Set in the fictional department store of Grace Brothers, Are You Being Served? was the brainchild of Jeremy Lloyd, a scriptwriter who had just returned to his native Britain from the USA where he'd been writing gags for Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Unable to find work, Lloyd sent off a synopsis to both of the main English networks, and soon heard from BBC producer David Croft who suggested himself as co-writer and producer. The pilot, having been made, was then awaiting its debut in the BBC's popular Comedy Playhouse series when tragedy struck.
The murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the subsequent cancellation of preceding sporting events meant that the BBC had programming slots to fill. Are You being Served? was chosen as one of those fillers.
The situations took place mainly on the first floor of the department store, which was divided into two sections-men and ladies apparel. Joining the two departments was floor-walking supervisor Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton), an ex-regimental type who tried to keep some semblance of order in the middle of 30 minutes of 'Carry-On' style innuendo.
On the men's side this was mostly provided by Mr Humphries, a homosexual comedy stereotype whose response to Captain Peacock's question, "Mr Humphries, are you free?" was a high pitched, "I'm free!" with tape measure ever poised to take the inside leg measurement of the next male customer. John Inman (a former Austin Reed window dresser) came in for much criticism for his portrayal from gay groups, unhappy that there were no public figures at that time redressing the balance of the general public's view of such characters, and therefore leaving them open to ridicule. However, this didn't stop Inman being voted 'Funniest Man on Television' by readers of the TV Times as well as BBC Personality of the Year.
Although some may still be a little offended by Inman's performance the fact of the matter is that in later years both actor and character became something of a gay icon. Mind you, the most risqué lines were given to the head of the women's department, Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), her of the blue, red or purple rinse, who literally bought the house down with constant references to her 'pussy', which everyone knew (of course) was her pet cat.
Other sales staff included a pre-EastEnders Wendy Richard as the innocent Miss Brahms, ageing assistant Mr Grainger (Arthur Bough), department junior Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister), and his later replacement Mr Spooner (Mike Berry). Overseeing the department was Mr Rumbold (Nicholas Smith), who was directly answerable to the Grace Brothers Board of Directors headed by 'Young' Mr Grace (Harold Bennett), who was in fact a failing geriatric who would occasionally visit the sales-floor flanked by a couple of buxom 'secretaries'. Former music hall 'spiv' Arthur English starred as warehouseman Mr Harmen.
At the height of its success Are You Being Served? reached an audience of 22 million viewers (for a 1979 episode), John Inman had a minor 'in character' hit record in 1975 and there was a full length movie version in 1977, but by 1985 the programme was showing signs of age and at the end of series ten Grace Brothers closed for business for the last time. However, that wasn't the end of the story-for many of the characters were returned for a spin-off series Grace and Favour. AYBS was also a big hit in the US (where it was shown on PBS) although an American version, Beane's of Boston never went beyond its pilot. John Inman also appeared in the Australian adaptation which ran for 16 episodes between 1980-1981.
Published on November 27th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.