It’s ironic that the most endearing aspect of the classic comedy Are You Being Served? (AYBS) should be its sense of class. Ironic because, like so much British comedy (see my recent review of Blackadder: Back and Forth), it is driven by innuendo.
Of course, the delivery here is what is important, and on AYBS it is reliant on the constant plays against status made by the characters. Set in Grace Brothers department store, the struggles between Menswear and Ladieswear is the source of most of the humour.
Mr. Humphries (John Inman) works the Menswear counter, where his camp inflection on every line is an excellent counter to Trevor Bannister’s couldn’t-be-straighter Mr. Lucas. The elderly Mr. Grainger (Arthur Brough) shuffles around the counter with the world against him.
On the other side of the lifts, in ladieswear, Mrs. Slocombe (Molly Sugden) gives us constant updates on the state of her pussy while Miss Brahms’ (Wendy Richard) skirts keep getting higher and higher. In between stands Captain Peacock, who as ‘floor walker’ fancies himself in charge.
The daily situations into which these characters are placed are standard sitcom fare. The setting is broad enough as to accommodate almost any situation, but seldom does the plot itself take us anywhere interesting.
What is worth watching, however, is the work of John Inman. His Mr. Humphries is an unusual beast indeed; reliant on innuendo and camp behaviour for laughs, but delivered with such subtlety as to make you wonder whether you actually heard a joke at all. Of course, a lot of the credit here must go to the writers, but Inman’s delivery owes as much to the masterful anticipation of the line, than to the line itself.
In these early episodes, Mrs Slocombe is not given as much focus as she would in future seasons, but the hallmarks are already in place. Her alcoholism, her search for a man, her rivalry with every other member of the department, and of course, her constant references to her pussy. That cat never fails to incite a laugh.
This DVD release, entitled ‘The Best of the Early Years’ is vague in its approach. Featuring only 5 half hour episodes from 3 different seasons, it gives a good overview of the characters, but seems an extremely limited approach to the DVD release of a television series.
‘Are You Being Served’ is a part of television history, and while its appeal these days may be due for the most part to sentimentality, there are still a surprising number of laughs to be had.
Shot in the 1970’s the 4:3 ratio print here is as good as can be expected. Blacks are surprisingly sharp and colours accurate, with little seeming to have aged except Mr. Humphries’s trousers. There don’t seem to be any compression errors, but with so much space left on the disc, that’s hardly surprising.
Just the stereo mix here, in which the sounds of canned laughter are often mixed very badly with the studio sound, but again, this is as good as can be expected. The theme song is amazingly funky and sounds good enough here to get trapped inside your mind for far too long (“Ground floor… Going up…”).
Only one feature joins the scant episodes on this disc. A half hour documentary on John Inman promises ‘contemporary interviews with the cast and crew’, and while it is interesting to see the cast as they look today (or, more accurately, five years ago), this featurette runs as though it were written by Inman himself. Everyone glows in their reports of working with him, and the closest we come to controversy is hearing that he didn’t ‘particularly enjoy’ the results of ‘Are You Being Served, Again’, the follow-up to the series.
Animated menus give brief introductions to each episode, which is a tad redundant given you’re about to watch the episode being described (and, the information is on the case as well…).
Some very funny moments in this very brief overview of three years. Fans, however, will be disappointed that they don’t have access to more; More episodes, more features; More.