Show People: Mr Humphries, reborn in the USA: John Inman

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The Independent Culture
EVERYONE is standing in line: from blue- rinsed old ladies to six-year-old children. The queue goes twice round the building. There's such a swarm, in fact, that John Inman has to go in the back door. Inside, his hand swells from signing autographs and his voice starts to go. This is springtime in Tennessee, and Memphis has turned out to meet Britain's most popular export since Benny Hill: Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served?.

In Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco the show is on five nights a week at the 'prime access' time of 7.30pm. 'There are only 60 episodes,' says John Wilson, programmer of KAET in Phoenix. 'And we've been playing them over and over again.' Mr Humphries and Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) are better known there than John Major. The show has a cult following, too, among the gay community in San Francisco. 'I don't know about that,' says Inman, 'I think they like Mollie.'

He's back in London, sitting on a wide yellow sofa in his drawing room in Little Venice. There are wall-to-wall tinted mirrors, a mini- bar and dozens of celebrity photos. In casual clothes, without the flared pinstripe and wide lapels, he looks rounder and more subdued. America loves the show, so does Australia, but in Britain it's never been repeated. Why? 'The BBC don't like it,' he says, half-frustrated, half-resigned. 'They're a bit extraordinary.'

Even during the show's run (1974-1984) the BBC was divided. A senior official disliked Inman so much he told producer David Croft to 'get rid of the poof]' Croft said: 'If the poof goes, I go.' Croft's instinct was right. Mr Humphries began as a walk-on. Within two years Inman was BBC TV Personality of the Year and the TV Times readers' Funniest Man on Television. The next year, they made the film and he had top billing. By 1979 the series had an audience high of 22.6 million.

The turning point for Inman came when he stole the catchphrase. Early on, everyone got to say it. You were meant to look left, look right, then say, 'I'm free'. But in one episode a colonel turned up and asked for a woman's dress. Inman threw his ties in the air: 'I'm freeeee]]]' From then on, the writers gave him the line. 'If I was to go out now, somebody would ask me if I was free.'

Inman was born in 1935 (he's nearly 60]). If it wasn't at the end of a pier, then he moved pretty close to one, aged 12, when his parents took on a boarding house in Blackpool. He knew he wanted to go on stage from the age of three. His first job (at 13) was playing the son in a post-war drama, Freda, at the South Pier Pavilion. It was only then that he discovered 'there was such a thing as plays. My folks went to variety.'

After school, he did two years at Fox's, a gentleman's outfitters in Blackpool: 'It was a good insight. Later I thought, oh yes, I know that.' He went south because 'even the shows done in Blackpool were cast in London.' An agent got him a job in rep: 'I hadn't got the fare, so he gave me the fare to Chester.' He soon found work in summer seasons and Christmas pantos, working with comics such as Albert Modley and Sid James. He was the sidekick, the daft lad who put his foot in the bucket, fell off the chair and got clouted round the ear-hole: 'Time after time after time.'

Inman watched, copied and stole, until he found his own style. 'You don't really progress or become a household name until you have got something that is totally you.' What is totally him is a mixture of him and her: a radiant campness that drips with innuendo. There isn't a major resort in Britain that hasn't seen him as an Ugly Sister, the dame in Babes in the Wood, Widow Twankey or Mother Goose.

There have been series, too. In Odd Man Out he was the owner of a fish-and-chip shop who inherited a factory. In Take a Letter Mr Jones he was the secretary and Rula Lenska was the boss. In Grace and Favour, the sequel to Are You Being Served?, the Grace Brothers staff moved to a stately home. Each one used the work-place, but none really worked.

With the original Mr Humphries he combined the panto dame, the comedy sidekick and the wide-eyed innocent. He's as concerned about Mrs Slocombe's famous pussy as he is about measuring someone's inside leg. It's this exuberance, rather than the hand on the hip or the double entendres, that accounts for the thousands of letters he gets from the United States. British letters tend to be quick requests for photographs, Americans want more.

'They're usually four foolscap pages of rather small writing asking every question under the sun. Right down to what colour underpants I wear. They're a very nosey lot actually.'

Summer Show at the Princess Theatre, Torquay, 0803 290290, from 18 July.

(Photograph omitted)