More com than sit

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Shimmered is probably too strong a word for it, but John Inman's shop assistant in `Are You Being Served?' certainly camped out on the foothills of comedy stardom in the Seventies. Now he and the show are back. Sally Morgan tries to get to the bottom of what makes them both such a cult.

If this TV comedy had been invented today, it would be rejected on the spot. Set in the kind of old-fashioned department store that no longer exists, with characters and a brand of humour that are outdated, politically incorrect and puerile, there is surely no way this programme could possibly appeal to a sophisticated, contemporary audience.

But it does.

Are You Being Served? is 25 years old, but the current repeats on BBC1's Saturday tea-time slot have attracted an astonishing following of eight million viewers.

Like Dad's Army and The Two Ronnies, time has elevated this obvious mix of double entendres and low humour into another comedy classic.

So is it nostalgia? A backlash against contemporary comedy? Maybe it's just that there is nothing better to do on a Saturday evening. John Inman, who plays the camp second assistant Mr Humphreys - his catchphrase "I'm free" moved into the language - and has been mincing it up as a succession of pantomime dames ever since, has his own uncomplicated theory.

"It's funny," he says, "the public has been starved of fun and real entertainment for too long.

"They miss the colourful, lighthearted humour that you find in programmes such as Are You Being Served?, Dad's Army, The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise.

"The problem with sitcoms nowadays is that they're all sit and no com. They're so bland they may as well have been made in black and white. Where's the glitter, the glamour, the escapism?"

You won't be surprised to discover that he is damning of programmes that he refers to as "hard-hitting, in your face, and aggressive".

"I know Men Behaving Badly is hugely popular," he says, sounding like a peeved Mr Humphreys, "but I think it's incredibly vulgar, unamusing, unsubtle and crude. In the last episode that I saw, the characters were breaking wind in a paddling pool. I wondered what comic reason there could possibly be for this."

But, hang on, what about his show's running gag about his grand guignol screen co-worker Mrs Slocombe and her pussy? A hint of the vulgar, the unamusing, the unsubtle and the crude?

"There's a subtle difference," he insists. "Yes, it is risque and full of double entendres, but it contains what we call an honest vulgarity and `self-cleaning' jokes. By that I mean the rudeness is all in the mind of the viewer and eventually turns out to be above board. The scriptwriters Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft were careful to make sure of this.

"As for Mrs Slocombe's pussy, it is exactly the same colour as her hair. Every time she dyes her hair, she dyes her cat. This cleans the whole joke up, but it continues to raise a laugh.

"I've had the impression from day one that Are You Being Served? was never one of the BBC's favourite programmes. In fact, David Croft received a memo when it was shown first time around, saying that it was getting `too many laughs.' I think perhaps they've finally decided to give in to public demand. The repeats of Dad's Army started it all off. My belief is that they stuck it in a Saturday tea-time slot, thinking that this `silly old thing' would work as a filler. Then they found out how popular it still was and wondered what else they could come up with."

David Croft, who created the series with Jeremy Lloyd is, naturally, just as proud of the comedy and just as defensive.

"It has a broad, music hall humour that knows where to draw the line in terms of risque jokes. When Jeremy and I were writing the script we knew the difference between good taste and bad taste - and went as far as we possibly could without over-stepping the mark," he says.

"A lot of self-censorship went on. When I produced and directed Up Pompeii, for example, I insisted that it was broadcast after 9.30pm. Nowadays it would probably go out earlier.

"I'm afraid to say that I feel standards have slipped in contemporary comedy. I used to think Men Behaving Badly was amusing and because it was funny it got away with more risque humour. Now it has run its course. Old-style comedy is beginning to appeal to youngsters because, despite their high-tech lifestyle, old-fashioned values still prevail. I had been trying to bring back Are You Being Served? for years, but the BBC resisted because I believe they are ashamed of its broad - or common - humour. I'm also hoping to revive 'Allo 'Allo and It Ain't Half Hot Mum and it's been a hard struggle. I believe I'll succeed, however, because, like fashion, different styles of comedy make comebacks.

"They are sexist but sexism is funny. It's tongue-in-cheek and harmless. I think another reason for the show's success is that nobody tampered with the script and nobody was afraid they were going to be axed. This relaxed atmosphere came across. Today there are more re-writers than writers and the job's not creative."

John Inman will be playing Nurse Wonder in the pantomime `Snow White' at the Victoria Theatre in Woking, Surrey from December until 1 February.

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