ARE YOU BEING SERVED had a long run on British TV, from 1972 to 1985. This groundbreaking series paved the way for many other famous Brticoms. But this one was the first to feature a gay character and delighted audiences with its naughty and unending double entendres.
Set in a dismal department store, Grace Brothers, the basic plot revolves around the sales people in the ladies' and gents' departments, forced to share floor space. Of course there are other store employees and many hapless customers. This basic structure saw something like 69 episodes filmed over 13 years as well as many cast changes.
The series was first seen as a starring vehicle for the swinging bachelor, Mr. Lucas, played by Trevor Bannister. As the junior sales clerk in the men's department, Lucas was always short of money and anxious to get out of the store to chase "birds." But after a few episodes two other characters emerged from the pack as audience favorites.
The blowzy Mrs. Slocombe, played by Mollie Sugden, was a middle-aged woman with an ever-changing hair color. She could switch between Cockney and Posh accents in a heartbeat and was often the butt of Lucas' crude jokes. Mrs. Slocombe had an alarming habit of referring to her "pussy" but was always blithely unaware of how these stories were taken by others.
The character of Mr. Humphries, played by John Inman, embraced many gay stereotypes but at heart he was a sweet and non-threatening character. Like Mrs. Slocombe, he had his own set of double entendres, but he winkingly made it known he knew exactly what he was saying.
Other main characters included the pompous floorwalker, Captain Peacock, played by Frank Thornton; the busty sales girl Miss Brahms, played by Wendy Richard, the crusty senior sales clerk, Mr. Grainger, played by Arthur Borough, the dim manager, Mr. Rumbold, played by Nicholas Smith, and the ancient store owner, Young Mr. Grace, played by Harold Bennett.
There were also crude maintenance men, Mr. Mash, played by Larry Martyn, who was succeeded by Mr. Harman, played by Arthur English, and a series of busty-but-dumb secretaries.
After Bannister left the series and Borough passed away, there was a series of replacements for these characters but none were terribly successful. Pop star Mike Berry had a decent run as Mr. Spooner, "the junior," and a series of actors had turns replacing Borough as "the senior." Alfie Bass, James Hayter, Benny Lee, and Milo Sperber all had short runs.
Over all the years, however, the hearts of the series were Mollie Sugden and John Inman. Both were superb comic actors who were game for just about anything. Anything here meant outlandish costumes (Inman often in drag), musical numbers, dances, and knock-about slapstick comedy that was done live and apparently in front of an audience. Sugden was often asked to wear ridiculous costumes, ranging from rompers to lederhosen. Inman even appeared as his own mother.
The bottom line is that this series was silly but sweet. Its crude language and situations were easily forgiven because the actors were so damned good. Like a handful of other TV classics, ARE YOU BEING SERVED has never stopped running. This was a famous import for PBS) along with other Britcoms) and became a staple of that network.
The show was so popular, it spawned a 1977 movie in which the gang all go on holiday together. There was also a sequel series called GRAVE AND FAVOUR or ARE YOU BEING SERVED AGAIN? In which Sugden, Inman, Thornton, Richard, and Smith all retire to the country and run a hotel (owned by Grace Brothers) in exchange for free board.
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