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John Inman, a star of the British television sitcom Are You Being Served?, died early this morning.
The actor, 71, died in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, at 4am after being ill for some time, his manager, Phil Dale said.
“John, through his character Mr. Humphries of Are You Being Served? was known and loved throughout the world," Mr. Dale said. “He was one of the best and finest pantomime dames working to capacity audiences throughout Britain.
“John was known for his comedy plays and farces which were enjoyed from London’s West End throughout the country and as far as Australia, Canada and the USA."
The actor suffered from hepatitis A and had been taken into hospital for tests after problems with his liver. It was revealed that he had the disease after illness forced him to cancel the opening of a pantomime in London on December 9, 2004. Mr. Dale said at the time that it was “not a serious illness” and that Inman was expected to be “fine”.
Inman played camp salesman Mr. Humphries in the comedy series Are You Being Served? for a decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. He starred alongside Wendy Richard, who went on to play Pauline Fowler in EastEnders, as well as Molly Sugden, Frank Thornton and Trevor Bannister.
Are You Being Served? ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985 and depicted the antics of the staff of Grace Brothers, an old-fashioned department store. Inman’s character, the senior sales assistant in the menswear department, was known for his catchphrase “I’m free” and for his overt campness. The actor’s portrayal of the character brought him praise and criticism. In 1976 he was awarded BBC TV’s Personality Of The Year but he was also attacked by gay groups offended by his stereotypical portrayal of a theatrical homosexual, although Inman argued that Mr. Humphries's sexual orientation was never stated.
Inman's manager said he hoped the actor would be remembered as a “genuine British comedian”. He said: “It’s a talent for that slightly camp comedy that can’t come from any other country in the world.” He added that Ron Lynch, Inman's partner of 35 years with whom he entered into a civil partnership in December 2005, "is absolutely devastated and, at the moment, inconsolable".
Few situation comedies have aroused such loyal affection in television viewers as Are You Being Served? And no character was more beloved than the irrepressibly camp Mr Humphries, played by John Inman. From the moment in 1972 that Inman was asked to appear in a pilot episode for the show, his days as a struggling actor were over. The series ran for a dozen years and was regularly watched by half of Britain. It was later a cult success in the US.
Originally, the show’s writers, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, envisaged it as another ensemble piece in the same vein as Croft’s previous hit Dad’s Army. The humour was to arise not so much from plot as from the interaction between staff of the old-fashioned Grace Brothers department store. No single character was meant to dominate, certainly not Mr. Humphries. Wilber-force Clayborne Humphries was originally conceived only as the kindly mentor to the handsome new boy, Mr. Lucas (played by Trevor Bannister), who had top billing. Inman also had to compete with strong performances from the better-known Mollie Sugden as Mrs. Slocombe, Frank Thornton as Captain Peacock and Wendy Richard as the glamorous Miss Brahms.
But it was Inman that audiences took to. Every time he delivered his catchphrase, “I’m free”, in his singsong voice, or minced across the set, he received such a tremendous laugh that his character was written up some more. In due course he became the focus of much of the comedy.
One reason family audiences loved him was for his warmth. Mr. Humphries was affectionate and seemed genuinely pleased to see everyone. Another was his fondness for atrocious puns and double entendres.
Unlike some less talented comic actors, who complained about being linked with one role, Inman was refreshingly grateful to be known, ever afterwards, as Mr Humphries. “He’s what people expect of me, and he’s what I do best,” he said.
Though perennially trim, Inman was pushing 40 when he joined the series after a long apprenticeship in theatre. He was born in Preston, the son of a hairdresser. Later the family moved to Blackpool and ran an eight-bedroom boarding house. “I was quite a peculiar child, with an obsession for making frocks rather than playing football,” he said.
Educated privately at a former girls’ school, Claridge House in Preston, and then at a secondary modern, Inman left school at 15 to work in a local outfitters called Fox’s. He showed a talent for window dressing and progressed to arranging displays at Austin Reed in Manchester.
