TV: ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

by Peter Tatchell (copyright 2009) 

The setting is the staid, well-past-its-prime Grace Bros. department store run by a decrepit proprietor with a penchant for busty young secretaries. Take the lift to the clothing floor and you’ll encounter an officious military type gent, a camp-as-a-row-of-tents inside-leg measurer and a feline-fancier who regularly suffers bad-hair-days in technicolor.

It may not have been art, but there’s no denying the success of Are You Being Served? For over twenty years its players enjoyed enormous public affection and conquered television markets at home and overseas.

The brainchild of actor/writer Jeremy Lloyd (fresh from a short stint on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in Los Angeles) the show was co-authored by producer David Croft as a follow-up to his legendary Dad’s Army. The pair dreamed up the serendipitous mix of over-the-top characters, silly situations and a regular dose of outlandish costumes and bawdy gadget displays.

The timing of the venture was fortuitous … 1970’s British television overflowed with sauce and double entendre. Colour had just arrived and the offerings of Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and even Morecambe and Wise (on occasion) were often as colourful as the traditional seaside postcard.  

Liberated sitcoms of the “swinging sixties” (Steptoe & Son, Till Death Us Do Part and On the Buses) often used earthiness to the point of vulgarity, but it would take until 1971 for this near-the-knuckle sauciness to appear in a significant way outside the variety format. One of the catalysts was Are You Being Served?  

Arriving unannounced as a last-minute replacement for the BBC’s Olympic Games coverage (unavailable owing to a terrorist action), the half-hour pilot edition found immediate popularity with the viewing audience and spawned the first of ten seasons six months later.

The little-known ensemble cast was largely made up of support players whose faces were far more familiar than their names. Mrs. Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) and Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard) represent Grace Bros. Ladies Apparel, which finds itself forced to co-habit a floor with their counterparts in Gents Clothing, Messrs. Grainger (Arthur Brough), Humphries (John Inman) and Lucas (Trevor Bannister). Acting as referee in the ensuing territorial tug-of-war are floorwalker Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) and department head Mr. Rumbold (Nicholas Smith). In the plush executive offices upstairs are Young Mr. Grace (Harold Bennett) and his secretary, while in a dinghy back room basement is Mr. Mash (Larry Martyn) and his trolley.

The format for the series stayed more or less the same throughout its fourteen year run, the only notable variation being the comings and goings of cast members. Larry Martyn was unable to appear in series 4 (owing to another engagement) and was replaced by comedian Arthur English as a similar character named Mr. Harman, who stayed until the end of the run.

Ill heath forced the retirement of Arthur Brough after the fifth season and though replacements were tried (James Hayter as Mr. Tebbs in series 6 and Alfie Bass as Mr. Goldberg in series 7) eventually the part was allowed to lapse.

Another conflict of commitments prevented Trevor Bannister from appearing in the eighth series and Mike Berry (as Mr. Spooner) became the new junior in the menswear department. Harold Bennett was unable to continue beyond a few appearances that season and Kenneth Waller signed on as “Young” Mr. Grace’s older brother.      

As with many popular 1970s sitcoms, Are You Being Served? soon found itself translated into other areas of the entertainment world. In the middle of 1976 a theatrical adaptation was staged at the Winter Gardens Pavilion in Blackpool. Five of the original cast reprised their roles (Inman, Sugden, Thornton, Richard and Smith) while, owing to budgetary constraints, other actors took over the parts of Lucas, Grainger and Mash. It was enormously successful.

Then, a year later, came a popular film version starring the entire cast (as at series 5).

By 1980, the TEN Network in far off Australia (which had enjoyed great success in repeat screenings of the series) decided to create their own adaptation of the show. The plot had Mr. Humphries jetting off to Sydney to work at a local department store where the staff are amazingly similar to their Grace Bros. counterparts. Writers Lloyd and Croft adapted their scripts from the seventh and eighth season (which were then embargoed from being screened in Australia) and added a handful of those from the first season to complete the package. The Australian cast included June Bronhill, Reg Gilliam and Shane Bourne in the venture, which ran two seasons and a total of fifteen episodes.     

When Inman returned to Britain, the show continued for several more series until production ceased in 1985. By then, the writers thought they had thoroughly exhausted plotlines for the characters in the department store setting.

