Christmas special of the newly titled Still Open All Hours starring David Jason surrounded by the bizarre goings on in Britain’s most famous corner shop was aired on Boxing Day 2013 with a further five series which followed in the succeeding years. Once again Roy Clarke had hit on something that the British public seemed to like and forty years after the first episode of Open All Hours, it seemed that the nation’s appetite for tight shopkeepers had never gone away. Now into its fifth series, Still Open All Hours is now a staple of BBC1’s winter schedule proving that Roy Clarke remains one of Britain’s most enduring writers and one of the key ingredients in the success and longevity of Keeping Up Appearances.
Theatrical stalwart Patricia Routledge has been treading the boards since her debut at the Liverpool playhouse in 1952 before gracing the Broadway stage just four years later in the musical How’s The World Treating You? A long-standing member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Routledge appeared in such acclaimed productions as the 1983 Richard III, which starred Antony Sher in the title role. She then made a gradual progression to the West End appearing in such triumphs as Little Mary Sunshine, Cowardy Custard,Virtue in Danger, Noises Off,The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Solid Gold Cadillac to name but a few. In 1968 Patricia Routledge won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, sharing the honour with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby which attracted the attention of television producers and a string of supporting actor work followed her into the 1970’s.
Despite being one of the most coveted actresses of her generation, now into her third decade in entertainment, Routledge had yet to master the medium of television. This was all about to change in 1982 when she was cast in Alan Bennett’s groundbreaking monologue series Talking Heads. Chosen to launch the series in the episode entitled Lady of Letters, playing the part of clerical worker Peggy Schofield;the self-described linchpin of her office who reflects on her recent spell of bad health by giving her biased account of the runnings of her local hospital. Relishing the role of a slightly snobby middle aged housewife, we are able to see faint traces of Hyacinth Bucket for the very first time.
In 1983 Patricia united with the comic talents of Ronnies Corbett and Barker for the serial mystery caper Murder Is Served which was the perfect spoof to rival such previous Two Ronnies serials as The Phantom Raspberry Blower Of Old London and The Worm That Turned. Her appearance on The Two Ronnies gave Patricia a taste of the disciplines of television comedy; something which she would become synonymous with just under a decade later. This was promptly followed up with an offer from the comedy powerhouse Victoria Wood who cast her as Kitty; the self-righteous middle aged spinster from Cheadle who became the subject of a weekly Alan Bennettesque monologue talking about everything from the ageing process to foreign affairs. Patricia Routledge was now a household name and it wasn’t long before producers could see her as the star of a show.
When propositioned with the idea of playing Hyacinth Bucket, Routledge was able to see the instant comedy behind someone who thinks they’re something that they’re obviously not and the constant divisions that go with it. Hyacinth was definitely queen of her own castle and likes to make everyone aware of this fact at every given moment. Yet she was also a product of her time in that despite her forthright independence, she still relied on long suffering Richard to do practical things such as driving and fixing her extremely precious ornaments. From an outsider’s perspective (including the viewer to some extent) Hyacinth and Richard’s relationship seems doomed by a severe case of unbalanced control between the two of them. Yet there were moments, either in times of crisis or merely out of bitter frustration that Richard rightly asserted his authority and this was exactly what Hyacinth needed to keep her semi-grounded.
There are some defining roles on television which it is very difficult to imagine any other actor playing and Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket is the epitome of this. Her decision to call time on the sitcom in 1995 summed up her battle with the fear of being typecast. After Keeping Up Appearances Patricia returned to the more serious role as the investigator Hetty Wainthrop for a successful reboot of the BBC One crime drama. Yet Hyacinth still remains her most celebrated role and was one of the influencing factors in her being honoured with a knighthood in the 2017 birthday honours. It’s clear that the celebrated actress will forever be remembered as the undoubted queen of the candlelight supper.
