Thursday, 28 July 2016

Seventies TV: Are You Being Served?

This post will mark something of a departure from a tradition I have unintentionally started on this blog. The tradition is that when I am writing about 1970s TV, I start by reflecting on the circumstances under which I first watched it, comment on how the humour and attitudes haven't work well with time, and then either decide it is rubbish or express my horror at how many of the cast have been posthumously convicted of child abuse. This pattern developed in a series of posts I did wome time ago on seventies TV.
Are You Being Served, however, will buck that trend completely. This post is actually occasioned by my finding the DVDs of Grace and Favour (the 1990s resuscitation of the show set in a country house hotel) and also the DVDs of Are You Being Served Series 1 in very close succession.
I actually have almost no recollection of the episodes in series 1 at all, despite the fact that Are You Being Served has rather been repeated to death over the decades. Almost no recollection, that is, except for the episode featuring Joanna Lumley as the representative of a unisex perfume sold in Grace Brothers. The vowels alone make her appearance worth the cost of the disc! It is funny to think that she was doing this before she became Purdey.
Naturally, being an icon of the 1970s, Are You Being Served is often remembered as one of the more regrettable relics of that tasteless time. Mrs Slocombe's pussy alone could be enough to label this show as a dated relic of a forgotten past. Personally I was relieved to find how well the show has worn. I recently watched the film and didn't find it half as amusing as the first series, so I suspect that Are You Being Served is one of those things which wore well for one series and then the same formula wore out through over-repetition.
The jokes are certainly of their age. I have a feeling that if you roll your eyes at the idea of a Carry On film, you wouldn't like this show. The large sexual element to the humour is also very much of its time. For me it recalls an adolescent prurient interest in sex, although with also the adult insight that actually everybody is interested in sex really.
Even in the first series the characters appear fully-formed. I love that Captain Peacock has an element of the bounder about him. I did not recall him as such a dirty old man as he actually is. I love the way that Mr Lucas is always trying to get Miss Brahms to go out with him and yet never succeeds in it, and of course Mr Humphries (who is obviously very close to his mother, although his actual predilection is never actually stated) is a figure of a type which probably doesn't exist in any walk of life any more.My favourite character, though, was and always will be Mrs Slocombe. A national institution, that's what she is. The plots are rather predictable, as is the behaviour of the characters, but that is what makes this comfort TV: you're not going to get any great surprises, and the characters inhabit a contained world. The characters are also more than strong enough to carry the somewhat insipid plots.
Perhaps the way in which the show is most dated, though, is the rigid hierarchy of the shop. I worked in a shop briefly myself a long time ago and don't recall it being half as hidebound as Grace Brothers. The staff's places in the pecking order are rigidly defined right down to where they stand on the shop floor and in which order they deal with customers. The number of pens you carry, what you do withe your tape measure, which lavatory you use, where and when you eat your lunch, are all set in absolute stone. I'm no businessman but I suspect any business of the time which was that petrified has long ceased to exist as being completely unable to adapt.
Unfortunately I don't have anything so good to say about Grace and Favour. It is as if someone took a collection of running gags from Are You Being Served, strung them together in a country house hotel, and let it loose on the world. These gags are also overused: whenever someone gets into a lift you just know that it will either stick or stop slightly short of the desired floor. The original series didn't overdo the running gags like that. To be frank, I just didn't find it funny, while the original series can still make me laugh out loud. Each episode of Are You Being Served feels like a mini masterpiece on its own, but with Grace and Favour, it doesn't even really get into its stride through the first series, it has a stronger patch at the beginning of the second series, before seeming to run out of steam again. Also the reality is that what was considered suitable in the 1970s should have been rethought for the 1990s. While the Are You Being Served formula is a winning one, trying to stretch it that far was just too much.

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