Thursday, March 08, 2007

That great department store in the sky

I'm not going to get into the politics or political correctness of Are you being served? or the character played by John Inman. All I want to say is that I grew up with the show as a kid in the 1970s, long before I understood the significance of Mrs Slocombe's pussy. (The programme always seemed like good family entertainment, because my grandmother used to roar with laughter. But I don't think she understood the significance of Mrs Slocombe's pussy either.)

There have been a great many first-class British sitcoms, but Are you being served? would definitely rank in my Top Five. The ensemble acting of straight man Frank Thornton, Mollie Sugden, John Inman and the others has a timeless appeal, even if the setting - Grace Bros Department Store - seems today to be an extraordinary anachronism. New generations of fans are watching the show in the US and around the world and it's attracted a cult following.

A particularly memorable episode was when Captain Peacock finally received the coveted keys to the Executive Dining Room, meaning that he no longer had to take his lunch with the staff in the dowdy canteen. On arrival, he was confronted with exactly the same menu of rissoles and semolina that he'd endured the previous day. But in the Executive Dining Room, they were translated into French.

Arthur English's regular walk-on role as the blue-collar Mr Harmond represented classic sitcom class war. He talked with the kind of genuine cockney accent that you just don't hear these days, except maybe in an old people's home in Clacton. And we mustn't forget that Wendy Richard - set to become the long-suffering Pauline Fowler on Eastenders - cut her thespian teeth in the ladies department.

John Inman's death is genuinely sad. If there's a silver lining, it can only be the additional panto opportunities for the likes of Frank Bruno and Michael Barrymore.

I really hope you enjoy your time in the ultimate department store, John. And I am unanimous in that.

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