Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Are You Being Served...anything Happens at Grace Brothers...

A fictional department store in London, Grace Brothers, held shop for 12 years of hilarious comedy. In British television, they do what is called a 'series'. A series can consist of any number of episodes in a calendar year. In America we're used to the 'season' method where there's a set amount of episodes taped each TV season. But what is this British comedy I'm writing about? It's none other than Are You Being Served?

I have known of the program for almost 20 years. I used to watch it on the local PBS station. It would air every night at 11pm...followed by another episode at 11:30. The program became popular in America...a cult favorite almost...through the re-runs of the episodes from the '70s and early '80s. A few of the stars from the show came to America several times in the 1990's to participate in various PBS fundraisers. It's continued popularity in both England and America led to Grace and Favour. In America, the show was called Are You Being Served...Again!.

In England, Are You Being Served? had 10 series in 12 calendar years...non-consecutive calendar years. The thing about British programming is a show could leave the air for a year or two but return with a new 'series' of episodes which is what happened with this show.

The pilot of the show aired in the fall of 1972. The first series began in the spring of 1973 and it consisted of 5 episodes...airing during the months of March and April. New episodes wouldn't surface until the spring of 1974, the show's second series which consisted of 5 episodes. So, 10 episodes aired in an American TV season's time, 1973-1974, but in England this was the show's second series.

Series three, 1975, contained 8 episodes...to date the most episodes produced...bringing the overall total to 18. In December the show put out it's first Christmas special, an episode called "Christmas Crackers". These special episodes were generally not part of the episode package that PBS stations aired. Series four consists of 6 episodes, which brings the show's total to 24 episodes {not counting the Christmas special and the pilot}. In December 1976, the month I was born, they produced their second holiday special, "The Father Christmas Affair".

Series five in 1977 contained 7 episodes. This was the final batch of shows with Arthur Brough, the actor who had played the senior salesman, Mr Grainger, since the pilot. In series six in 1978, just 5 episodes were produced, bringing the grand total of episodes up to 36. In December the cast participated in the third holiday special, "Happy Returns". Series seven featured 7 episodes in 1979...bringing the show's total to 43 episodes. In December the fourth holiday special aired, "The Punch and Judy Affair".

There were no episodes produced in 1980. Trevor Bannister didn't return to the series when it started up again with series eight in 1981. His role was filled by Mike Berry, playing Mr Spooner.

Series eight, by the way, contained 8 episodes. On the fifth episode we're introduced to Mr Klein, the replacement for Mr Grossman. As you can see, Grossman only lasted four episodes. A Christmas special aired in December 1981 that to this day is one of the more sought-after. It's called "Roots?" and it's a very surreal episode. The staff wants to trace the roots of the Grace Brothers and throughout the episode we're treated to one mini song and dance act after the other as the staff rehearse various styles of songs ranging from the Scottish to the Irish and all other nationalities. The climax results in the entire staff dressing up in black face for a rousing finale as both Young and Old Mr Grace are in attendance. It would be Harold Bennett's final appearance.

There were no episodes produced in 1982...so series nine started in 1983 and it contained 6 episodes. No new episodes aired in 1984. When the show returned in 1985 for series ten, there were 7 episodes produced. The final episode is memorable in that it spoofs pop music with Mr Spooner and the staff emulating the pop music scene of the day. Spooner appears on a London talk-show in full pop music attire while members of the staff act as his backing band singing the song "Chanson D'amour".

The show, in a nut-shell, was an enormous hit. It created a few catch-phrases such as "are you free?", "glass of water for Mr Grainger", the Mr Humphries line: "I'm free!" plus the Mrs Slocombe line: "I am unanimous in that!". The show's star changed, it seemed, each successive year it was on the air. Here's a more detailed look at the main cast...

Trevor Bannister was written as the star early on. His Mr Lucas character was a focal point in a lot of the episodes. Not to be out-served was John Inman, playing the hugely popular Mr Humphries. John would become the star as the show continued on into the late '70s. Frank Thornton portrayed floor walker, Captain Peacock, who shared star status. He was portrayed as snooty. He wore a red carnation, which sometimes would become a source of comedy. Mollie Sugden was on hand as senior sales woman Mrs Slocombe. She also shared star status and would often gossip with Miss Brahms and talk about her cat's adventures. The word she used for cat was a bit R-rated and each time she said the word the audience would howl with laughter. Double entendre's were a big part of the shows.

