The BBC announced this week the all-new cast for a one-off episode of Are You Being Served?
The hugely popular sitcom, set in fictional department store Grace Brothers, ran on British TV from 1972 until 1985. At its peak it pulled in 22million viewers in the UK – figures unheard of today. It picked up fans in both the US and Australia, too.
The show, written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, featured an ensemble cast of characters; lingerie department matriarch Mrs Slocombe, snobbish floor walker Captain Peacock, and the flamboyantly camp Mr Humphries, among others.
Mr Humphries never said that he was gay; he didn’t need to. It was emphasized in every double entendre and exaggerated mince. And it was amusing, most of the time. Like most of Lloyd and Croft’s output, it was skillfully written and affectionate character comedy.
I can’t remember what I thought of Mr Humphries as a young child in the 70s; I just thought he was a funny character. He made my parents laugh; kids often laugh along with what their parents find amusing.
He followed in the tradition of Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Larry Grayson; someone whose sexuality and campness were played for laughs – homosexuality depicted as something neutered, unthreatening and humorous.
I watched him before I was really aware of sexuality, and continued to watch as it dawned on me that besides Mr Humphries being, well… ‘one of them’, that I might be ‘one of them’ too.
Of course, that’s where the portrayal struck a slightly different chord; Is that how everyone else was going to see me? Would I have to be funny and camp to make people like and accept me?
Rewind to 1983 and I’m 14. I think that I might, just might, be bisexual. This is before I’ve fully accepted that I’m actually gay. ‘Gay’, to me, means Quentin Crisp, John Inman, or Larry Grayson.
It may be hard for those who grew up in the 90s or 00s to comprehend the lack of LGBTI role models there were in British public life back in the early 80s. Boy George and Marc Almond dodged questions about their sexuality; Elton John and Freddie Mercury were both romantically linked in the press to women; No-one even had a clue about George Michael. Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had yet to arrive.
There were no openly gay MPs, public officials or sports stars. The only homosexuals we had were the aforementioned camp comics and Mr Humphries – none of whom would actually say that they slept with men. Oh, and high-profile spies. Let’s not forget the fact that gay men were seen as treacherous and untrustworthy.
Are You Being Served? was axed in the mid-80s. Alternative comedy was on the rise, and 70s-born humor, so much of which was rooted in class and outdated sexism, was increasingly being questioned.
On top of this, after 13 years, the situations that a group of retail store characters can find themselves had been exhausted; the punch lines trotted out too often.
My Humphries became something of an albatross around John Inman’s neck; a character that he tired of having to defend.
In short, that joke wasn’t so funny anymore.
So, will it be funny 30 years later with an all-new cast?
The one-off episode is being produced by the BBC as part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the sitcom. If it proves popular, it may be commissioned for a whole new season.
The broadcaster is re-making several other classic sitcoms but hasn’t yet confirmed which ones. There are rumors about the prison-set Porridge, which I can actually imagine being updated successfully with someone like Peter Kay or Johnny Vegas in the Ronnie Barker role.
But when it comes to Are You Being Served?, I’m less convinced.
It’s being written by Derren Litten, a screenwriter with pedigree. He’s best known for his work on The Catherine Tate Show and ITV’s Benidorm. He has written amusing and sympathetic gay characters.
However, I can’t help but thinking he’s got his work cut out rebooting Mr Humphries; a character who’s flamboyance would have seemed bold in 1972 but by 1985 had turned predictable and a little desperate.
Yes, we know he’s gay – but his reluctance to come out and actually say it by then was beginning to look a little sad and anachronistic. Not to mention the fact that he seemed doomed to being forever single.
We now live in a very different world. I wonder how younger viewers – especially those who are gay – will react to actor Jason Watkins (best known for playing the title role in ITV’s The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies a couple of years ago) lisping his lines, rolling his eyes and mincing around with a tape measure.
I’m not attacking camp humor here or saying gay men should never be shown as being effeminate. Camp can certainly be funny. In fact, I believe it’s no coicidence that Mr Humphries’ demise coincided with the rise of Julian Clary; a comic who demonstrated that being out was no longer a barrier to mainstream success.
‘It’s 1988 and Young Mr Grace [Gavin and Stacey’s Mathew Horne] is determined to drag Grace Brothers into, well 1988, but he has a problem on his hands,’ stated a press release for the new episode. ‘Mr Humphries, Captain Peacock, Mr Rumbold and Mrs Slocombe all seem to be stuck in another era.’
This would suggest that the characters will play to type but with some acknowledgement that the world has changed, so who knows; maybe Litten will pull it off.
But as the lackluster reception that the recent Dad’s Army film met will testify, some things are best left to be enjoyed in their time and place.