Amusing Names 5

Women in the UK and USA do not have as many quaint and comical names as men do, but the decorous  -illa and -ella variation includes Priscilla and Prunella, as well as Drusilla. The first one has been redeemed by the impressively talented comic actress Priscilla Presley, wife of Elvis, and star of the very funny Naked Gun slapstick movies, with the late Leslie Nielsen as a wonderfully poker-faced and bungling NY chief of police. Prunella Scales aka Sybil of Fawlty Towers, adaptively deaf wife of the insufferable hotelier Basil, has single-handedly dignified and even exalted her rare and peculiar name. You imagine her schoolmates cruelly talking about prunes and all things to do with the bowels, but it has left no mark on Scales, who surely was at her astonishing best as Miss Mapp in the 1985 Channel 4 adaptation of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (forget about the recent BBC version). I would like to give you some heartfelt, and important advice at this point. If you are seriously tired of life, or just bored and in need of some felicity and enrichment, get hold of the DVD set, and sit back and be stunned by  the virtuoso comic acting and timing of Scales, as breezily overbearing busybody Mapp, Nigel Hawthorne as mincing Georgie and his bibelots, Denis Lill as barking dipsomaniac Major Benjy, and Geraldine McEwan aka ‘how you all do work me!’ with her pretentious four words of Italian, as preposterous Lucia. In 1985 my wife Annie and I not only cancelled everything, and watched every single episode entranced, but  with the new millennium, viewed the DVD set entire once a month for the best part of a decade. I would emphatically say it is the finest comic TV drama ever made, and assuredly that ever will be made, and consequently my only melancholy reflection is that Channel 4 who commissioned it, has now become a nest of unlovely vipers, producing nothing but prurient and brainless drivel. Back in 1982 when it started, C4 was supposed to be ITV’s answer to the cultural channel BBC2. Now that the latter is also sedulously aping its fallen and ludicrous counterpart as best it can, there is literally nothing but unspeakable pap (and that includes all those risible and mendacious soap operas known as the News Programmes) to watch on the erstwhile analogue channels.

The best known Drusilla is Drusilla Beyfus, second wife of the veteran theatre critic Milton Shulman, who died at the age of 90. He famously slagged off both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, so at least you can acknowledge he is good and catholic in his disparagements. Beyfus is coy if not secretive about her date of birth, but it is somewhere in the 1920s. As mother of Nicola Shulman, who is the Marchioness of Normanby, and of Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, it is not retrospectively surprising that she is one of Debrett’s favourites (though she won’t even tell them her age) and an expert on social etiquette. Beyfus wrote a bestselling book called Modern Manners, which tells you how best to hold your knife and fork,  and what to write by way of a thank you letter to your godmother.

Doesn’t it after all make you glad to be British, that there is someone posher than posh, who by way of certification is called Drusilla rather than Madge or Karen, and makes good lucre, by advising you on prime time telly how to hold your bloody old fish knives?

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