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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

'Are You Being Served' Celebrates 40th Anniversary


A trifecta of anniversaries makes 2012 the year of the Brit. The Olympics returned to London after 64 years, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 60 years of ruling the British Empire, and the classic Britcom  (and public television mainstay) “Are You Being Served” premiered 40 years ago this September.
The vital statistics are that “Served” aired 69 episodes over 10 series (my people call them seasons), spawned a movie and a spin-off series, and likely will continue airing on public television for the next 40 years.
“Served” had the same perfect recipe that transformed the similar ‘70s workplace comedy “The Mary Tyler Show” into a classic that is still hilarious several decades later. Both shows had excellent writing, a talented ensemble that clearly enjoyed performing together, and actors who deeply understood their characters.
John Inman and Molly Sugden owned the parts of the effervescent and flamboyant Mr. Humphries and the blustery Mrs. Slocombe as much as Ted Knight and Ed Asner owned the roles of buffoonish anchorman Ted Baxter and gruff news producer Lou Grant. Also, thinking of Harold Bennett’s dirty old man Young Mr. Grace evokes as much of a smile as thinking of Moore’s spunky Mary Richards.
“Served” substituted “Moore’s” WJM newsroom for the sales floor of London’s Grace Brothers department store. “Served” also created slightly more of an edge by working amusing and gentle conflict directly into the program’s underlying concepts.
The gentlemen’s and ladies’ department battled for space in their shared environment, the clerks in both departments competed for commissioned sales, and employees on every tier conflicted with their immediate supervisors.
Much of the humor revolved around how each distinct character responded to the conflict. One could expect Mrs. Slocombe to utter the phrase “I am unanimous in that” in response to virtually every harsh decision from above or other “mistreatment” around which an episode revolved. Mr. Humphries would keep his toothy grin intact. Floor overseer Captain Peacock would defend his dignity and try to maintain discipline, and junior men’s clerk Mr. Lucas would play the role of the bratty little brother.
The aforementioned writing and acting were what kept that formula entertaining for an entire decade and has had me and my friends asking each other “are you free” for much longer.