His real ambition, though, was to act. He had been hooked on the bright lights ever since seeing Charlie Chester perform, and when he was 13 he made his debut in a play, Freda, on the South Pier Pavilion, Blackpool. He got a job as the South Pier’s dogsbody, sweeping up and making tea, and played farce in summer shows. But his slight, boyish build and gap teeth did not lend themselves to many parts.
It was pantomime, for which Inman’s camp mannerisms were well suited, that gave him a break. After playing one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella at Coventry, he turned professional, and in 1972 his friend David Croft sent him the BBC Comedy Playhouse script for a pilot episode of Are You Being Served?
This was based on Jeremy Lloyd’s experiences of working as a salesman at Simpson’s in Piccadilly Circus. “It was a great cast. I was the only one in it I’d never heard of,” Inman said. In the pilot episode the Mr. Humphries character, who had only three lines to speak, was conceived as a rather shabby man. Croft, as a favour, suggested that his friend could “camp him up a bit”.
The pilot was followed by five more episodes in 1973: “I think those shows went out against Coronation Street, so nobody saw them. Some months later they were repeated on Friday night and they rocketed away,” Inman recalled.
Even so, the show had its teething problems and during the second series a group meeting was called, after which the writers and cast decided to go for smuttier puns. The new formula pleased British audiences, who never seemed to tire of hearing jokes about Mrs. Slocombe’s pussy. Croft would ask: “Dare we do that?” and Inman would reply: “David, you have created a monster. You have to let him go.”
Mr. Humphries was the sartorial butterfly of the department, beautifully turned out with matching silk tie and handkerchief. After a lifetime dedicated to measuring inside legs, he was expert in all the salesman’s tricks.
Inman camped up the character for all he was worth. It was he who invented Mr. Humphries’ innuendo-laden catchphrase — “I’m free” — which has remained instantly recognizable. He also developed the trademark Mr. Humphries walk, an effeminate bustle, one hand poised on hip, the other fluttering in mid-air. The fledgling gay liberation movement did not immediately see the joke, demanding that Inman be removed from the series. But as stereotypes were broken down over the years, the series became cult viewing for some in the gay community.
Inman briefly left the show, when he was offered his own sitcom on ITV, Odd Man Out, in 1977. But that was not a success, and in 1978 a conciliatory BBC asked him to return, which he did. He also made two pop records: Are You Being Served? and The Teddy Bears Picnic in 1975, and in 1977 he and the rest of the cast made a film of the show.
When the series ended in 1985 Inman returned to the boards to play pantomime dames, and continued until he fell ill in 2004. Inman, who designed all his own costumes, took playing dames seriously, and was committed to the art of panto.
“There’s nowhere else in the world that this blend of music-hall, slapstick and so much more could flourish and we should be very proud of pantomime,” he said in 1997. His cartoon-like acting style influenced later shows such as Little Britain.
In 1992 the Grace Brothers team reunited for a follow-up sitcom, Grace and Favour, set in a hotel. The show was dropped after its second series.
But Are You Being Served? became an unexpected hit in the US, as popular with conservative Southerners as with liberal West Coasters. Along with other members of the cast, Inman was dispatched on pro-motional tours and was mobbed in New York.
For the past 30 years, Inman lived in a mews house near the canal in Little Venice, West London, despite a fire in 2004. After a lifetime of living in hotel bedrooms, he enjoyed leading a life of quiet, domestic routine.
Inman was a private man who did not like talking about his sexuality, but in 2005 he entered into a civil partnership with his partner of 35 years, Ron Lynch.
John Inman, actor, was born on June 28, 1935. He died of complications arising from hepatitis A on March 8, 2007, aged 71
I raise a salute to that lifesaving human compromise, the open secret. I raise a salute to a band of comrades who, each in their different ways, were the keepers through a dark age of an open secret. My salute is to a dying breed: a breed whose ranks thinned again in the small hours of Thursday morning when John Inman passed away.
