John Inman succeeds in selling a salesman American fans of British series are well-served

August 15, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- "Are you free, Mr. Humphries?"

"Make me an offer and find out," says John Inman in the high-pitched voice he uses as the outrageously swishy salesman Mr. Humphries in "Are You Being Served?" The popular BBC series is about a London department store where most customers storm out before they ever buy anything, and the oft-repeated question that its salespersons ask of each other -- "Are you free?" -- is hilarious because it's so purely rhetorical.

It's 11 a.m. and the British comic, with the salacious gap between his front teeth that's almost as familiar a trademark as his caustic wit, has been asked "Are you free?" 11 times so far at a Washington hotel.

"People recognize John everywhere," says his longtime friend, traveling companion and manager Bill Roberton.

"It's nice -- I'm not knocking it -- but it's rather like living my life all over again," says Inman.

Humphries is such a wonderful character that he has created a bit of a typecasting problem for Inman.

"Recently I was doing four plays in repertory -- three comedies one after the other and then played an inspector in an Agatha Christie mystery," Inman says. "I made my entrance in a trench coat, trying for all the world to look like someone from Scotland Yard, only to hear a little old woman in the front row say to a friend in the audience, 'This is the one I like -- he'll make you laugh.' I had to endure 2 1/2 hours without making her laugh, and I desperately wanted to."

Although the 58-year-old actor and his character, Mr. Humphries, may not be exactly household words to most people in this country, they are to fans of British comedy. The original run of "Are You Being Served?" ended in the United Kingdom in 1984 after 65 episodes and 11 years, but reruns on Public Television (it airs on Channel 26 weekdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 11 p.m.) have made it one of the most popular British sitcoms in the United States.

Last week, WETA-TV (Channel 26) brought Inman to Washington to kick off its August fund drive. He spent Monday night busily charming callers on WETA's phones during a two-hour special called "The Best of 'Are You Being Served?' " and he spent the following evening at a packed, $100-per-couple reception. (The special will be repeated tonight at 11.) Inman's appearance helped the station raise almost $39,000 in pledges Monday night and $5,500 at Tuesday's reception. No wonder Inman regularly tours the United States, visiting PBS stations from Boston to San Diego to support their fund drives and to promote the show that began broadcasts in the United States in 1990.

Surprise popularity

No one was more surprised than Inman when "Are You Being Served?" became so popular here. British salespersons tend to be pompous and harsh, he says.

"You Americans tend to say, 'Hi there! What can we do for you, lady?' " he says in a voice that suddenly drops two octaves in a perfect imitation of the accent one might hear in an Atlanta department store.

Inman is not only good at voices, he is also one of the finest masters of the withering stare since Jack Benny. In the early days of "Are You Being Served?" he ignored some of the lines that the writers gave him because, Inman says, "I knew I could get a bigger laugh without one."

Like most British comedies, the double-entendre-filled "Are You Being Served?" is much bawdier than its American counterparts, and it has an endearing ensemble cast.

There's not only Mr. Humphries with his barbed quips -- "I've given it up for Lent," he says when he declines to measure a customer's inseam -- and facial expressions that suggest his ambiguous sexuality, but also Mrs. Slocombe, the hormone-driven mistress of malapropisms who runs the ladies' department; there is the randy junior salesman, Mr. Lucas, in his fruitless pursuit of Mrs. Slocombe's nubile assistant, Miss Brahms; there is the pompous floorwalker Captain Peacock, whose last name, as Mr. Humphries likes to say, is "more of the former than the latter"; and there's the hearing-impaired, narcoleptic Mr. Grainger, who runs the men's wear department and assures his customers that the over-long trousers and jackets he tries to sell them "will ride up with wear."

The show was a landmark in the United Kingdom 20 years ago in much the same way that its contemporary, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," was here. It was the first British sitcom that concentrated on the workplace rather than the home.

"It was about six homeless idiots whose only home was where they went to work," Inman says. "We're living in a time when a lot of lonely people can't wait to get to work because their life doesn't really begin until they do."

Inman has been closely involved with the stage since he was 5 years old. His father, a hairdresser, received complimentary tickets to a British variety show, and he took his son every Monday.

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