March 25-27 Terry from A Shroud of Thoughts hosts The 2nd Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, and I am joining in with an all-time favorite show Are You Being Served?
A Retro TV Anglophile
If you are like me, then you grew up in a pro-PBS household. If your local PBS broadcaster was like mine, you are probably a raging anglophile when it comes to television.
Okay, there are a few American shows I watch, but in my opinion, nothing entertains like the BBC. I grew up watching Keeping Up Appearances, Doctor Who, To the Manor Born, Bramwell, Upstairs Downstairs, Good Neighbors, All Creatures Great and Small, Fawlty Towers, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Red Dwarf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and those fabulous Masterpiece Theatre teleplays. The old BBC shows I’ve enjoyed is too long a list, and my media consumption leaves me woefully disconnected with Americans from my generation.
Nevertheless, I enjoy the BBC. It makes me posher than the average California girl, and an all-time favorite is a guilty pleasure, the extremely non-posh 1970s-80s series, Are You Being Served?
About the Show
The pilot for Are You Being Served? originally aired in 1972, and the regular series ran from 1973 to 1985. Most of the principal actors returned for a second series Grace and Favour (Are You Being Served? Again) which ran from 1992-1993.
Are You Being Served? is a broad-humored and bawdy sitcom which takes place in Grace Brother’s Department Store. The ladies and gentlemen’s clothing departments must share Grace Brothers’ third floor and the limited display space causes constant animosity, as does the differentiation between supervisory and junior staff members. While there is much bickering on the floor at Grace Brothers, in real life, everything was lovely, according to Frank Thornton (Capt. Peacock), “You can’t really play comedy with people you dislike. … we were all great chums.”
The characters are stock comic characters, like Commedia dell’Arte characters.
“Young” Mr. Grace is the ultimate sugar daddy. A feeble octogenarian and a wily ladies man, he is almost always accompanied by an entourage of sexy nurses and secretaries. Young Mr. Grace can be found in heart palpitating and compromised positions with the ladies.
As the owner of Grace Brothers, the episode’s plots usually stem from Young Mr. Grace’s schemes for interdepartmental unity. Young Mr. Grace is always ready with a hearty:
YOUNG MR. GRACE. You’ve all done very well.
The cheery Mr. Rumbold manages the third floor and bears the perpetual burden of executing Mr.Grace’s schemes. Mr. Rumbold is a mild-mannered and oblivious middle manager, always looking for the easy solution.
Mr. Rumbold’s department disrespect him and refer to him as “Jug-Ears”.
MR. RUMBOLD. I always think there is a reason for poor performance. Now, a happy salesman is a good salesman. And you don’t look happy, Mr Lucas. I think if you could smile more, that would help.
The floor-walker is Capt. Peacock is a retired military officer with an air of authority and a lot more than merely an eye for the ladies.
Snobbish and a braggart, Capt. Peacock is determined to keep the status quo at Grace Brothers.
CAPT. PEACOCK. Mrs. Slocombe, you will return to your post. When I turn around, you will raise your arm. I will ask, “What is it, Mrs. Slocombe?” You will ask me, “Are you free?” If I nod, you may then approach me.
Mr. Grainger is the doddering and cantankerous menswear manager, with more than a passing resemblance to Winston Churchill.
He will pass on any customer he does not think he can get a sale from, and is often sleeping in the back.
Mr. Grainger is perpetually outraged about sharing the third floor with the ladies department.
MR. GRAINGER. Precisely. Mrs. Slocombe is already displaying far too much underwear.
The snooty Mrs. Slocombe manages the ladies department and has a different hair color every week.
While she seems very prudish, she is a widow and often goes out drinking with her friend Mrs. Axelby. Love-starved and a lonely cat-lady, she has an eye for the gents, particularly Mr. Humphries.
MRS. SLOCOMBE. Well, I was saying, I don’t get out much nowadays, since Mr. Slocombe’s no longer living at home. I mean, it’s very difficult for a woman on her own. I mean you can’t just go down to the pub for a quick drink with all those men ogling at you, can you? Well, not more than twice a week, anyway.
Mr. Humphries is a flamboyant and an amiable mamma’s boy. Both Mr. Grainger and Capt. Peacock are somewhat suspicious of Mr. Humphries. But he is the unflappable one who tries to get along with everyone.
The staff’s schemes often involve the charming and shapely legged Mr. Humphries masquerading as a female patron or modeling women’s swimwear.
MR. GRAINGER. He’s looking for something in Scottish tweed with broad shoulders.
MR. HUMPHRIES. Mm, aren’t we all?
Mr. Lucas a smart-mouthed swinger, who is determined to get a date from Miss Brahms.
In the first few seasons, the show is primarily from his perspective. A joker and a jester Mr. Lucas is often trying to get out of work and is always ready to voice the comment going through the back of the viewer’s mind.
MR. RUMBOLD. Let’s try to keep it light and gay.
MR. LUCAS. [to Mr. Humphries] I’ll handle the “light” part.
However, the high-pitched-cockney-voiced Miss Brahms wants something better.
Dingy but street-wise, as the show’s token babe much of Ms. Brahms’ role is rooted in displaying her legs and her cleavage.
MISS BRAHMS. I want some excitement, I want to do something with my life. I’m looking for Dallas and all I’m getting is Coronation Street.
