They don't make 'em like they used to - innuendo abounds in classic comedy reboot

The cast of the Are You Being Served? remake.
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The cast of the Are You Being Served? remake.

Mrs Slocombe's pussy. I don't know about you, but that's the first thing brought to my mind by Are You Being Served?, that innuendo-laden, oh-so-British sitcom set in a London department store.

This classic TV show ran for a rather impressive 10 seasons from 1972 to 1985, and Mrs Slocombe's pedigree feline Tiddles - her aforementioned 'pussy', which "wins prizes every time she shows it" - got at least a couple of mentions every episode.

Now Are You Being Served? has been brought back in the form of a one-off special set in 1988, three years after the final episode screened. (The show's characters - and the original actors who played them - popped up again in the short-lived spinoff Grace & Favour, however, which aired from 1992 to 1993.)

Gavin & Stacey actor Mathew Horne stars in the Are You Being Served? remake as the new 'young Mr Grace', grandson of the ...
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Gavin & Stacey actor Mathew Horne stars in the Are You Being Served? remake as the new 'young Mr Grace', grandson of the original young Mr Grace.

Not a lot has changed for the mens and ladieswear staff of Grace Brothers department store in those three years - and anyone watching the remake's opening moments could be forgiven for thinking at first that it was simply a re-run of the original series.

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While much of the new episode revolves around the plans of 'young Mr Grace' - the first young Mr Grace's grandson, played by Gavin & Stacey actor Mathew Horne - to drag his family's store kicking and screaming into the modern era, it does hew pretty closely to its 40-year-old source material.

This extends to the appearance of the cast, at least two of whom bear a remarkable resemblance to their predecessors.

"Yeah, that was quite spooky actually, I have to say," recalls Horne. "We were doing it with a live studio audience - what was being shot was played onto screens for the audience - and it was extraordinary, because we all went into makeup and Sherrie Hewson, who plays the Mollie Sugden part (Mrs Slocombe) - she came out, and because she'd got her mannerisms down, and the costume and makeup was so accurate, it was just spooky watching her do Mollie Sugden. Particularly because Mollie Sugden is no longer with us - it was just an odd, odd thing."

Truth be told, the new Are You Being Served? sticks so closely to the established formula I was uncomfortably reminded of the fact that as a child I used to sit and watch it with my grandparents. And given the show's ribald sense of humour, that just doesn't bear thinking about.

I asked Horne if he could pinpoint the age he first began to wonder just what the many double entendres of Mrs Slocombe, Mr Humphries and the rest might also mean, but like me his memory was a little vague.

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"Yeah, well, obviously when I was younger it kind of went over my head - but we're all very aware now," he chuckles down the phone from London, where he's just got home after an evening spent performing in a West End adaptation of Moliere's play The Miser.

The famous French playwright's 450-year-old work is a slightly higher class of production than Are You Being Served? perhaps, but it too isn't above the odd dash of innuendo, proving there's always been something to be said for playing to a broad audience.

"There was sort of something for everyone," says Horne of the original Are You Being Served? "And I think the right types of performers were hired to play those innuendos with the requisite tongue-in-cheek nature."

As for the remake, Horne says he and his fellow castmates had an "amazing" time reviving the 45-year-old sitcom's sense of fun.

"I think we were all kind of looking forward to making this as cheeky and camp as possible," he laughs.

While Horne describes Are You Being Served? as a part of Britain's "comedy culture" he remembers it being more appreciated by actual TV viewers than critics. "It was one of those shows that was very popular, and popular enough to run for that long, but it was only sort of lauded by the fans," says Horne.

"It had good audiences - hence it ran for so long - but critically I think it was looked down on and sneered at somewhat. So it was really one of those sitcoms that was sort of a triumph over snobbery really. I suppose that's a good enough reason to bring the format back."

Are You Being Served?, Jones, May 28, 7.30pm.

 - Sunday Star Times

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