HomeReviewWomen in the Box: Hyacinth Bucket, Keeping Up Appearances

Women in the Box: Hyacinth Bucket, Keeping Up Appearances

The mere mention of an invitation to her candlelight suppers would send people fleeing.

Milkmen attempted to hire scouts to venture to her door rather than approach it themselves.

If you ever dared to call her “Bucket” instead of “Bouquet,” she could make your blood run cold with little more than the dreaded wince/withering stare combo.

If she resided in Westeros, even Tywin Lannister would say, “screw this,” and hand over the Iron Throne rather than endure another story about her dear son Sheridan.

The “she” in question is Hyacinth Bucket, the lady of the house and the star of the wildly successful British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995).

Keeping Up Appearances often treated Hyacinth, portrayed by the great screen and stage actress Patricia Routledge, as if she were Godzilla with exquisite table manners and an impressive collection of hats.

Hyacinth hailed from a lower-class background, one that her sisters Rose (Shirley Stelfox, season one; Mary Millar, seasons two-five) and Daisy (Judy Cornwell) were living reminders of.

She spent nearly every episode devising schemes to climb the social ladder.

Thanks to her long-suffering husband, Richard (Clive Swift), Hyacinth enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.

However, she always carried with her the whiff of new money without realizing it.

Many episodes revolved around her attempts to one-up the neighbors by touring expensive country homes (season four’s “Looking at Properties”), pretending to shop for an expensive vacation (season three’s “How To Go On Holiday Without Really Trying (Travel Brochure)”), or forcing poor Richard to smile while gardening so the neighbors would assume they didn’t have a gardener because Richard enjoyed the hobby so much.

In fact, Richard’s gardening techniques were always up for critique.

In season one’s “The New Vicar,” Hyacinth informs him, “If you have to perspire, I wish you’d go into the back garden, so as not to disturb the people who respect us socially.”

hyacinth bucket
Hyacinth is an enthusiastic social climber, always seeking to associate with those she perceives as upper-class or aristocratic.

The sad truth is that as outlandish as Hyacinth’s behavior appears, she is, to some extent, an accurate representation of a small segment of the middle class that is both socially obsessed and snobbish.

Part of what made the series so entertaining is the likelihood that you’ve encountered a Hyacinth.

During the recession, the phrase “Hyacinth Bucket Syndrome” was coined to describe the refusal to downsize due to fear of what the neighbors might think.

Hyacinth’s behavior is by no means exclusive to her gender; there are plenty of male counterparts, and Hyacinth owes a great deal to at least one of them.

Most of the women we’ve discussed prior to Hyacinth have been essentially likable characters. While it’s easy to admire Hyacinth’s headstrong nature (she may be totally oblivious, but she deserves credit for her unwavering confidence), she is the first truly abrasive protagonist we’ve discussed.

However, there’s a fine line between abrasive and funny, and she has her male counterpart, Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) of the classic Fawlty Towers, to thank for establishing that comedic line.

Basil paved the way for Hyacinth to be as obliviously awful and pretentious as she could be without crossing the line from humorous to insufferable.

The key difference between Hyacinth and Basil is that Basil had human foils.

His wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) was always present to challenge his schemes to eliminate undesirables and attract a more bourgeois clientele for his decrepit hotel.

In the 1979 episode “Waldorf Salad,” he meets his match in an easily outraged American. But Hyacinth?

She was too terrifying to evoke anything beyond hushed whispers of “that Bucket woman” behind her back.

hyacinth Keeping Up Appearances
Richard is the long-suffering husband who often finds himself reluctantly embroiled in his wife’s schemes.

A significant portion of the series’ humor derived from Hyacinth’s complete lack of awareness that the people she imposed herself upon were appalled by her antics.

In Hyacinth’s mind, she was a beloved and indispensable community member. To everyone else, she was a nuisance.

The one person she could consider a true friend was Elizabeth (Josephine Tewson), her nervous next-door neighbor, who was routinely held hostage at tea time, where Hyacinth would fray her nerves so severely that Elizabeth inevitably found a way to either spill her tea or break a piece of Hyacinth’s “Royal Doulton china with the hand-painted periwinkles.”