There was to be an encore however. In 1991, the BBC commissioned a spin-off series called Grace and Favour, the idea being the employees take charge of a rustic Tudor hotel “Millstone Manor” to salvage something from their mismanaged Grace Bros. pension scheme. Cast members Inman, Sudgen, Thornton, Richard and Smith signed on for the show, with Lloyd and Croft writing storylines more akin to a serial than individual playlets. It ran a dozen episodes spread over two seasons before the famous ensemble finally went their separate ways.

Cast

Mollie Sugden
John Inman
Frank Thornton
Wendy Richard
Trevor Bannister (series 1 to 7)
Arthur Brough (series 1 to 5)
Nicholas Smith
Harold Bennett (series 1 to 8)
Larry Martyn (series 1 to 3)
Arthur English (series 4 to 10)
Mike Berry (series 8 to 10)

Episode Guide 

Comedy Playhouse: Are You Being Served? BBC1 September 8 1972

Series 1: BBC1 March 21 to April 18 1973
1/1  Dear Sexy Knickers
1/2  Our Figures Are Slipping
1/3  Camping In
1/4  His and Hers
1/5  Diamonds Are a Man’s Best Friend 

Series 2: BBC1 March 14 to April 11 1974
2/1  The Clock
2/2  Cold Comfort
2/3  The Think Tank
2/4  Big Brother
2/5  Hoorah For the Holidays 

Series 3: BBC1 February 27 to April 17 1975
3/1  The Hand of Fate
3/2  Coffee Morning
3/3  Up Captain Peacock
3/4  Cold Store
3/5  Wedding Bells
3/6  German Week
3/7  Shoulder to Shoulder
3/8  New Look 

Special: BBC1 December 22 1975
Christmas Crackers 

Series 4: BBC1 April 8 to May 13 1976
4/1  No Sale
4/2  Top Hat and Tails
4/3  Forward Mr. Grainger
4/4  Fire Practice
4/5  Fifty Years On
4/6  Oh, What a Tangled Web 

Seaside Special: BBC1 June 19 1976
included an Are You Being Served? sketch
featuring John Inman, Wendy Richard, Molly Sugden, Frank Thornton and Nicholas Smith (who were appearing in the stage version in Blackpool at the time) 

Special: BBC1 December 24 1976
The Father Christmas Affair 

Series 5: BBC1 February 25 to April 8 1977
5/1  Mrs. Slocombe Expects
5/2  A Change is as Good as a Rest
5/3  Founder’s Day
5/4  The Old Order Changes
5/5  Take-Over
5/6  Goodbye Mr. Grainger
5/7  It Pays to Advertise

Series 6: BBC1 November 15 to December 13 1978
6/1  By Appointment
6/2  The Club
6/3  Do You Take This Man?
6/4  Shedding the Load
6/5  A Bliss Girl 

Special: BBC1 December 26 1978 
Happy Returns

Series 7: BBC1 October 19 to November 30 1979
7/1  The Junior
7/2  Strong Stuff, This Insurance
7/3  The Apartment
7/4  Mrs. Slocombe, Senior Person
7/5  The Hero
7/6  Anything You Can Do
7/7  The Agent

Special: BBC1 December 26 1979
The Punch and Judy Affair 

Series 8: BBC1 April 9 to May 28 1981
8/1  Is it Catching?
8/2  A Personal Problem
8/3  Front Page Story
8/4  Sit Out
8/5  Heir Apparent
8/6  Closed Circuit
8/7  The Erotic Dreams of Mrs. Slocombe

Special: BBC1 December 24 1981
Roots? 

Series 9: BBC1 April 22 to May 27 1983
9/1  The Secret Smell of Success
9/2  Conduct Unbecoming
9/3  Memories Are Made of This
9/4  Calling All Customers
9/5  Monkey Business
9/6  Lost and Found 

Series 10: BBC1 February 18 to April 1 1985
10/1  Goodbye Mrs. Slocombe
10/2  Grounds for Divorce
10/3  The Hold Up
10/4  Gambling Fever
10/5  The Night Club
10/6  Friends and Neighbours
10/7  The Pop Star

  

ARE YOU BEING SERVED? (movie version)