It was at the prestigious Cambridge University while studying English that Clive Swift discovered his love for acting when he dabbled in the infamous dramatic society alongside contemporaries Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, Clive Swift made his stage debut as Snug in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1968 film production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of a cast that included Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren and Ian Richardson, Swift appeared as Doctor Black in M.R James’ adaptations of The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious for the BBC. On leaving Cambridge, the young actor joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for almost a decade, appearing in such notable productions as Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth and King Lear, as well as playing Inspector Voss in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists and the Sewerman in John Whiting’s The Devil. Whilst at the RSC, Clive also was cast in The Fool Away where he played the part of Dr Bushtact. Sadly this was short lived as a result of mixed reviews including The Manchester Guardian who regarded the play as “a depressing experience” but praised the cast.
In 1970 Clive got his first television break when he appeared in the crime series Inspector Waugh which ultimately lead to more Shakespeare but this time on television playing Friar Lawrence in the 1976 production of Romeo and Juliet and also appearing in Pericles and Othello. By 1988 Clive was a recognised television character actor and secured a role in the BBC black comedy series A Very Peculiar Practice alongside Peter Davison, Barbara Flynn and John Bird. This brought him into the sight of television producers and in 1990 he was cast as the career defining Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances.
To refer to Clive Swift’s portrayal of Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances as merely supporting cast is to miss the point of the whole series. Richard is absolutely vital to giving the occasionally ghastly character of Hyacinth some worth and much needed context. He is the ultimate voice of reason and while it’s clear that Mrs Bucket is definitely the queen of her own castle, Richard provides a vital grounded outlook to every situation. In many ways, he is the conscience of the audience frequently reacting to Hyacinth’s ridiculous goings on in the same way as we do. There’s no doubt that here is a man who personifies the word downtrodden but could still command authority when provoked. His practical skills were absolutely vital for Hyacinth to maintain her imaginary status within the community. He became her unofficial chauffeur, constantly criticised for not seeing irrelevant hazards which were nowhere near the car.
After Keeping Up Appearances Swift remained a constant face on our television screens and just like his early career, his offers of work encapsulated the whole breadth of TV drama. In 2002 he was cast as Reverend Eustacius Brewer in BBC1’s gentle Sunday night drama Born and Bred, which aired from 2002 to 2005. Then in 2009 Clive Swift returned to sitcom alongside Roger Lloyd Pack for The Old Guys where he was cast as the eligible bachelor Roy who together with his housemate Tom rediscovered his youth following separation from his wife Penny. Sadly, this was Swift’s last major television role but he perhaps be mostly remembered for his portrayal of the long suffering Richard Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances.
The Liverpudlian actor first came to public attention playing the window cleaner Eddie Yates in the soap Coronation Street in 1974. Prior to this the young actor had made his sitcom debut in Johnny Speight’s controversial sitcom Curry and Chips yet its somewhat politically incorrect tone made it the obvious target for critics which lead to the show’s demise after just one series. So when he popped up on the cobbles of Coronation Street, it was important that the public took to the character of Eddie Yates and they did. Being the loveable lodger to Stan and Hilda Ogden who he owned a window cleaning business with, Eddie frequently became peacemaker to the couple’s notorious colourful rows. After nine years on the cobbles, Eddie bid farewell to the street in 1983 when he got a transfer on the bins and left Weatherfield to start a new life in Bury.
Just seven years later Geoffrey Hughes would reappear as the overweight layabout Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances. The workshy husband to Daisy, Onslow lived in a cramped council house with sexuality frustrated sister in law Rose and Hyacinth’s father who has more of a social life than any of them. Onslow and Daisy were the original Jeremy Kyle couple who would often do everything from the comfort of their own bed and enjoyed a rapid sex life. Yet it was not always a bed of roses as he would often be required to save Rose from her various experiences with unsavoury men or find Father after he escaped the confines of his unseen bedroom.
Onslow and Hyacinth were worlds apart and this was regularly highlighted when they were forced to unite. His dog provided an easy comedic tool by stunning Hyacinth each and every time she walked up to the front door. Yet Onslow was the only character who regularly expressed sympathy and solicitude for Richard and understood that he was trapped by his own situation. Therefore there’s an unspoken understanding between Onslow and Hyacinth that never really gets addressed and there even might be some built up sexual tension which would never be resolved.