Wendy Richard portrayed junior sales woman Miss Brahms. Right after Are You Being Served? ended in 1985, she took on the role of Pauline Fowler in the BBC soap opera, EastEnders and played the role until 2006. Arthur Brough portrayed senior salesman Mr Grainger. Nicholas Smith played the role of department manager, Mr Rumbold. Harold Bennett played Young Mr Grace who had a knack for falling asleep but could be woken up if any of his secretaries or his nurse bent over. These characters would define the show in the early episodes and shape the way a lot of the scripts were written.

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The main characters: Miss Brahms, Mr Lucas, Mr Humphries, Captain Peacock, Mrs Slocombe, and Mr Grainger.

Eventually the death of Arthur Brough caused cast changes. James Hayter was brought in as Mr Tebbs for one series. He was replaced by Alfie Bass in the role of Mr Goldberg. Alfie remained as a cast member until 1979. He didn't return in 1981 when the show resumed production. Milo Sperber was brought aboard to play Mr Grossman, for as it turned out, four episodes. Old Mr Grace took over running the store in 1981, portrayed by Kenneth Waller. Young Mr Grace gives his brother a small tour of the office before making his exit.

Secondary characters included the janitors: Mr Mash at first...but then he was replaced by Mr Harmon. Miss Belfridge was Mr Rumbold's secretary who flirted with Captain Peacock. Young Mr Grace, as well as his brother in later episodes, Old Mr Grace, had a series of nurses who would often show up. Young Mr Grace often wore a medical contraption around his neck and anytime he got excited {almost everytime he saw one of them bend over to pick up something from the floor} the buzzer would sound off. The clueless nurse on duty would always wonder what got him excited. The staff ate in the cafeteria. They call it a canteen.

The canteen was ran by a woman whom Captain Peacock couldn't stand...and she couldn't stand him either. A lot of the humor, in addition to the double-entendre jokes, a lot of the humor came from the class system and anti-authoritarian situations. The canteen manageress as she was called often spoke her mind, something that irritated Captain Peacock, for he felt that she was of 'lower class' and didn't have the permission to speak her mind. They traded insults regularly. Mr Lucas and Miss Brahms, the younger members of the staff, often found themselves at the receiving end of Mr Grainger, or Mrs Slocombe's wrath because both junior members of the sales staff were viewed as cheeky or saucy, lacking respect for their elders...sometimes Captain Peacock would be on the warpath and have a short temper with everyone. The department store was divided between the Men's and Women's apparel. In early episodes Mr Grainger was so protective of "his" side of the store that he would bark and complain if Mrs Slocombe or Miss Brahms came within several feet of what he considered his side of the floor. In one memorable episode they were forced to share the same side of the store because the Women's section was being redecorated.

PBS aired nearly all of the episodes...give or take a few. They aired a few of the Christmas specials around fund-raiser time but they weren't part of the daily episodes.

Here's the Are You Being Served...Again! collection...the series consists of 12 episodes...which was two series worth of programs in 1992 and 1993. According to what I researched, when the original show ended in 1985 everyone wanted to do a spin-off program but nothing came of it until 1992...
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Mollie Sugden, the actress who played Mrs Slocombe from the start until the finish passed away several days ago back on July 1st. She was 86. Wendy Richard passed away in February of this year, she was 65; John Inman passed away in 2007 at the age of 71; Kenneth Waller passed away in 2000 at the age of 72; Arthur English passed away in 1995 at the age of 75; Benny Lee passed away in 1995 at the age of 79; Larry Martyn passed away in 1994 at the age of 60, he played first janitor, Mr Mash; Milo Sperber passed away in 1992 at the age of 81; Alfie Bass passed away in 1987 at the age of 71; James Hayter passed away in 1983 at the age of 75; Harold Bennett passed away in 1981, two days before he would have turned 82; Arthur Brough passed away in 1978 six weeks after his wife of nearly 50 years had passed away, he was 73.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like your blog. I just discovered it.

J.

ACcountryFan said...

thanks for the comment! i don't advertise my blog but I notice it gets a lot of visits if not a lot of comments.

my animated blog page is typically for cartoons or any off-topic subjects. my main blog is about singer, Ray Stevens, but since I also like other area's of entertainment I didn't want the off-topic material over there so I created the "AC's Animated Corner" blog.

Elina said...

Hi,

I have an official Are You Being Served?/Grace & Favour site at:

http://www.aybscentral.com

It has tons of stuff for the AYBS fan! :)