Farewell, Mrs. Slocombe


Monday, July 6
Mrs. Betty Slocombe could have been the pin-up girl for anyone who ever worked in retailing. She would have been in a league with Betty Grable and Farrah Fawcett.

In one of the episodes of the perennially popular British comedy show, "Are You Being Served?," Mrs. Slocombe decided that it would be to her advantage to get herself fired rather than quit her job as head of Ladies Intimate Apparel at Grace Brothers, a London department store that had probably seen its best days before anyone had even heard of Mrs. Simpson.

She waited for the opportune moment. When floorwalker Captain Stephen Peacock (Frank Thornton) beckoned to her to wait on the plentiful wife of one of the board members at Grace Brothers, she saw her chance.

The woman had a complaint: "When you get this dress out in the sunlight, the color is absolutely foul. It's far too expensive. And, when I sit down, it rides up in the back."

"Well," Mrs. Slocombe said, her most professional smile fixed firmly in place, "the color certainly goes with your blotchy complexion. It's too expensive because you're a cheap old bag. And it rides up in the back because you've got a great big fat butt."

(It didn't work. The woman was a member of a sect that values absolute truth above all else. They asked Mrs. Slocombe to join them.)

Mollie Sugden, who played Mrs. Slocombe during the entire run of "Are You Being Served?", as well as two seasons of the show's sequel, "Grace and Favour," passed away on July 1 at the age of 86. She had been in declining health since the death of her husband in 2000. One of her last public appearances was at the funeral of another original cast member of the program. Wendy Richard, who played Miss Brahms, Mrs. Slocombe's young assistant, died of cancer in February.

Sugden was born in Keighley, Yorkshire on July 23, 1922. She always said that she first became enamored with the idea of making people laugh at the age of five when she listened to a woman recite a funny poem at a Sunday school concert.

After attending the Guildhall School of Music and Dance in London, Sugden began touring in what were called North Country comedies.

She first became acquainted with David Croft, one of the two creators of "Are You Being Served?," when he directed her in a BBC series called "Hugh and I." They reunited in "The Love Birds," a popular comedy that began in 1969. Sugden was appearing in a stage play when Croft first approached her about a part "written with you especially in mind."

"Are You Being Served?" (which ran from 1972 until 1985) was such a stroke of casting genius that you oftentimes wondered if mere mortals accomplished it. The only other example that comes immediately to mind is the stellar quartet that made "I Love Lucy" such an enduring treasure.

But, unlike the temperamental schisms that occasionally plagued the "Lucy" set, the larger ensemble of players in "Served" were great (and sometimes lifelong) friends, who genuinely enjoyed each other's company. And it showed.

The cast underwent changes over the years. The series remained far more witty and amusing than most American sitcoms (hardly high praise), but the scintillating chemistry of the original ensemble was never duplicated. At the end of its run, only Sugden, Thornton, Richard, John Inman (Mr. Humphries), and Nicholas Smith (Mr. Rumbold) still worked at Grace Brothers.

Arthur Brough (the crotchety Mr. Granger) and 82-year-old Harold Bennett (Young Mr. Grace) had died. Larry Martyn (Mr. Mash) left the show in 1975 and Trevor Bannister (Mr. Lukas) departed in 1979.

While American television comedies dispense innuendos and double entendres with all the finesse of pre-pubescent schoolboys, the British have elevated it to an art form.

In that respect, "Are You Being Served?" was a trailblazer. The fact that the series took place on the floor of a department store that sold men's and women's clothing made it the ideal setting for perfectly innocent banter that was as naughty as it was hilarious.

(Railing at a proposed change of merchandise in the Ladies Dept., Mrs. Slocombe asks, "Are you suggesting that I take my underwear down and put perfume there instead?")

Betty Slocombe didn't have an easy life. She met her husband during an air raid on London ("The bombs were raining down. He threw me on my back and said, 'Look out, here comes a big one.'") The marriage ended tragically ("He was taken early. The fraud squad came right after breakfast."). All she had were her co-workers at Grace Brothers, her cat (this being a family-oriented newspaper, I won't say more), and her friend Mrs. Axelby, with whom she enjoyed "a quiet drink" in the pub before stumbling home ("The pavement's very uneven 'round my way.").

Mollie Sugden was more fortunate. She was as highly regarded in her profession as she was successful in it. Her marriage endured for 42 years and her twin sons were at her bedside when she passed away. She left millions of friends the entire world over to whom Betty Slocombe will always be as familiar and beloved as a member of their own family.

Alden Graves is a columnist and reviewer for the Banner.


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