What Hyacinth lacked in human foils, she more than compensated for with her quirks.

Hyacinth’s grand schemes consistently went awry, creating situations where the series undeniably prompted us to laugh at her rather than with her.

Routledge’s exceptional talent for physical comedy provided the writers with numerous creative opportunities to engineer scenarios in which Hyacinth would topple overboard from her so-called “yacht” (which was, in reality, a tiny boat) or find herself trapped in compromising situations with her husband (as seen in the classic scene from this 1993 interview with Judy Spiers).

Hyacinth was adept at painting herself into social corners from which she couldn’t extricate herself because she couldn’t be content with her current lifestyle.

It was her insatiable ambition that invariably got her into trouble.

hyacinth on the show
Hyacinth’s relatives, particularly her sisters Daisy and Rose, provide ample opportunities for humor. She often tries to distance herself from her working-class relatives.

Hyacinth’s supposed acts of kindness were invariably smokescreens for her social climbing.

In the fifth season episode “Skis,” she purchases skis for Richard, who has no interest in skiing, as a birthday gift and then compels him to parade them around town, sticking out through the windows of their car, so the neighbors can behold their ostentatious display of affluence.

The situation becomes even more absurd when they encounter two elderly women whom Hyacinth wishes to befriend.

She insists on giving them a ride in the car, where the skis trap them.

Instead of taking them to their desired destination, she drives them to visit her wealthy sister Violet (“the one with a Mercedes, swimming pool, sauna, and room for a pony,” but Hyacinth conveniently omits the fact that Violet has a cross-dressing husband and a failing marriage).

It wasn’t until the fifth season (in “A Barbeque at Violet’s”) that Richard finally loses his temper and yells at Hyacinth for provoking a man in a telephone booth.

The man tells Richard, “Well done, sir. In wartime, you would have received a medal for courage like that.” However, Richard’s outburst is a one-time occurrence.

Throughout five seasons, Hyacinth is allowed to casually insult and dominate everyone she encounters.

She is particularly unkind to her sisters and brother-in-law Onslow (Geoffrey Hughes), who often insists on speaking to her while wearing only a vest just to annoy her.

Whenever Rose and Daisy appear at events or the Bucket residence unexpectedly, Hyacinth either instructs Richard to turn them away or makes every effort to usher them out of sight herself.

This is further complicated by the distinctive backfire of Onslow’s car announcing their arrival.

In her unique way, Hyacinth did care for her family, but she strongly preferred to keep them out of the public eye.

Her interventions in Rose’s (whose love life was as legendary as her melodramatic post-breakup displays) attention-seeking dramatics were somewhat commendable.

However, the most intriguing familial relationship Hyacinth had was with her senile father.

While she spoke affectionately of her father, she never allowed him to move in with her and Richard. Instead, she left him in the care of Rose, Daisy, and Onslow.

This arrangement led to a series of mishaps, during which Daddy occasionally rode his bicycle naked through the streets, collected horse manure for his chilblains, accosted any women he encountered, and experienced the occasional wartime flashback, standing guard at the door wearing a gas mask and carrying a bayonet (a situation only Hyacinth dared to defuse).

Of course, Hyacinth always found a way to portray his behavior as heroic or innocent, both to save face and to reinforce the illusions of her perfect lifestyle.

Women in the Box: Hyacinth Bucket Keeping Up Appearances
Hyacinth is known for her eccentricities, including her love of fine china, her fixation on hygiene and cleanliness, and her determination to lead an upper-class life despite her humble origins.

Still, despite her numerous flaws and domineering personality, Hyacinth is a trailblazer of sorts.

Few female characters have held such an iron grip on their world while sporting pristine white gloves.

In an age when we often prefer our protagonists to revel in their worst traits (paging Walter White and Don Draper), Hyacinth would seamlessly fit in—though she would proudly stand ten feet away from them, holding her head high, as she would never stand too close to a dubious meth dealer or a drunken ad man.

After all, what would the neighbors think?

Read More: Women in the Box: Rita Capkovic, The Rockford Files

Nirajan Shrestha
Nirajan Shrestha
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