Sunday, 2 March 2008

90: “Are You Being Served?” - Mr Humphries

Writers: Jeremy Lloyd, David Croft
1972 - 1985

(Just go to youtube and type in "John Inman" to see almost any of the 69 episodes)

If you’ve lived in Britain, Canada, Australia, even America, or who knows where else, you’ve probably seen an episode of “Are You Being Served?”. “Are You Being Served?”’s sheer ubiquity, immense one-time popularity, and the broad innuendoes and energetic comic acting means that the camp shop assistant Mr Humphries has been a representation too-far for many gay men for over three decades.

The pilot of the Grace Brothers Department Store-set sitcom ran in 1972. The first series followed in 1973, and 10 series with 69 episodes had been produced by 1985. The series never seemed to be off the telly with constant repeats. And with audiences of up to 22 million, why shouldn’t it have been repeated? Of course, this was in a country and time when there were only three television channels.

Mr Humphries was the most noticeable and flamboyant of the store’s staff. As portrayed by John Inman, he became one of TV's best known characters. In 1976 Inman was voted funniest man on television by TV Times readers and also declared BBC TV's personality of the year. But it was his being so energetically feyly inoffensive to the public at large which made him so irritating to many gay men. Mr Humphries was the gay stereotype of the men’s shop assistant in excelsis: a jaunty manner, a high voice, a staccato sashaying mining walk, hands either on hips or pressed to his cheek, often dressed in silly revealing costumes, and a piercing catchphrase of “I’m free!”. Mr Humphries was the picture dictionary definition of “camp”. Compared to the squalid moaning miseries who were the rest of the shopfloor staff, this also made him a lot more fun. As a character he enjoyed wearing the costumes, throwing himself with gusto into whatever that week’s setpiece happened to be, and so the public found Inman and Humphries funny and appealing. Mr Humphries was originally only going to be a minor character, a fairly shabby, glum senior shop assistant with only a few lines in the pilot episode. Since the writers didn’t quite know what to do with the character they gave Inman a lot of latitude to devise his character and performance. Inman had worked as a shop assistant, and so he turned Humphries into the chirpy little parody. Even the “I’m free” catchphrase was apparently Inman’s addition, since it was something the assistants themselves said.

There is a small amount of bad faith in all this. Mr Humphries was played camp, but the writers and Inman always denied that he was gay, just a “mother’s boy”. Inman, for most of his career, also publicly denied being gay himself. Of course, to say in the sitcom that Mr Humphries was gay would have put him in the same ghastly world of relationships as practised by all the other characters and probably have opened the character to real prejudice from the critics. This tacit disavowal allowed Mr Humphries to remain in a childish world of dressing up and strange acquaintances, while only ever eliciting a raised eyebrow from Captain Peacock for tardy timekeeping. Inman had spent most of his adult life during the period when homosexuality was either illegal or heavily stigmatised, and now he found he was working busily, playing a character who seemed much beloved by the public at the large. That in retrospect we should demand he possibly forfeit his career and social status for a moment’s forthrightness may be a bit much.

That there should be such heavy expectation from what is really only a light comic actor in a farcical role, is because of the media power that Inman’s performance had. From past examples, the public had an idea as to what gay man was, and now on prime time tv here was a broad comic confirmation. At exactly the same time, a new generation of gay men were expressing themselves through Gay Lib, a burgeoning gay scene and new more macho sexual ethos. With so few representations of gay men in the public eye, the old-fashioned stereotype of Mr Humphries was not the trivial image they wanted to see. There were grumbles in the gay press. Inman reported that four or five members of the group Campaign for Homosexual Equality picketed one of his shows in protest. Campaigners and charity workers on phone-lines said Mr Humphries was a serious stumbling block for people who were discovering their sexuality. The prevalent assumption that gay equaled Mr Humphries, so if they were gay they would have to behave like Mr Humphries, and could they be gay if they weren’t like Mr Humphries.

Of course, this is to pretend that “Are You Being Served?” is an in-depth fly-on-the-wall documentary about the state of the service sector in mid-70s Britain, where every character has to be a shining paragon of some particular social subset, rather than a slightly broad, coarse and hackneyed sitcom. Mr Humphries’s crime is to be slightly shrill, effeminate but innocuous at the very time gay men thought they were gaining ground for being taken more seriously. He is not truly offensive, but he does wound our adolescent amour-propre. He is slightly shy-making, to use an old-fashioned expression. I would argue that Winston in the sitcom “In Sickness and in Health” in the mid-80s is a lot more stereotypical and offensive. “Are You Being Served?” and Mr Humphries are a slightly embarrassing and belaboured comedy legacy of the 70s, like some blinkered and clueless but largely harmless family relation we will never quite shrug off.

One could probably make an entire documentary about the debate over Mr Humphries. Various opinions worth considering are:

Mark Simpson's at

Stuart Jeffries at

Matthew Parris's at

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