As Are You Being Served? reaches its half-century, Roger Lewis salutes Grace Brothers – and Mrs Slocombe’s legendary pussy
Anthony Powell made fun of the sort of credulous reader who, if a novelist mentions in a novel something left behind in a Brighton hotel room, will try to visit that hotel room in Brighton and look for it.
I am just that sort of person, my disbelief totally suspended. Applying Powell’s dictum to my behaviour as a telly-viewer, I’d give anything to stay at Crossroads, dine at Fawlty Towers, travel on Reg Varney’s bus.
The settings are always enchanted for me – Walmington-on-Sea is exactly like St Leonards-on-Sea, and perhaps I live in the vicinity for that very reason. I’m always on the lookout for Private Godfrey’s sister Dolly.
I’d work in a factory if it had a canteen like the one in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, where people can ask the staff, ‘Are you as good at sex as you are at chips?’, and where to the question ‘What would happen if I asked for camomile tea?’ the answer is an unimprovable ‘Nothing. We haven’t got any.’
The department store in Are You Being Served? is another magical spot – the malfunctioning lift, the glass display cabinets, the brownish mannequins. Everything is antiquated, more than slightly shabby.
Grace Brothers is exactly like the ones I remember in Cardiff, Howells and David Morgan, where people went to order wedding-present crockery, curtains for the front room, rolls of carpet and fancy goods. There were tea rooms with doilies. The atmosphere was genteel – and everything was being swiftly swept away by supermarkets and out-of-town shopping malls. Debenhams was the last of the behemoths, and that chain has quite gone.
The forlorn mood is what David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd (one of Dame Lumley’s earlier husbands) captured in their classic comedy series. There is a distinct sense the department store is the Last Stand for a certain sort of Dunkirk-spirit Britishness, found also in the Carry Ons, Arkwright’s corner shop, anything involving Richard Wattis and, latterly, Peter Kay’s Phoenix Club.
There were 69 episodes of Are You Being Served?, stretching from September 1972 until April 1985. That’s to say, the programme covered the entirety of my later childhood and early adulthood, and 22 million people tuned in every week.
If it’s a shop, there were never many customers. There was plenty of time, therefore, for the cast to mess about. And, as with the Home Guard platoon in Dad’s Army, or the National Servicemen in Malaya in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, or the duff holiday-camp stalwarts in Hi-de-Hi!, what we had was a fine ensemble of pantomime ghouls.
My favourite was Mollie Sugden’s Mrs Slocombe, in the ladies’ department, her bouffant hair in mad shades of purple or bright red. The sheer ribaldry of the gynaecology jokes, ie feline references, makes me wonder even now whether the seventies was either very innocent or very sophisticated: ‘Ooh, what about this fog? My pussy’s been gasping all night.’
Mrs Slocombe’s legendary pussy, firmly remaining offscreen, was always wet, frozen, in need of an airing, a stroke or a session with its clockwork mouse. Mrs Slocombe didn’t like to stay on late because, ‘At seven o’clock, my pussy’s expecting to see a friendly face.’
I still find this hysterical. What has definitely dated – in the sense that comedy, given time, turns into something tragic – is John Inman’s Mr Humphries.
It is a brilliant, poignant performance, of the mid-century nelly, limp-wristed, his walk a clenched mince. His fluting catchphrase, ‘I’m free!’, was taken up by the nation – but it did rather ingrain the notion that homosexuals were effeminate, absurd, there to be derided.
Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey had been there before, and Larry Grayson (‘Shut that door!’) was on our screens concurrently. But Mr Humphries, ‘a mother’s boy’ in Croft’s description, belongs to the era when gaiety meant, beyond the jokes, sickness and perversion.
That everyone was rather torn by their guilty reactions and emotions, and wished to atone, is suggested by the fact that Inman was in 1976 voted both Funniest Man on Television and BBC Personality of the Year. In my opinion, he deserved the Nobel Prize for telling us with a straight face, ‘My trousers are too tight and my potatoes are boiling over.’
When he died in 2007, he left £2.8 million – the residuals added up.
Not that sex is plain sailing in any direction in British comedy. Are You Being Served? contained ‘Young’ Mr Grace, owner of the store, an elderly and miserly lecher surrounded by dolly birds – bosomy and curvaceous secretaries and nurses. Harold Bennett, who played the old creep, was born in 1898. Beyond his haughty façade, Frank Thornton’s Captain Peacock, the dapper floor-manager, a ‘nit-picking old busybody’, was also easily discombobulated by thoughts of Miss Brahms, the young assistant over at the brassière counter.
When, ostensibly referring to improved sales in men’s fashions, Peacock mentioned ‘movements in the trouser department’, not even the studio audience dared laugh – there’s a momentary awkwardness, especially from Frank Thornton.
I met Frank often at the Garrick. He had the same sort of unflappable dourness. He said his proudest moment was being cast, in 1969, as a one-armed Diogenes Club porter by Billy Wilder for the Sherlock Holmes flop.
Miss Brahms – played by Wendy Richard, who’d been Private Walker’s girlfriend, and who was decidedly attractive in those days, before she went on to become an old drab in EastEnders – is also the object of lust for Mr Lucas, the flustered and somewhat elderly junior member of men’s drapery, played by Trevor Bannister.
‘If your brains was dynamite,’ Miss Brahms tells him in broad Cockney, ‘you still wouldn’t have enough to blow your ears off.’
Mr Lucas’s boss is the cranky, gnome-like Mr Grainger, played by Arthur Brough, who used to run the end-of-the-pier theatre in Folkestone.
Nothing much happens – the original cast (all dead, incidentally) bicker, dress up at every opportunity for parties or a dance class; they fall out and sulk, reconcile and embrace.
Are You Being Served? was a vehicle, really, for a lot of broad camp gags about knickers, knockers, inside-leg measurements and what’s worn under a kilt. Every episode had misunderstandings about drawers, chests and boilers.
If it is cold, somebody will say, ‘Do you know, I can’t feel any of my extremities? It’s unusual for me.’
When Mrs Slocombe is having trouble with her television reception, she says, ‘Twiddle his knob, somebody. He’s out of focus.’
When somebody else again mentions his wife’s ghastly cuisine, Mr Lucas fondly recalls a girlfriend who’s ‘had a lot of experience in the kitchen – only very little of it is to do with cooking’.
Such was the success of the show there was a feature-film spin-off, where they all went to Costa Plonka. It’s entirely predictable – the unfinished hotel, shortage of rooms, unlocked lavatories, filthy foreign food, leering locals, Mexican bandits. Andrew Sachs, pre-incarnating Manuel, is the hotel manager, who falls for Mrs Slocombe’s ‘boobidoos’, to her annoyance.
There’s a funny sequence where Mrs Slocombe gets her passport photos done and is upended in the booth. John Inman parades through the airport in a pink trouser suit with matching fedora – he was never far away from being a panto dame, a role he played in the provinces for years.
As Inman says in one episode, ‘Oh, my word, doesn’t the year fly quickly? One minute, it’s O Come All Ye Faithful; the next minute, you’re flat on your back in the sand.’ Indeed.
Are You Being Served? is part of the archaeology of British light entertainment, which seems now to have been taking place in a Never Never Land, where there were no immigrants, climate-change concerns, mass illiteracy of social media, transgender anxieties – though I’d argue John Inman was a pioneer, in holding or implying that we all participate in both genders.
It’s about Britain as a conglomeration of misfits and sad soaks, keeping up appearances, getting through the working week, battling against hierarchies.
Somewhere in the world, Are You Being Served? is still being repeated, every single day.