I’m now going to attempt the impossible: I’m going to write an entire article about the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? without including the feline-based jokes that the programme’s very foundations were laid on. I know, I know – it’s never been done before, but I have to try.
Whether you found the show funny or not, I think we can all agree that it was never going to be recognised for its use of intelligent word play or highbrow humour; in fact, if you went through the scripts and removed every double entendre and sexual innuendo contained therein, the entire show would have consisted of the actors standing amongst the wobbly sets, looking at each other in silence and occasionally glancing at their watches, as the audience coughed and sucked boiled sweets until the floor manager told them all to go home.
Yet another pilot produced as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse set (which also included Steptoe and Son, The Liver Birds and Last of the Summer Wine) it was written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (‘Allo ‘Allo, Hi-de-Hi) and was first shown on 8 September 1972 to fill in space created on the channel when the Olympics were interrupted by the massacre in Munich. A full series began on 14 March 1973, although as it was put up against Coronation Street on the other side it didn’t immediately touch the nation’s conscience. Later that year it was shown again however, and slowly the audience numbers built up.
Set in the world of Grace Brothers’ London department store the show set about poking fun at the class system in Britain. The more middle or upper class the characters were, the more they looked down on anybody who was working class, and this was most apparent when members of the maintenance team were called to the shop floor. Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) was one of the main offenders in this regard. A floorwalker at Grace Brothers; he carried himself with an air of superiority over those he supervised, and spent a lot of his energy recounting his memories of his time in the military, although whilst he spoke at length as if he had been a Commando, it was later revealed that he’d actually only been in the Royal Army Service Corps.
At the beginning he was portrayed as a pedantic man, quick to rebuke his colleagues for minor discrepancies, and despite the fact that they’d worked together for a considerable amount of time he showed no loyalty towards any of them. Underlining this was an incident featuring Mr Humphries (John Inman) whom he accused of stealing from a shop till even though their long relationship should have inspired some trust. As the series progressed however, his attitude began to soften.
Junior Menswear Assistant Mr Humphries was a walking, talking innuendo – with the audience finding him funny seemingly just because he had a camp voice and minced a lot when he walked round the shop. He also gave rise to the most memorable catchphrase of the show (and possibly of 1970’s sitcoms in general); whenever he was asked if he was free to serve a customer he would reply ‘I’m free!’ (Yes, I know that’s not particularly funny, but he was CAMP remember?). As more and more episodes were churned out he would arrive at the store in a variety of different outfits (all of them camp), such as a sailor’s uniform or a biker’s jacket, and accompany them with a story of his wild evening the night before.
Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) was most famously known for two things. One was her ever-changing and garish hair colour (who said purple doesn’t look good on a bouffant?) and the second was the thing I said I wasn’t going to mention. I’m still not going to, because it’s puerile, not funny and everybody reading this is expecting me to, but it does mean that I’m left without much to say about Mrs Slocombe. She did pretend to be posher than she was however, and if she got cross about something her Northern accent would creep back in. She also used that comedy staple of mispronouncing her words, so that ‘centimeters’ may come out as ‘centipedes’ for example. Ha ha ha.
As the Senior of the Ladies’ Department Mrs Slocombe was responsible for overseeing the Junior Ladieswear Assistant Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard), and the two were close friends, despite a large age difference. She was a pretty, and extremely buxom Cockney who attracted a lot of attention from the male shop staff, with occasional flirtations between her and members of the Menswear department (yes, even Mr Humphries, although rest assured he was still camp throughout) but she was ultimately unsatisfied by her unglamorous life behind the counter.
69 episodes (now that’s fitting for a show so attached to innuendo, isn’t it?) of Are You Being Served were made which ran until April 1985. In the summer of 1976 a stage version appeared at the Winter Gardens Theatre in Blackpool – this was extremely well received and was later replicated for a film in 1977. In case you were curious, the cast were transported to the fictional Spanish beach resort of Costa Plonka (hilarious) for a holiday whilst the clothing department at Grace Brothers was refurbished.
The plot was the intellectual equal of the television programme, with the basic theme being that the hotel they were staying in was awful, and the only way to make the time pass was to try and pair off with another staff member that they found attractive. To do this they all sent notes to one another, with the end (and so obvious) result that the notes got mixed up and everybody got confused as to who was after who. Oh, and then some revolutionaries arrived at the hotel and started a shoot-out with the Spanish federal troops, with the shop crew caught in the middle, but that was secondary to the hilarious mix-ups with the notes of course…
The only bright side to this cinematic masterpiece were the appearances of both Andrew Sachs (Fawlty Towers) as the hotel manager, and Derek Griffiths (Play School, Bod, Heads and Tails) as a shop customer. Other than that it was hard to find anything positive to say about it. Surprisingly, the film received mostly terrible reviews.
The nation breathed a sigh of relief when the doors finally closed on Grace Brothers but in 1992 somebody at the BBC obviously decided the UK was ready for a second dose of – oops, I almost said it then – er, slang-word-for-cat humour and campness, and Grace and Favour hit our screens.
Captain Peacock, Mr Humphries, Mrs Slocombe and Miss Brahms plus a few additional characters found themselves running a country house after the death of the head of Grace Brothers and subsequent closure of the store. 12 episodes were broadcast over two series, but if I mention that one of the plot lines included them putting on a display of British culture and arts for a Mongolian tourist group, can we all agree that nothing further needs to be discussed in regards to this show?
So, there we have it – a look back at both Are You Being Served and Grace and Favour, and not one mention of ‘those’ jokes. Purrfect.