Friday, November 30, 2018
W.O.C.K On Vinyl: John Inman - Are You Being Served Sir? (1975)
Before things get too serious here at Rock On Vinyl, I thought it might be fun to post a song / album at the end of each month, that could be categorized as being either Weird, Obscure, Crazy or just plain Korny.
John Inman endeared himself to millions as the outrageously camp menswear shop assistant in the 1970s BBC television series Are You Being Served.
Inman's character 'Mr Humphries' was, against stiff competition, one of the most arresting characters on the staff of Grace Brothers department store, created by the formidable comedy writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (Croft himself had once worked in a department store). The show was first tried as a pilot in the BBC Comedy Playhouse slot in 1972. It ran at peak time for 12 years from 1973 to 1985 - a total of 69 episodes.
The large and anachronistic family business at its heart was run on traditional lines by a doddering "Young Mr Grace", and staffed by oddities like Mrs Slocombe of ladies' wear, played by Molly Sugden, who was always prattling on about her "pussy", and a floor manager, Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton), who was invariably referred to by his military rank. Inman's suggestive catchphrase, when asked to attend to a customer, was "I'm free," after which he would set about measuring an inside leg with attentive enthusiasm. He become instantly recognisable in the street and was constantly asked, "Are you free?" "No, but I'm reasonable," became one of his stock ripostes.
Inman claimed he was cheeky but not dirty, and that he found the character a joy to play. Mr Humphries was, in Inman's eyes, a jokey figure about whom the audience could never decide whether or not he was "queer". "I always say that when it comes to sex, Mr Humphries is nothing really. He's neither one way or the other."
Some critics who had no such doubts described Inman and Mr Humphries as two of the best friends of gay liberation on television. But the gratitude was not universal. In 1977, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality targeted Inman in Brighton, where he was appearing in a seaside show. They handed out leaflets blaming him for depicting homosexuals as sexually obsessed, too extravagant in manner and too eager to drag up. They argued that most homosexuals did not behave like Mr Humphries, and that Inman was contributing to television's distortion of their image. Poor Inman, not a strong swimmer in the fast-flowing river of controversy, argued that he was not campaigning in any way, merely trying to make people laugh.
There were compensations for him, too. Are You Being Served? made Inman famous not only in Britain but also in the US, where the series was sold. He was recognised in Los Angeles as much as in London. Once, in San Francisco, a young man fell off his bicycle because he was so surprised to see Inman, and lay in the road shouting "I love you, Mr Humphries."
Before the success of that one role, however, Inman's impact had been modest. He was born in Preston, Lancashire, the son of two hairdressers who moved to Blackpool to open a boarding house. His parents financed his elocution lessons at the local church hall, and he made his professional debut at 11 on the South Pier, Blackpool. The Jack Rose Repertory Company paid him £5 a week to play a boy in the drama Frieda.
But it was showbiz rather than acting that had the greater appeal for Inman. "I'm a tits-and-feathers man really," he explained. He loved the Tiller Girls, and blamed the Beatles for making show business less glamorous. At 17, he left Blackpool for London to become a window dresser. To augment his income, he sewed garments for theatres and lived in a £3-a-week bedsit. At 21, he joined the repertory company at Crewe as an actor, and made his first West End appearances in Anne Veronica, Salad Days and Let's Get Laid (which, he had to explain to his mother, was about a poultry farm).
During the 69-episode, 13-year run of Are You Being Served?, Inman also appeared in the 1977 film of the series, in which the characters visited the fictional Spanish holiday resort of "Costa Plonka"; Odd Man Out, his own sitcom in 1977, playing the owner of a fish and chip shop who inherits half of a rock factory; and Take a Letter, Mr. Jones, a 1981 sitcom where Inman played Graham Jones, who is secretary to Rula Lenska's character Joan Warner. Inman also toured with his own shows, and he released several records, including Are You Being Served, Sir?, which reached number 39 in the UK singles charts. This came from an LP of the same name, and was followed by two further albums: I'm Free in 1977 and With a Bit of Brass in 1978, both were released by DJM Records.
He made a cameo appearance in the film The Tall Guy in 1989, and was one of five of the Are You Being Served? cast to be reunited in character for the sitcom Grace & Favour (titled Are You Being Served? Again! in the United States), which ran for twelve episodes in 1992 and 1993.
By this time, however, Inman was secure as a national comic treasure. In 2005 a poll found that the 1977 film of Are You Being Served? was the worst ever feature film remake of a television series - but his reputation had never been dependent on the cinema, and the television episodes continued to sell around the world.
Inman suffered from poor health. In 1993, he was hospitalised with bronchitis. In 1995, he collapsed during a performance of Mother Goose, and in 2004 he had to withdraw from Dick Whittington at Richmond theatre after contracting hepatitis A through eating contaminated food.
In December 2005, he went through a civil partnership ceremony with Ron Lynch, his partner of more than 30 years. Inman died aged 71 after a long illness on March 8, 2007.
One of my favourite BBC comedies from the seventies, I couldn't help myself when I found this spin off LP which Inman had recorded at the peak of his acting career, at my local flee market. Even though the tracks on this album are full of innuendo's and suggestive lyrics, Inman still manages to show that he can 'pull off' a tune or two with the greatest confidence.
So this month's W.O.C.K on vinyl post salutes a very Camp and Cheeky character from Are You Being Served? who made me laugh more times than I 'd like to admit. Thanks John and I hope you are now Truly Free
Ripped to MP3 (320kps) from vinyl with full album artwork and label scans.
01 - Are You Being Served Sir?
02 - Teddy Bears Picnic
03 - Buttons and Bows
04 - My Big Best Shoes
05 - Come To The Supermarket (In Old Peking)
06 - Nobody Does It Like Me
07 - Sun Signs
08 - The Sailor With The Navy Blues Eyes
09 - I'm Too Old To Be A Mermaid
10 - How Do You Do It
11 - The Fleet's In Port Again
12 - We All Love Captain Ginger
Are You Being Served Link (75Mb)