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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Landmark Comedy Season: Are You Being Served serves more of the same

Contributed by Deborah Shrewsbury

Please forgive me, but I’m still reeling from the news that, according to the Radio Times poll, the viewing public deems BBC One’s Mrs Brown’s Boys its favourite sitcom of this century, beating The Office, Nighty Night, The Thick Of It, Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, Gavin & Stacey – even Benidorm. In this, Shakespeare’s birthplace? As Likely Lad Terry Collier would have said – Hell’s teeth.

Anyway, having discovered that the tastes of the mass TV audience have, post-Brexit, almost wholly reverted to Love Thy Neighbour level, we turn to the BBC’s Landmark Comedy season.

It is no surprise that when the BBC decided to give the Heimlich manoeuvre to Are You Being Served?, Benidorm creator Derren Litten stuck his hand in the air shouting, “Me, please, sir – I’ll do that.”

His inexplicably popular ITV Costa comedy may be the natural heir to AYBS?’s Auntie-massaged smut and innuendo (OK, it very often tips over into the gross, which Mrs Slocombe’s pussy always carefully padded around – in the next sentence she usually unambiguously invoked her pet cat). So, who better to re-imagine Grace Brothers for a modern audience?

This place is stuck in a time warp,” says new staffer Richard Conway (Kayode Ewumi), striding onto the perfectly recreated set in 1988 – three years after the original series ended. No shit, Sherlock. The characters too, are preserved in aspic, as is the dialogue. The studio audience makes a meal of the first “I'm free!” from Mr Humphries, and Captain Peacock
 (Only Fools & Horses’ John Challis) and Humphries (Jason Watkins) – still making a meal of inside leg measurements – debate who Conway will “be under”.

What works about the show is that the cast understands that they are conservators to iconic characters played by actors who became national treasures – and this they do without going for outright parody. Jason Watkins, a far better actor than John Inman (or most comic actors of any era), manages to pull against the grain of the script to soft-pedal on the kind of broad camp that’s out of place in 2016.

And by using such brilliant actors as Watkins, Roy Barraclough, and Justin Edwards (The Thick Of It, In And Out Of The Kitchen) and a host of other capable talent for the retread, however anachronistic, it tries its best to get the (presumably mostly baby boomer) audience on side.

Those of us who remember Mollie Sugden in La Slocombe’s full pastel-haired pomp between 1972 and 1985, recognised a faithful homage from Benidorm’s Sherrie Hewson – eyelids fighting an unequal struggle with the half-tonne of mascara on her lashes and lips performing a triple Salchow independent of the rest of her face.

The problem everyone has it that it takes so long to re-establish the characters it leaves precious little time for plot. Admittedly, AYBS was never Mamet, but original writers Jeremy Lloyd & David Croft were masters of their craft, often running two simple storylines simultaneously with double entendres that were more feather duster than the sledgehammers Litten’s script wields – “Why have cabin boys running around when you can have a deck covered in seamen?”. C’est de trop.

The nub of it is Conway has no retail experience, which he confides to a sympathetic Humphries, who helps him finesse his shortcomings. But he is the future, decrees the sharp new Young Mr Grace (Gavin & Stacey’s Mathew Horne), a wide-boy of the Mike Ashley management school who plans to cull the elderly, overpaid dinosaurs like Mr Grainger. These were the last of the good old days when the Peacocks and Slocombes of retail bestrode the shop floor like colossi, age brought seniority, an MBA sounded like a make of car, and zero hours meant a countdown to liftoff.

Establishing the era isn’t so easy either – especially as Grace Bros was always a 1950s relic. Mrs Slocombe and Miss Brahms (Niki Wardley) drool over 1980s Olympic decathlete Daley Thompson and memories of Slocombe catching “one of Jimmy Connors’ balls at Wimbledon” – tick, Brahms fancying Jim Kerr of Simple Minds – “I've worked with a few” – tick. Millennials won’t get any of the references. And would fuddy-duddy Grace Bros ever have stocked a style staple like 501s?

All the old gang get a name-check; Old Young Mr Grace’s portrait is on Rumbold’s wall and Mr Lucas has moved on, although Harman (Arthur Smith) is still on the cadge – this time for carrier bags to fill with goodies from the buffet launch for Belle perfume on the cosmetics floor.
 Jorgie Porter is Miss Croft, the new hottie in Rumbold's office (named after series co-creator David Croft) who can’t get to grips with his, um, Amstrad.

Inevitably, Mrs Slocombe is called away to an emergency with her pussy at home. The intimate wipes
 she’s been flushing down the loo have caused the neighbourhood drains to back up and, er, hit the fan, and Conway has to perform energetic abdominal thrusts on a choking Peacock, which endears the new boy to the old retainers. That’s just too much pussy to unleash.

No, the old show was never a critics’ favourite – despite our howls about these comedy rehashes being sacrilegious grave-robbing. But it had a kind of bravery; the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalising gay sex was within recent memory, and living together was still ‘living in sin’ in the provinces. Its knowing primness was clever – a huge wink to the fourth wall of the masses that although the outré characters seemed naughty, and Mr Humphries got into scrapes with a wide array of young men, he was never explicit about them. But the world has moved on – Kim Kardashian’s bum failed to break the internet and against shows like Catastrophe, this looks more than passé.

But Litten has obviously taken the nation’s comedy pulse, and it would surprise no one to see this go to a series. Oh well, it’ll ride up with wear.

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