Starring Mollie Sugden, John Inman, Frank Thornton, Trevor Bannister, Wendy Richard, Arthur Brough, Nicholas Smith, Harold Bennett, Arthur English, Andrew Sachs, Glyn Houston
(EMI, 95 minutes, released August 25 1977)

ARE YOU BEING SERVED? (Australian version)

Starring John Inman, June Bronhill, Reg Gilliam, Shane Bourne, Judith Woodriffe, Anthony Bazell, Peter Collingwood, Basil Clarke, Ken Fraser, Christine Amor

Series 1: TEN Network June 16 to August 4 1980
1/1  Keep Fit Down Under (remake of 7/2)
1/2  The Hero (remake of 7/5)
1/3  Mrs. Crawford, Senior Person (remake of 7/4)
1/4  The Agent (remake of 7/7)
1/5  The Apartment (remake of 7/3)
1/6  The Junior (remake of 7/1)
1/7  Punch and Judy (remake of 1979 Christmas special)
1/8  Anything You Can Do (remake of 7/6)

The John Inman Show: TEN Network August 11 1980
A 60 minute variety special featuring the cast of the series

Series 2: TEN Network February 28 to April 9 1981
2/1  Heir Apparent (remake of 8/5)
2/2  Camping In (remake of 1/3)
2/3  Front Page Story (remake of 8/3)
2/4  Our Figures Are Slipping (remake of 1/2)
2/5  Undesirable Alien (reworking of 8/7)
2/6  Diamonds Are a Man’s Best Friend (remake of 1/5)
2/7  His and Hers (remake of 1/4)

GRACE AND FAVOUR

Series 1:  BBC1 January 10 to February 14 1992
1/1 
The Inheritance
1/2  Trouble with the Law
1/3  The Court Case
1/4  Staff Interviews
1/5  No Staff for the Photo
1/6  The American Guests 

Series 2:  BBC1 January 4 to February 8 1993
2/1  The Pistol
2/2  Cricket
2/3  Mr. Slocombe
2/4  Curse of the Petrified Cat
2/5  The Darts Match
2/6  Mongolian Businessmen

 (* episodes had no official titles)

 

Books

ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
by Jeremy Lloyd (Mayflower paperback, London. 1976)

ARE YOU BEING SERVED? – The Book of the Film
by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (Everest paperback, London. 1977)

ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
by Richard Webber with David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd (Orion Media, London. 1998)
paperback edition retitled I’M FREE

 

DVDs

BBC Video has released all ten series of Are You Being Served? (including the pilot episode and the five Christmas editions) and both seasons of Grace and Favour on DVD.

The film version has also been issued on DVD, but to date the Australian editions are not available.

 

Recordings

 

JOHN INMAN

Are You Being Served, Sir / We All Love Captain Ginger
DJM single DJS 602

Teddy Bear’s Picnic/Sun Signs
DJM single DJS 645

Tiny Seed of Love/Rudolph Valentino
DJM single DJS 671

ARE YOU BEING SERVED SIR?
DJM LP DJP 20468/DJLPS 468
Are You Being Served Sir?
Teddy Bear’s Picnic
Buttons and Bows
My Big Best Shoes
Come to the Supermarket (in Old Peking)
Nobody Does it Like Me
Sun Signs
The Sailor with the Navy Blue Eyes
I’m Too Old to be a Mermaid
How Do You Do It?
The Fleet’s in Port Again
We All Love Captain Ginger

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Nellie the Elephant/Chickery Chick/How Much is that Doggie in the Window?
DJM EP DJS 10728

I’m Free/You Shan’t Come and Play in Our Yard
DJM single DJS 10793

I’M FREE
DJM LP DJF 20510
I’m Free
No Strings
The Best Things in Life are Free
I Guess I’ll Have to Change my Plans
Alley Cat
Oh the Fairies
Three Little Fishes
Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)
Give a Little Whistle
I’ve Got No Strings
You Shan’t Come and Play in Our Yard
Odd Man Out

JOHN INMAN – WITH A BIT OF BRASS
Interfusion LP 80810
Tandem Song (parody)
The King’s Horses
The Laughing Policeman
Pennsylvania Polka
Northern Lament
Lily of Laguna
76 Trombones
The Music Goes Round and Round
A Policeman’s Lot
With Catlike Tread
Christopher Robin
Omm Pah Pah!
My Gran’s Trombone

 

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