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Are You Being Served? (1973-85)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Are You Being Served? (1973-85)
BBC, tx. 14/3/1973-1/4/1985
69 x 30 min episodes, colour
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducersDavid Croft, Martin Shardlow, Harold Snoad, Bob Spiers
ScriptwritersJeremy Lloyd, David Croft, Michael Knowles, John Chapman

Cast: John Inman (Mr Humphries), Wendy Richard (Miss Brahms), Nicholas Smith (Mr Rumbold), Mollie Sugden (Mrs Slocombe), Frank Thornton (Captain Peacock), Trevor Bannister (Mr Lucas), Arthur Brough (Mr Grainger), Harold Bennett (Young Mr Grace), Arthur English (Mr Harman)

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The workplace antics of staff on the clothing floor at Grace Brothers, a venerable but fading department store in London. Floorwalker Captain Peacock supervises Ladies' Fashions (run by the redoubtable Mrs Slocombe) and Men's Wear (featuring camp salesman Mr.Humphries) as they struggle with management and each other.

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Are You Being Served? was an enormous ratings hit for over a decade, with characters like Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) and Mr Humphries (John Inman) familiar to all. Unlike many great British sitcoms, the show's success was exportable, and it proved hugely popular in the USA, Australia and elsewhere. It remains emblematic of a particular strand of British humour: like seaside postcards and the Carry On films, it is full of broad stereotypes, vulgar innuendo and slapstick situations.

However, the sitcom has paid for its popularity. Commentators often characterise Grace Brothers and its audience as a symbol for British small-mindedness and decline. Critic Stuart Jeffries puts a diatribe about the show at the centre of his study of British television (called, suitably enough, Mrs Slocombe's Pussy).

So does Are You Being Served? deserve to be damned as representing all that is wrong with British comedy, and by default British people? Certainly there are some debit points. It could be coarse, predictable (the joke about said pussy turned up with mind-numbing frequency) and often went for the lowest common denominator. Later series descended into increasingly desperate clowning and the film version is unspeakable.

Yet there is also much that is funny, durable and even subtle in the series' best scenes. It brilliantly uses its broad characters to satirise working life. Work is shown as unremitting drudgery, keeping us down and continually reminding us of our essential failure. Paradoxically, this produces the best laughs in the show through the constant humiliation of authority: the store owner, 'Young' Mr Grace (Harold Bennett), is a decrepit old lecher, middle manager Rumbold (Nicholas Smith) laughably inept, and floorwalker Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) a pompous figure of fun. The view of the workplace in this 'reactionary' sitcom sometimes feels scripted by Arthur Scargill, though, being British, the staff endure their situation, grumbling profusely and falling out amongst themselves.

Much controversy at the time came from the portrayal of Mr Humphries, the screamingly camp menswear assistant. Certainly at a time when there were so few representations of gay men it was a stereotypical one. However, now it seems much less offensive, partly because Mr Humphries emerges as the only character with any dignity and self-respect. Compared to the self-loathing of his downtrodden colleagues, his cry of 'I'm free' seems apt.

Are You Being Served? is sometimes an embarrassment, sometimes a guilty pleasure, but often just a pleasure.

Phil Wickham

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Video Clips
1. Grainger's promotion (3:57)
2. Grainger the ogre (3:22)
3. Sent to Coventry (3:06)
Complete episode (29:20)
Open All Hours (1973-85)
Croft, David (1922-2011) and Perry, Jimmy (1923-)
Perry, Jimmy (1923-) and Croft, David (1922-)
Spiers, Bob (1945-2008)