British sitcoms are popular to American PBS audiences, and often the shows attain cult-like popularity – Keeping Up Appearances, Mr. Bean, Black Adder, The Vicar of Dibley all found affectionate viewers on public television. Though no show has caught the eye of American audiences as much as the long-running Are You Being Served?. Set in the fictional London department store Grace Brothers, AYBS? tells the story of the ladies and gentlemen’s departments and the people in charge of the shop. Originally broadcast in the 1970s to the mid 1980s, AYBS? is marked by an endearingly innocent embrace of dated innuendo and the kind of broad double entendre that may have seemed cutting edge and daring back in the 70s, but is no ridiculously hokey and naive today. Along with the silly sex jokes, there are more troubling racist and anti-Semitic gags, that age the program.
The characters of AYBS? all represent various stages of the working class – some of the characters have upper class pretensions, and the class tension – a marker of a lot of British comedies – is a marker of the show. Some of the class differences will fly right over some American viewers heads, as there is something particularly British about the snobbery of the characters – namely the stately floorwalker, Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) and Mrs. Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), the formidable head of the ladies department. The two often butt heads with Mrs. Slocombe’s assistant Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard), the beautiful sales girl with a working class background (and a Cockney accent). And though she’s often underestimated, Miss Brahms proves herself to be witty and intelligent despite her modest upbringing.
Some of the most dated jokes on AYBS? revolve around salesman, Mr. Humphries (John Inman), a comically camp figure that epitomizes the sort of gay comedy popular in the 1970s. He minces about the floor with a sashay that RuPaul would envy; he speaks in a trill and drops broad-as-hell one-liners, often breaking the fourth wall.
The cast also saw some changes – the men’s department had a succession of senior salesman: the crotchety Mr. Grainger (Arthur Brough), who left after a lengthy tenure, to be replaced by a series of actors – none of whom lasted too long to make much an impression. The junior assistant was initially played by Trevor Bannister as the randy and witty Mr. Lucas, before being replaced by Mike Berry as the slightly dimwitted Mr. Spooner.
The plots are meager stories that are little more than jokes and skits threaded together. Often the writers contrive situations that allow for the kind of cheeky humor AYBS? is known for – beautiful women often have their clothes ripped off, men get hit in the crotch, misunderstandings lead to strange bedfellows – that sort of thing. A running joke has Mrs. Slocombe refer to her beloved cat as her “pussy,” and refers to her “pussy” repeatedly to the screaming studio audience who delight in the care-worn cliché.
The show’s aged trappings make it endearingly corny, but there are moments that’ll give audiences pause – namely whenever the show has Asian people, Jews, blacks, Arabs, or gays – the politically incorrect humor can grate, and is sometimes shocking in its obliviousness. These moments aren’t as charming and do spoil some of the enjoyment of the program.
What is unimpeachable is the game staff – Inman and Sugden both became breakout stars for their outlandish characters. Mr. Humphries and Mrs. Slocombe are outrageous extroverts with colorful lives. The two actors play them to a hilt, not concerned at all with subtly. Thornton is also funny – he’s suave, but very funny – especially when he has to portray impotent fury. The joke with Captain Peacock is that he makes a large meal out of his meager position of power, and feels it a marker of his supposed upper class social situation; and when reality hits, it’s always funny to see Peacock’s head knocked against his own glass ceiling. As the pragmatic Miss Brahms, Richard also makes her mark with a campy and hilarious performance. Bannister, initially the intended star of the show, is funny as the mouthy Mr. Lucas, but he doesn’t make the same comedic impact as Thornton, Sugden, Inman or Richard, probably because his character doesn’t have a jokey gimmick.
The show ran from 1972 to 1985, spanning 10 seasons. The set has some extras including short featurettes on Sugden, Inman, and Richard – all of whom passed away. There’s also a clip show produced for PBS in 1992 with Inman playing Mr. Humphries and his mother in a double-role (a joke Inman played throughout the series). None of the extras are all that special – though the clip show DVD does include the pilot for Grace and Favour, the spinoff of AYBS? that ran for 2 seasons in the early 1990s, which had the staff of Grace Brothers retire to a Tudor manor house to run a bed and breakfast.
Are You Being Served? isn’t great television but it is fun. When approaching it with limited expectations, it’s an enjoyable show, and good escapist entertainment.