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Friday, September 07, 2012

Are You Being Served?

It has been months since I did a focus on a British television show, and I thought that today would be a great day to talk about one of the UK's most successful programs. Not only did it garner huge ratings in Great Britain, but it also became a hit with American audiences due to its quick wit, strong cast, and double entendres galore.

The show is set in a large department store located in the heart of downtown London, and I have to admit that part of the reason why I love this show more than I did before is because I can sort of relate to it. After all, the show is set in a retail establishment, and I've been working in retail for almost eight years now. Even though I work in the food department, and the show is set mainly in the fashion area, there are quite a bit of similar experiences between what I have gone through at my workplace and what the experiences of the various people on this program dealt with during the series run.

Mind you, almost all of the situations that are featured in this program are ones that I have never experienced at my own workplace. In my nearly eight years of retail, I have never sold home-made perfume, set up an after hours night club on the sales floor, or wrote a love letter to someone with the greeting “Dear Sexy Knickers”.

Yet, these are all plot lines that aired during the run of the BBC series “Are You Being Served?”, which aired for sixty-nine episodes over the course of thirteen years.

The program was created by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, and was heavily inspired by the work experiences of Lloyd, who like the characters featured on the program worked in a department store chain, “Simpsons of Piccadilly” during the 1950s. As far as the store design itself, the look of the fictional “Grace Brothers Department Store” was inspired by two other stores...”Rossiters of Paignton” and “Clements of Watford”, both places that Lloyd and Croft worked at.

The pilot episode of the program aired on September 8, 1972 (meaning that tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the program). This was a bit unusual for British television, as many television shows produced in Britain debuted at the beginning of the calendar year. But due to the tragic events of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, there was free airtime available to air the pilot.

The pilot was rebroadcast in March 1973, but failed to get much attention, as it was then airing opposite ratings juggernaut “Coronation Street”. It was only after a couple of airings that the show really began to take off. During the show's peak, it managed to attract an average of 22 million people per episode.

TRIVIA: Originally, the pilot episode of the series was filmed in colour, but unfortunately, the tape that contained the pilot was erased. The only footage that existed was a 16mm film recording in black and white. But in 2009, the pilot episode was restored to full colour using the technology known as “colour recovery”, and the restored version aired on British television on January 1, 2010.

Now, you can't have a television show without a cast of characters, and “Are You Being Served?” had some of the best actors and actresses ever assembled. Not only did they keep the audience in stitches the whole time, but they also had wonderful chemistry with each other.

When the show began, there were eight main characters cast, and of those eight, five of them managed to stay on the entire series run. Each of these characters had their own distinct personalities, and each one had their own jobs within the store. Part of the humour of the show stemmed from the idea that each character had their own strong personalities that often clashed with someone else's. The show also implemented sight gags, misunderstandings, and slapstick comedy, and successfully poked fun at the British class system. The employees of the store rarely referred to themselves by their first names, which added to the comedic effect.

So, let's meet some of the staff, shall we?

First, there's Captain Stephen Peacock (Frank Thornton). He works at the store as a floorwalker, but prior to joining the staff of Grace Brothers, he was enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps. When we are first introduced to Captain Peacock, he has the attitude that he is better than everyone else, even though he started off as a floor sweeper. At the beginning of the series, he was stuffy, stodgy, and old-fashioned, and who did everything by the rule book. But as time progressed, his exterior softened a bit, and he ended up sticking by his employees more.

Then there was Mrs. Betty Mary Elizabeth Jennifer Rachel Abergavenny Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), the Senior of the Ladies Department at Grace Brothers. She is known for mainly two things. Firstly, in each episode of the show, her hair is dyed an unusual colour such as lime green, bright purple, or sky blue. And secondly, she tells the staff of the store lots of stories about her beloved cat, Tiddles. Though whenever she told these stories, she didn't exactly refer to her cat as a “cat”. Just watch the series of clips below. You'll get it.

Mrs. Slocombe's best friend (and employee) in the store is Miss Shirley Brahms (Wendy Richard), who works as the junior ladieswear assistant. In the earliest episodes, she is quite hard to understand as she speaks with a heavy Cockney accent, but whenever she talks on the telephone, the accent is relaxed, and she becomes easier to comprehend. 

