Mollie Sugden: Actress renowned for playing Mrs Slocombe in the 1970s sitcom 'Are You Being Served?'
Friday 03 July 2009
Playing mothers, mother-in-laws and battleaxes gave Mollie Sugden four decades of television stardom, but her greatest fame came as the brassy Mrs Slocombe in the department-store sitcom Are You Being Served?
The dragon of Grace Brothers' lingerie department, with her nose in the air and different-colour rinses in her hair, hated the camp menswear assistant Mr Humphries, tolerated the floor-walker Captain Peacock, looked down at both the porter Mr Harman and the junior menswear assistant Mr Spooner, mothered her own assistant, Miss Brahms, and buttered up the store manager, Mr Rumbold. She voiced her opinions loudly and seaside-postcard humour emanated from the antics of her "pussy", the pet who was never seen.
"We've all seen the type – too much make-up, dolled up to the nines, a beauty spot stuck firmly on the cheek and an arrogant belief that the customer is always wrong," was how Sugden summed up the character.
Are You Being Served?, written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, was first seen as a pilot in the BBC's Comedy Playhouse series (1972). Its double entendres and sexual innuendo quickly attracted audiences when it was turned into a series (1973-85).
The action centred on Grace Brothers' ladies' and menswear departments. Sugden said she based Mrs Slocombe, the head of ladies' fashions, on store assistants she had encountered. "Personally, I like Mrs Slocombe," explained the actress. "She's really very insecure and vulnerable. She's lonely, too. Mr Slocombe left her years ago – and can you blame him?"
Regularly attracting audiences of 15 million at its height, Are You Being Served? spawned a 1977 feature film, with the staff taking a package holiday in the fictional Spanish resort of Costa Plonka.
Sugden's instinct to perform comedy came early on in her life. Born Mary Isobel Sugden in the West Yorkshire town of Keighley in 1922, the daughter of a builders' merchant who was also a lay preacher, she was four when she heard a woman reciting a funny poem at a church event, memorised it and surprised her family by retelling it at a Christmas party a few months later. "As soon as I'd finished," she recalled, "everyone fell to the floor with laughter. Their response made me think how wonderful it was to make people laugh."
A year later, she played a cat in a Sunday school play. Elocution lessons followed, then drama classes in nearby Bradford from the age of 11, when she attended Keighley Girls' Grammar School. During the Second World War, Sugden made shells in a Keighley munitions factory.
Then, in pursuit of her acting ambitions, she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London, where her northern accent was ironed out. On leaving, she spent eight years in repertory theatre, often playing refined women and duchesses.
However, Thora Hird and the writer Walter Greenwood saw Sugden's photograph while casting a stage comedy in Blackpool and gave her the role of a buxom, randy northern widow. This brought the actress attention and she landed her first television comedy, playing the snooty neighbour Mrs Crispin in Hugh and I (1962-67) , which starred Hugh Lloyd as a lodger in Terry Scott's mother's house in Tooting, South London.
In 1964, Sugden briefly took over the role of Jimmy Clitheroe's mother in the hugely popular radio comedy The Clitheroe Kid, featuring the 4ft 3in Lancashire comedian as an eternally naughty schoolboy. She then played the part permanently in the television version, Just Jimmy (1964-66).
The actress stepped into the straight role of Lotte in the BBC's acclaimed drama series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (starring Keith Michell, 1970) and appeared on and off in Coronation Street for more than 10 years (1965-76) as Nellie Harvey, landlady of the Laughing Donkey, a performance of comic subtlety as the character jostled for supremacy on the pub trade's social circuit with the Rovers Return's Annie Walker.
But Sugden was most recognisable in television sitcoms. She took the role of Flavia in Up Pompeii! (1969-70), continued her penchant for snobs by playing Mrs Hutchinson (the actress Nerys Hughes's imperious mother) in The Liver Birds (1971-79), basing the character on a family friend, and acted mothers to Jack Smethurst in For the Love of Ada (1971), Robin Nedwell in Doctor in Charge (1972), John Alderton in My Wife Next Door (1972), Terry Scott in Son of the Bride (1973) and Brian Rix in Men of Affairs (1973-74).
In between series of Are You Being Served?, Sugden starred for the first time in her own sitcoms. In Home to Roost (1974-75) on radio, she and Deryck Guyler played Mr and Mrs Wheeler, coming to terms with living with each other all day long in retirement. Then, on television, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's Come Back Mrs Noah (1978) featured Sugden as a middle-aged housewife marooned in space. More successfully, she teamed up with Christopher Blake in That's My Boy (1981-86) to play Ida Willis, a down-to-earth housekeeper who discovers that her employer, a doctor, is the son she gave away for adoption.
The sitcom's writers, Pam Valentine and Michael Ashton, subsequently wrote My Husband and I (1987-88), in which Sugden and her real-life actor husband, William Moore, played Nora and George Powers. As the head of personnel at Ashvale Advertising, Nora found the unemployed George a lowly positon with the company but was constantly embarrassed by his attitude.
Sugden subsequently revived two of her comedy characters – Mrs Slocombe in two series of Grace and Favour (1992-93), Lloyd and Croft's sitcom featuring staff from the closed-down Grace Brothers running a country hotel, and Mrs Hutchinson in a new series of The Liver Birds (1996).
Mary Isobel Sugden (Mollie Sugden), actress: born Keighley, West Yorkshire 21 July 1922; married William Moore (died 2000; two sons); died Guildford, Surrey 1 July 2009.
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