A Typical Day at Grace Brothers
Despite the show’s complicated schemes, it is a relatively simple show. The set-up is always the same. Mr. Grace has a “brilliant” scheme, and the third-floor staff undergo a monumental effort to make it work. This series is a pure farce.
Personality quirks, snobbery, propriety, lots of underwear, innuendos, and triple/quadruple threat veteran theater actors drive this series.
According to actor Frank Thornton (Capt. Peacock) a classically trained actor, the series was filmed on a very tight schedule, filming one to two episodes per week, and performed before a live audience. “It was good old fashioned British comedy with a heavy dependence on the double-entendre… It was in the old music hall tradition of comedy, really.”
While a typical day at Grace Brothers was anything but typical, the staff often found themselves in one ridiculous scheme or another.
These schemes inexplicably always involve very complicated events happening on the third floor at Grace Brothers: talent shows, fashion shows, commercial shoots, a night club, puppet shows, fire safety training, radio dramas, and dance contests executed with well-meaning but often disastrous results.
Actress Mollie Sugden (Mrs. Slocombe), “Of course we all liked dressing up. Certainly John (Mr. Humphries) and I did … Some of the costumes were unbelievable. Trevor (Mr. Lucas) couldn’t cope with it. He never stopped laughing when he saw us. I think the worst was when Mrs. Slocombe came out in her ballet skirt” (see picture above).
And while 22 million viewers enjoyed Are You Being Served? According to The Standard, not everyone appreciated the show’s humor, “members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality demonstrated outside theatres where Inman (Mr. Humphries) happened to be appearing.” They regarded his character Mr. Humphries as “the sort of demeaning sexual stereotype they were fighting to erase.”
Are You Being Served? is a product of its era. While it might be deemed offensive by today’s standards, it is a hysterical show nevertheless. Actor Frank Thornton, “Nowadays we have that terrible American disease called political correctness. But comedy by its very nature is politically incorrect.”
So without further ado, I present my favorite, and yes totally politically incorrect episode: “German Week”!
“German Week” initially aired April 3, 1975.
This week, the store orders German goods for the staff to sell, extra-large brassieres or “Bustenhalter” and lederhosen are displayed prominently on the third floor. Rather than mock the German culture, this episode mocks the staff’s ignorance of German culture.
MRS. SLOCOMBE. Say look at this “Sechs underhosen,” ooh, I wonder what’s in here?
CAPT. PEACOCK. Don’t get carried away Mrs. Slocombe, underhosen literally translates to under trousers
MISS BRAHMS. Under trousers, do you mean knickers?
MRS. SLOCOMBE. I’m not selling German sex knickers!
CAPT. PEACOCK. Sechs, Mrs. Slocombe is the word they use in Germany for six.
Comedy ensues as the staff struggles to adopt the German language:
MR. GRAINGER. The weather has been absolutely chilly hasn’t it?
GERMAN CUSTOMER. Wie Bitte? (I beg your pardon?)
MR. GRAINGER. Oh yes, absolutely bitter!
Sales plummet to a screeching halt, and Captain Peacock suggests the staff improve the German “brand image”, and counteract the negativity toward Germany (stemming from WWII). The staff dresses in traditional German clothing and serves wine at Grace Brothers.
I have a feeling no one saw anyone’s else costume prior to shooting because as the cast enters in costume, the actors cannot contain their reactions. Trevor Bannister completely drops his character, and we know things are about to get crazy at Grace Brothers!
Then Mr. Humphries enters in his lederhosen and yodeling.
His normal mincing step is reduced to a tiptoed hobble, thanks to the eye-watering tightness of his shorts.
It doesn’t sound like much, but Mr. Humphries’ pale legs walking across the floor in those short-shorts might be one of the funniest things ever!
MR. LUCAS. I can’t see being dressed up like this is going to bring in customers.
MR. HUMPHRIES. Oh, it will, mind you they’ll be the wrong sort.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Slocombe sequesters herself in the ladies dressing room with the wine, and it comes out looking like like a drunk Swiss Miss in crazy pigtails.
Mrs. Slocombe and Captain Peacock often butt heads on the show. But in this episode, they lay into one another, slapping each other during the folk dance, and eventually, they are pulled apart.
But the funniest part of this episode is when Mr. Humphries dances:
So iconic was this episode, that it is included in the stage version of the series!
Are You Being Served? will be revived by the BBC in honor of their 50th anniversary. A special new episode will air later this year. Sadly, all the original cast members have passed on.
Should you wish to watch German Week, and any other episodes of Are You Being Served? the entire series is available through YouTube!
Don’t forget to visit Terry A Shroud of Thoughts check out the full The 2nd Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon!
Ciao for now, Dearies!
Berman, Garry. Best of the Britcoms: From Fawlty Towers to The Office. Lanham: Taylor Trade Pub., 2011. Print.
Fletcher, Harry. “Are You Being Served? Is Getting a Remake on BBC One.”Digital Spy. N.p., 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Furnell, Bob, and Bonnie Gale. “Mollie Sugden Interview.” Ed. Laurence Marcus. TELETRONIC, 2003. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Salter, Jessica. “Frank Thornton: ‘We Were All Great Chums on Are You Being Served?'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.