Has Anyone Seen My Pussy? The Politically Incorrect Pleasures Of Are You Being Served?

It’s unlikely you’d hear the line “If my pussy isn’t attended to by eight o’clock, I shall be stroking it for the rest of the evening” on prime-time BBC1 these days, or indeed even after the 9pm watershed.

But there is much about Are You Being Served? that would be alien to a 2020 audience. Running from 1973 to 1985 over, fnar, 69 episodes, the department store-set sitcom was massively popular and became a part of the three-channel Britain of its time, and is thus very far from the 21st century version of this country – in a multitude of ways. Interestingly, most attempts to broaden it or extend it – a 1977 movie, an Australian remake, the 1992-93 follow-up Grace And Favour, a 2016 one-episode remake – all fell slightly flat.

Whereas race may be the main dividing line of modern-day Britons – at least in the eyes of agitated cultural commentators – class was probably the biggest back in the day (and, if we might be so bold, is probably still at the heart of our current culture wars when you scratch beneath the intersectional surface). On the big screen the war between workers and bosses was portrayed in the likes of the splendid I’m All Right Jack and The Angry Silence. There’s a bit of that in Are You Being Served?, but what is most evident between members of Grace Brothers staff is a constant needling and general discord; one thing that struck this viewer on a recent complete rewatch was how spiky the characters were to one another, how bitchy, how… discontented. This might seem like a trivial point, but I’m not sure it is: nowadays people who work together are, generally speaking, nicer to each other. The real bitching, moaning and whining can be saved for Twitter, Facebook or a therapist.

Back to the innocent world of the 1970s sitcom, back to class. In the first three series the brown-coated working man often intruding on the shop floor is Mr Mash, played in a somewhat irritating and affected manner by Larry Martyn, who was around 20 years younger than his character. He was replaced by the more likeable Arthur English as Mr Harman, but the character was similar, an irritant to management and floorwalker Captain Peacock, thanks to his immersion in 1970s trade union speak. While the writers don’t make their antipathy to socialism as clear as the makers of, say, Carry On At Your Convenience did, there is very moderate sympathy for such an ideology. The BBC Comedy department back then was a very different place to what it became a decade or two later.

Are You Being Served? isn’t actually a great show. There are perhaps only five or six excellent episodes, with German Week and The Club contenders for best instalment. Comedy dates more quickly than most genres – only a few old sitcoms, perhaps Rising Damp, Father Ted, I’m Alan Partridge, Dad’s Army and a few others retain their pungency. But Are You Being Served? is kept afloat by its ensemble cast, who operate with affection and rapport. There is one character who shines through – Young Mr Grace, whose supreme uniqueness is wonderful. Actor Harold Bennett was aged 74 when he started playing the role; his hands often shake, presumably through infirmity, and when he has to be held up to stop him falling down, you suspect that this may not have been too far removed from reality. Bennett’s is the most natural performance on show, and his acerbic, cynical put-downs of his staff cut through their falsity and bluster.

As tiresome as it feels to even address it, what would make millennials fall off their chair and send a disgusted tweet before they hit the ground should the show be on a mainstream channel now? Well, there’s the episode where the cast black up for a musical number (the last of several ethnicities they celebrate – yes celebrate – in that episode, in a succession of good-humoured dress-ups). There are the secretaries, who are invariably luscious and flash their underwear. Penny Irving and Debbie Linden were stunning enough, but the show somehow managed to top them both for its last couple of series with Miss Nude 82 Candy Davis, who was sex kitten personified. We shall not see her like on BBC1 again, nor the others. Back then, ‘dolly birds’ could easily transition from glamour modelling to proper acting on TV watched by millions – in puritanical 21st century Britain they’d likely be blackballed before they got to the audition.

Third/fourth-wave feminists: restricting female employment for around 20 years now.

A mention also needs to be made of camp salesman Wilberforce Humphries, as brilliantly played by John Inman. At the risk of coming across like a talking head on a Channel 5 retrospective, we have to venture an opinion as to whether it was a positive or negative portrayal of gay men on screen. For this observer, it’s a positive, 100%, completely, totally, no-way-not, no discussion. And that’s because there is not one single line in the entire series, all 69 episodes, where one of Mr Humphries’ colleagues – or a customer – says the least thing derogatory towards him: no matter what outrageous campery he comes out with, no matter what blatant admission of his about preferring the company of men to women, they never admonish him, they never call him names, they never curl their lips or screw up their noses. Their attitude is one of complete acceptance, and a million grannies who took the show to their bosoms never felt antipathy towards him either. In my book, that’s a win, that’s something unequivocally positive.

And there’s Mrs Slocombe’s pussy; we need to talk about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy.

Actually, sod it, we don’t. It’s a glorious, hilarious double entendre, delivered in innocent fashion but with verve, and it made the audience laugh like drains. Which sort of sums up Are You Being Served?’s fabulousness, and it’s enough to make it endearing and valuable.

RUSSELL LEWIN

buy-me-a-beer
Like what we do? Support us on Patreon so that we can do more!
Patreon

One comment

  1. Fabulous show, the Aussie version available on YT is absolutely wrong, they had no idea what is was all about.
    In a perverse way I’d like to see the beeb make a modern version and watch it collapse before the first minute has passed.
    Cheers
    Mike

Leave a Reply