Hail to them all: the ludicrous old queens; the drag artists; the pantomime homosexuals; the florid epicureans; the indulgent priests; the sensitive young men in tight trousers; and the wan aesthetes. And hail, too, to their quieter cousins: the discreetly confirmed bachelors and “he never married” brigade, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell soldiers, and the dignified loners who just preferred to stay single and wouldn’t say why. Theirs — all of theirs — to protect and guard was a precious thing: the open secret.
For gay men in the 20th century the open secret was sometimes literally a lifesaver. It was the narrowest of territories: the half-acre that lies somewhere between absolute denial and outright confession, between dishonesty and disgrace. This was a hard place to be in 1970, a narrow line to walk. If our oh-so-modern, who-gives-a-damn, 21st-century gays, of whom I am one, suppose that these men were not brave, that they were not trail-blazers, not part of the struggle, then we don’t know the half of it.
And some of us, it seems, don’t. Already I hear the cry — “living a lie”, “set back the cause”, “self-oppression”, “an insulting stereotype” — from a gay lobby that has taken about five minutes to forget what a dark age England was for us, what light an Inman, a Kenneth Williams, a Danny La Rue or, from America, a Liberace brought into it, and how outrageous, how valiant, those people were.
About five minutes to forget, too, that the people who wanted these men taken off the stage, screen and wireless, were not the gay-rights campaigners but the bigots and guardians of conservative morality. “Sexual perversion”, they said, wasn’t entertainment: it was wicked and dangerous — and bad taste. The BBC, contemplating making a series of Are You Being Served?, tried at first to insist that Mr Humphries was removed.
How fast we forget context. Always a bit of a giggle to their own era, the Inmans, La Rues and Williamses of the last century are now disowned by their newly brave inheritors: the lately and boldly Out.
John Inman’s breath had barely left his body before right-on spokesmen for that imaginary thing, the “gay community”, were berating the “self-oppression” and “stereotyping” of homosexuals that Inman’s Mr. Humphries helped to reinforce. His smutty innuendo, his jokes about fairies and handbags, his limp wrist, camp wit and simpering delivery are, they claim, everything we need to shed.
Yes, they are. Of course they are. They are now. But they weren’t then. Then they were a light in the dark. Between the words, these men insinuated a wordless language of their own; they made a nonverbal statement, a shyly comical way of saying: “This is who and what I am; this is my tribe — and, look, I’m famous and life is fun.” To anxious boys like me, who didn’t even know a tribe existed, the lives and careers of these men showed we were not alone. You may say it was a pity it had to be done by double entrendre. Yes it was a pity; but whether by single, double or triple entendre, it was entendu. You could imply it, at last, and at least you could imply it and nobody would lock you up. This was a huge step forward.
Remember before you sniff at the narrow caricature of a gay man conveyed by that old, camp guard, that these were the gays who didn’t retreat into abusive relationships, dirty little broom-cupboard secrets, guilt, suicide, hatred and shame — or surprisingly often the persecution of other gay men. They were the ones who didn’t ruin women’s lives with wretched sham marriages. Whatever the half-truths and timidities of their estate, they were in some deep way being true to themselves. In the manner in which they talked, dressed and even walked, they were refusing to hide something. There is an inner honesty in this which is perhaps stronger than the honesty of signing up to a sexuality on a dotted line.
Their great achievement was to find a way, however comedic, to be themselves without becoming outcasts; and to show the world. It was desperately important to be able to do that 30 years ago.
Have modern activists no sense of history — even very recent history? Instead of thinking simply of where the gay rights movement is going, they should think too about where it has come from. Read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, a personal memoir of police harassment, public humiliation, distorted evidence, a ghoulishly sanctimonious press, dismissal and an 18-month prison sentence, published (at some risk: many bookshops refused to display it) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1955 to great public excitement, and republished a few years ago to almost complete indifference. The book seems to describe another England, remote from ours.
You need to understand that backdrop to understand how quietly brave were men like Noël Coward (who would now be called “closeted”) to go as far as they did. Believe it or not, Wildeblood has some claim to be the first writer in the English language to say he was a homosexual (as opposed to admitting to homosexual acts).