She is widely considered to be the sex symbol of the program, and is often placed in situations which allowed her to showcase almost all of her best features. She is also considered to be a modern girl and a real woman of the 1970s. She is extremely proud of her working-class roots, but this doesn't stop her from wanting a more luxurious lifestyle. Although Miss Brahms makes up for this by having a busy social life.

Mr. Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries (John Inman) was the store's junior menswear associate. He also happened to keep the audience guessing in regards to his sexuality. It was purposely dealt with in an ambiguous nature so that it made it impossible to tell whether he was straight or gay. He was also known for his one-liners and his outrageous dress style. Take a look to see what I mean.

TRIVIA: When Australia attempted their own version of “Are You Being Served?”, John Inman was the only person from the show to reprise his role in that series.

Other characters who appeared on the program were Mr. Cuthbert Rumbold (Nicholas Smith), a department manager of the store who often could be confused or forgetful, Mr. Ernest Grainger (Arthur Brough), an employee of Grace Brothers for over 40 years, who was often caught dozing on the job, Mr. Mash (Latty Martyn), a maintenance man who was often scolded by Captain Peacock for being on the sales floor during opening hours, and Mr. Dick Lucas (Trevor Bannister), a young junior salesman who despite his pathetic bank account managed to charm the ladies.

TRIVIA: On the show, Trevor Bannister's character was supposed to be in his mid-twenties when the show's pilot aired in 1972. In real life, Trevor Bannister was thirty-seven years old at the time the pilot was filmed. In case you were wondering, the youngest cast member of the original group was Wendy Richard, who was 29 when she was cast on the program.

The show would end up running until April 1, 1985. By then, much of the cast had moved onto other projects. But seven years later, in 1992, the program would be reborn in the form of a new project entitled “Grace & Favour”. In Canada and the United States it was known under the alternate title of “Are You Being Served? Again!”. 

The second reincarnation of the series moved away from the department store setting and into a manor setting. Five of the show's original cast members (Mollie Sugden, John Inman, Wendy Richard, Nicholas Smith, and Frank Thornton) made the move onto the new series. The series did manage a two season run before ending in February 1993, but didn't match the same success as the original formula. But, hey, you can't blame them for trying to recreate the magic of the first series.

So, what happened to some of the original cast members since “Are You Being Served?” wrapped up? Well, two of the actors (Frank Thornton and Nicholas Smith) are still alive and kicking. Frank Thornton's last acting credit was back in 2001 with an appearance on “Gosford Park”, and Nicholas Smith is still acting as of 2010 with an appearance on a children's show.

Trevor Bannister, who passed away in April 2011, continued acting as well, his most recent project being a recurring role on the series “Last of the Summer Wine”.

John Inman passed away of hepatitis in 2007, but before his death, he acted in several pantomimes and made guest appearances in several television programs in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps the star who ended up having the most fulfilling career was that of Wendy Richard. Just months after “Are You Being Served” wrapped up filming, she took on the role of Pauline Fowler on the BBC dramatic series “EastEnders”, which debuted two months before the last episode of “Are You Being Served?” aired. Although Wendy was forced to dress down for the role and cut her long hair quite short, she ended up loving the role of Pauline Fowler, and she proved that she could do drama as well as comedy. Although, in the scene of EastEnders down below, that line could sometimes be crossed.

Wendy Richard remained on EastEnders until December 25, 2006 after playing the role for nearly twenty-two years (only taking a small break during 1992 while filming the sequel to “Are You Being Served?”). It is rare for a star to have success after a long run on a serial, and even rarer to have an acting job last eight years longer than the previous one they had. Yet, Wendy Richard managed to accomplish exactly that.

Sadly, Wendy Richard passed away from cancer at the age of 65 in February 2009. Her funeral would end up becoming the final public appearance of her co-star Mollie Sugden, who would pass away just four months later.

But you know something? Even though most of the original cast of “Are You Being Served?” are now gone, the joy, laughter, and comedic timing that they brought the United Kingdom and North America for thirteen years still remain. I can see why it was such a beloved program for so many people. In fact, I wish that my PBS station would broadcast it once more so that a new generation can watch it. If anything, it'll give people a laugh over how people dressed 40 years ago.

Coming up next week in this spot, we focus the blog on a doctor...a really, really young doctor...

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I have an official Are You Being Served?/Grace & Favour site at:

    It has tons of stuff for the AYBS fan! :)