Are You Being Served? Review
Nostalgia has painted the Sixties as a time of innocence, cynicism has labelled the Eighties the decade of conspicuous consumption, but the Seventies can surely be summed up as the age of the Sitcom Spin-Off, that monstrous genre which fascinates people like me who are old enough to know better. Totally devoid of any interest whatsoever, whether cultural or aesthetic, these works seem to belong to a time and place of their own. A better, sunnier place perhaps, where Blakey is still sniggering, Alf is raging at the misdeeds of Harold Wilson and Olive is falling into the river with all the tragic inevitability of Oedipus becoming a little too fond of his mother. However, before one becomes too condescending too soon, it's worth remembering that it was these films which propped up the ailing British film industry, without which the likes of Derek Jarman might never have been able to offer us the edifying spectacle of Toyah Wilcox castrating a member of the Special Branch.
Are You Being Served? is a perfect example of the Sitcom Spin-Off. It's badly directed and it looks horrible. It's also indecently, gratuitously entertaining, the sort of film which you hide behind that Criterion edition of Kagemusha in case the movie police decide to make a dawn raid. Based on the Summer season stage success, the film takes the staff of Grace Brothers on a holiday to Costa Plonka where they are able to re-enact scenes from the TV series with a somewhat misplaced enthusiasm.
For those unfamiliar with the television series - which hardly seems likely unless you've never owned a set - Are You Being Served? takes place in the clothing section of an anachronistic London department store called Grace Brothers. The floor is divided into menswear and ladieswear, sections run by, respectively, Mr Grainger (Brough) and Mrs Slocombe (Sugden). Working 'under' Mr Grainger (fnah, fnah) are Mr Humphries (Inman), he of the ambiguous age and even more elliptical sexuality, and Mr Lucas (Bannister) who spends most of his time trying to get into the underwear department of Miss Brahms (Richards). The floor is run by Mr Rumbold (Smith) and policed by Captain Peacock (Thornton). We also get to meet Mr Harmon (English), caretaker and dirty old man, and Young Mr Grace (Bennett), who owns the place. As you can imagine, the general level of hilarity is pretty high, with much emphasis placed on Mr Humphries tortuous innuendos regarding anal sex, oral sex and fellatio, and frequent references to the pet cat owned by Mrs Slocombe; "My pussy was all wet last night", "I'm very worried about the funny rash I've found on my pussy", "My pussy doesn't like this dry weather" and so on until the end of time when Jesus Christ will return and divide the sheep from the pussies, sorry goats. Needless to say, we never get to see Mrs Slocombe's pussy (snigger), being forced to make an assumption of its existence, rather like Schrodinger's Pussy, sorry, Cat. Incidentally, the film also makes a valuable contribution to the academic discipline of Quantum Physics which tells us that we can no longer rely on traditional notions of existence and classical reality, something Are You Being Served? disproves by being, even on the atomic level, comfortingly predictable. Upon seeing an inflatable bra, one is immediately primed to see it inflated to Jayne Mansfield proportions before exploding. One is not disappointed. Derek Griffiths makes an appearance as a Sheikh wearing a traditional robe and predictable hilarity abounds when he wishes to have his inside leg measured. Some Germans are sharing the Spanish hotel with our heroes and you just know that its only a matter of time before they are called "krauts" by Mr Grainger.
Now, you might have noticed that I used the phrase 'Spanish hotel' in that last paragraph. Strictly speaking, no such location appears in the film. What we do get is a corner of Elstree studios done up to resemble the lobby and patio of a vaguely continental location. We have to take it on trust that this is Spain, the one day of location filming having been spent at Luton airport in a vain effort to persuade us that the cast really are going abroad. Suspension of disbelief is rendered more difficult to maintain when we discover that the hotel is managed by Andrew Sachs - Manuel of course - whose brother is played by the redoubtable Glyn Houston - he of a thousand ITV sitcoms. Every single joke about Spanish hotels is recycled here. The rooms are unavailable so tents are provided, the only toilet is a wooden outhouse without a lock, the food is "greasy foreign muck" which is rejected in favour of sausage, egg, beans and chips, and so on. You really could turn the volume down and make up your own script since the end result is unlikely to be much different to what actually transpires. Once settled in this exotic location, the cast proceed to play out the plot of the first season TV episode "Dear Sexy Knickers" crossed with a few bits and pieces from another episode "Camping In". Then they get caught in some kind of military coup which is foiled when Young Mr Grace arrives in a tank. Or something like that.