In 1955! Inman arrived only 17 years later. When Are You Being Served? entered mainstream popular culture (and before it, on the BBC Light Programme’s Round the Horne, Kenneth Williams’s and Hugh Paddick’s Julian and Sandy), the idea that homosexuality might be an amusing, unthreatening and not uncommon oddity rather than scary — a moral poison and a mortal sin — was gaining ground. Such portrayals unsoured what it was to be gay. The point about this version of the Gay Everyman, surely, was that he was likeable. You’d be pleased if he moved in next door. As the 1970s went on, a few gay activists did begin to worry about the stereotyping, but this, I believe, was a sign of how fast the times were moving.
Music hall was probably where it started. At the showy end of the spectrum, men like Inman, La Rue and Liberace helped to tease this idea further into the spotlights. Not all of these men were necessarily gay, or exclusively so. Max Miller (“What if I am?”) was not gay but flirted with the stereotype because it was becoming rather popular: it sold seats in theatres. My Nana loved Miller, loved Inman, loved La Rue, laughed like a drain at all of them.
Nana would have loved Graham Norton, too. Julian Clary and Graham Norton are probably among the last exemplars of a breed that may soon seem awfully old-fashioned. The next age may not even see the joke, but if the day should come when a new generation watches those DVDs and wonders what campery had to do with being gay, it will be partly because of, not despite, camp comic turns. Clary and Norton are the last act in a show that has helped to turn what once was seen as shame into light entertainment. Thus did the shame and the ghetto depart, taking with them (but slowly) the tagging and the typecasting.
We gays can shed these stereotypes because we have outgrown them, because we have won the space and public respect to dispense with prison clothes and walk out of the virtual ghettos in which gay people used to bunch for mutual affirmation. We don’t need to belong to a gang any more, to drink in the same pubs, congregate in the same occupations or dress or talk in ways designed to help us recognize each other, and help the outside world to guess without the unpleasantness of having to ask. We are no longer under siege. Everything can be talked about today.
But yesterday, when things weren’t said, things had to be said without words. Men like Inman found the showbiz shorthand to do it. God rest their souls.
INMAN (NORAH) - On Wednesday December 26 2007, peacefully in hospital, Norah aged 93 years of Buxton, formerly of Burnage/Longsight. Beloved Wife of the late Bill and a much loved Sister-in-law of Audrey, also a loving Aunt and Great Aunt who was loved and will be sadly missed by all her Family and Friends. The funeral service and committal will be held at Manchester Crematorium on Wednesday January 9 2008 at 1.35pm. All inquiries to Charles Robb and Sons. Tel 0161 224 1200.
Published in the Manchester Evening News on 4/1/2008.
Francis Nelson "Frank" Inman
INMAN, Francis Nelson (Frank)- Aged 80 years, of
Meadowside, Lowick, passed away peacefully on January 21, at Furness General
Hospital, dearly loved and loving husband of Ivy, dear dad of Linda, Kathleen,
Janet and Peter and father in law of Raymond and David, John and Joy, treasured
grandad of Emma and David, Rachel, Craig, Peter and Tiana, a much loved man and
good friend to many and who will be dearly missed. Friends please meet for a
service on Friday January 25, 2008 at 2.00pm at St Luke's Parish Church, Lowick
prior to interment into the churchyard. Family flowers only please, but
donations, if so desired, for the British Heart Foundation may be left at church
or sent c/o Little & Caine, Eden House, Neville Street, Ulverston. Telephone
Published in the North West Evening Mail from 25/1/2008 - 24/2/2008.
On Sunday 7th December 2008 Nicholas aged 40 years and of Stalybridge. Dearly loved Son of David and Wendy, much loved Brother of Caroline and Christopher and special Nephew of Bob and Vivien, Michael and Margaret and Barbara. Family flowers only, please, with donations in lieu, if desired to Diabetes UK. Funeral date and time to be confirmed All enqs to H. Revell & Sons Ltd. Tel 0161 338 2520
Published in the Tameside Advertiser and Glossop Advertiser from 11/12/2008 -