After Keeping Up Appearances Geoffrey Hughes went on to star in another successful sitcom as Twiggy in The Royle Family before being cast as Vernon Scripts in Heartbeat in 2001. Sadly Hughes passed away from cancer in 2012 leaving a whole host of TV characters in his wake. Yet surely his timeless portrayal of the opinionated slob Onslow in the popular sitcom means that Hughes may be gone but never forgotten.
Film and Television actress Judy Cornwall began her career as a radio actress appearing in such comedies as The Navy Lark but her first taste of success came on stage in the celebrated musical Oh What a Lovely War! Between 1974 and 1975 she starred alongside Dereck Waring for the bittersweet comedy drama Moody and Pegg surrounding the promising relationship between newly divorced Roland Moody and the civil service spinster Daphne Pegg.
In 1985 Judy was cast as Mother Claus in the festive blockbuster Santa Claus: The Movie alongside Dudley Moore and John Lithgoe. This gave her a taste of international acclaim and introduced her to U.S audience. The movie was an overnight hit all over the world and remains a staple of the festive TV schedule.
After Keeping Up Appearances Judy began life as an author writing her autobiography in 2005 followed by successful novels. She even turned up in Albert Square as the tyrant mother of Heather Trott before retirement in 2014.
A stalwart of British television comedy, Josephine Tewson’s cv reads like the story of comedy itself. Starting her career alongside Ronnies Corbett and Barker on LWT’s Frost On Sunday in 1968 before appearing in Ronnie Barker’s first solo vehicle Hark At Barker just a year later, giving birth to one of Barker’s memorable characters Lord Rustless who spawned a spin-off series His Lordship Entertains in 1972. Tewson was also part of David Frost’s repertory company who was responsible for the 1970 BAFTA awards which was pivotal to the creation of The Two Ronnies on BBC1 in 1971.
Tewson’s association with Ronnie Barker continued and in 1973 she was cast as Jane Travers; the maid of an upper class lady who Clarence is doing house clearing fo in a pilot written by Barker under the pseudonym Bob Ferris. Surprisingly it was a staggering fifteen years before the BBC decided to give it a six part series which was music to the ears of Tewson who always knew that it would be a hit. Yet the news came at a price as Ronnie Barker revealed that this world be his last television series before his retirement. Clarence and Travers quickly develop a friendship and end up living together in a celibate relationship as she helps him with everything from his poor eyesight to the running of his antiques business. Sure enough, after six episodes Ronnie Barker called it a day on one of the most successful careers in entertainment leaving his unofficial repertory company being forced to find other outlets for their talents.
Just two years later, Josephine was cast as Hyacinth’s next door neighbour; the retired spinster Elizabeth in Keeping Up Appearances. Forever scared by the presence of the formidable Hyacinth but too frightened to turn down invitations to tea, Elizabeth was always caught in an impossible situation not feeling the to decline. When she eventually went round she always went down with a severe case of clumsiness and would often smash Hyacinth’s prestigious crockery which made the situation progressively awkward. Living next door with brother Emmett (played by David Griffin), Elizabeth was a prisoner in her own house and would go to severe lengths to avoid all interactions with the formidable Hyacinth. Yet time after time Mrs Bucket always found a way to lure her in.
Beyond Keeping Up Appearances Josephine Tewson joined the cast of Roy Clarke’s Last Of The Summer Wine in 2003 as Mrs Davenport until the show’s sad end in 2010.
Clive Swift’s death possibly marks the end of an era for traditional supporting actors in the British sitcom. Yet if there is ever a positive side of death, surely the rediscovery of this timeless sitcom would be it. Keeping Up Appearances shall forever occupy a very special place in the hearts of the nation through its ability to contrast human nature within two different worlds. Britain has always and will always be obsessed with class and through finding the comedy in this, maybe it teaches us something about ourselves? So as the cast of this special sitcom continues to dwindle, it’s a tidy reminder of something which was outstandingly written, supremely created and perfectly acted. In a world with constant polls, surely Keeping Up Appearances is amongst the very best that sitcom can offer. It’s Bouquet!