So why do I harbour such affection for this offensive load of old tat ? Well, simply because it is, against all possible odds, very funny indeed. The very predictability of the jokes is rather comforting, like an old jumper with lots of holes in, and the comic timing of some of the cast is a thing of genuine beauty. John Inman deserves most praise, for taking some of the mouldiest double entendres and rendering them into sparkling comedy. He attains stratospheric heights of camp here and it gets to the point where every movement of his face is enough to get you sniggering. Living in an abstract world where the word "big" is automatically hilarious and the only purpose of an inside leg measurement is the opportunity it offers for sexual innuendo, Inman and his comic partner, Trevor Bannister, are quite brilliant. Bannister, whose exit from the series in 1979 marked the end of its best years, is the archetypal naughty schoolboy who never grew up and his ability to put his foot right in it with Mrs Slocombe, usually while trying to seduce Miss Brahms, is a constant pleasure. This is fortunate, since Wendy Richards gives such an amateurish and grating performance that he might as well be acting against a block of wood. Arthur Brough doesn't bring much to the party either but Frank Thornton's attempts to remain distinguished while attempting to get his end away are always worth a look. On a par with Inman, however, is the great Mollie Sugden. Like Boudicca in a pink rinse, Sugden is an awesome sight to behold in Union Jack knickers and the sort of clothes which Maggie Thatcher was eventually persuaded out of by Gordon Rees. In the first five minutes, she gets stuck in a lift, flashes her knickers and mentions her pussy three times. What more could any discerning viewer want from an evening of cinema. Sugden's timing is equally impressive - in a line like "I made him stop and gave him a good talking to.... eventually", it's the pause which counts, and the length and timing of that pause are things which only a good comic actress can get right.
It's hard to recommend a film which is so appalling on a technical level, but Are You Being Served? is one of the few sitcom spin-offs which is worth a look, largely because of the cast. The sub-genre is, as I said above, a monstrous mutation which produced some equally horrible offspring. The very worst are films which should never be seen by anyone again - I'm thinking of the films of forgotten crap like Never Mind The Quality Feel The Width and the mind numbingly awful For The Love Of Ada. A step-up from these are the bad films which have a few moments that make them worthwhile; most of the On The Buses films fall into this category, along with The Alf Garnett Saga, worth seeing if only for the unforgettable moment when Alf accidentally takes LSD (or did I dream that ?), and the scene in Man About The House when Spike Milligan appears and lunacy prevails all too briefly. Then you've got the sort-of-goodish films of better TV series such as The Lovers, Rising Damp and Till Death Us Do Part, all of which are as good as any British comedy film of the era. The very top rank is devoted to those spin-offs which are almost as good as the classic originals - there are only two of these, as far as I'm concerned, and they are Porridge and The Likely Lads, both featuring immortal scenes which wouldn't have looked out of place in the original series.
Are You Being Served? isn't in the latter category but it is better than it has any right to be. The director, Bob Kellett, who I would call the worst director in the history of British cinema were it not for the fact that Harry Booth and John Robins are worse, has no idea how to pace or stage a scene and he allows the camera to loll about in the hope that his actors might do a bit of moving around. The script is recycled without any real imagination and the sets, costumes and lighting are as unimaginative as they are cheap. But the actors triumph, making this a film which really does sum up what a 'guilty pleasure' is all about.
This new release of the film from Optimum, who now own the Canal Plus catalogue, is not particularly different from the earlier Warner Brothers release.
The transfer is framed at roughly 1.66:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced - a step-up from the Warners disc. However, the transfer remains rather disappointing - very soft in places with highly variable colours and a general lack of fine detail. This new release is however a little darker overall which I found more to my taste than the sometimes over bright image of the 2002 disc. The mono soundtrack is entirely acceptable however and it's hard to imagine anyone but the most rabid fan of the film complaining too much about this release.
The original release contained the original theatrical trailer but that has been dropped. There are no extras at all on this disc nor are there any subtitles.