Are You Free, Miss Brahms?

Like any self-respecting homo who grew up in the nineties, thanks to the good folks at PBS I watched my fair share of the fabulous British sitcom "Are You Being Served?" Okay, I'll come clean. I've probably seen every episode five times and if you asked me over for a marathon I'd have my shoes on faster than you could say "my husband will be home in five minutes". The BBC comedy ran for ten seasons between 1972 and 1985, was wildly popular in Great Britain and even spawned a movie and a two season spin off sequel "Grace And Favour" in 1992 that was actually ever bit as well written as the original and should have carried on far longer.

Casual viewers of the show will of course remember the flamboyant Mr. Humphries and the hilarious and brightly coiffed Mrs. Slocombe (played by John Inman and Mollie Sugden, respectively) but although the cast changed over the years, the core cast remained largely the same. Frank Thornton (Captain Peacock), Nicholas Smith (Mr. Rumbold) and Wendy Richard (Miss Brahms) also appeared in all sixty nine of the original series' episodes, alongside other long running memorable characters such as Young Mr. Grace, Mr. Lucas, Mr. Spooner and Mr. Grainger.

Are You Being Served? wasn't without its skating references. Mr. Lucas (played by Trevor Bannister), who often flirted with Wendy Richard's character on the show, arrived at Grace Brothers with a pair of skates around his neck in the second episode of the show's second season with a pair of ice skates around his neck. Mr. Humphries said to him: "Oh look! It's Sonja Henie!" One of the funniest moments on the series' final Christmas special was Miss Brahms' assumption that the Welsh singing festival Eisteddfod "had something to do with ice skating". In reality. Wendy Richard knew quite a great deal about skating.

She was a talented and quite versatile actress who had appeared in numerous television series in the sixties. She even found success as a singer reaching #1 on the UK singles chart in 1962. The year "Are You Being Served?" ended, she took on the role of matriarch Pauline Fowler on the popular British sitcom EastEnders, a character she portrayed for an incredible twenty two years, even concurrently with her reprisal of the role of Miss Brahms in "Grace And Favour", which was presented to U.S. audiences under the name "Are You Being Served? Again!" After being diagnosed for breast cancer in 1996, she had an operation and seemed to be doing okay but the cancer returned in 2002. She again went through treatment and went into remission, being given a clean bill of health by doctors in 2005. However, the next year, the cancer was back. Richard passed away on February 26, 2009 at a London clinic, living a remarkable life and touching the lives of many, but never getting to realize one of her greatest childhood dreams... to be a champion figure skater.

In a 2003 appearance on the ITV Wales series "My Favourite Hymns", Richard was interviewed by John Stapleton and asked about her skating aspirations. Richard explained, "Oh, yes, I used to go to ice skating classes down at Queensway Queen's Ice Rink. And I thought I was going to be the next Sonja Henie or something like that, but unfortunately it didn't work out." A childhood tragedy was the real reason Richard's skating career was cut short. Her father, a pub landlord, committed suicide when she was eleven. Only a young girl, she was the one that found her father's body, and as her mother wasn't really dealing that well with what went on she sent young Wendy off to a boarding school to live. Her interest in film and pantomime, which also played a huge role in her childhood, saw her go off to drama school, and she never laced up seriously again. She may never have been Sonja Henie, but she was every bit as much a legend in her own right.

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  1. OMG! What an unexpected surprise and a joy to read this blog! :-)

    I never knew that Wendy Richard harboured ambitions to be a Figure Skater in her youth, and, like me, her first trip to an ice rink was at Queensway! (in my case when I was 12 during the "Are You Being Served?" era of the early 70s.

    It's so interesting to me that you admired and still treasure this sitcom in Canada. Alot of Gay men in Britain really denigrate and loathed the Mr Humphries camp character as an unhelpful stereotype during their adolescence, growing up as gay teens of that era.

    We have a new sitcom called Vicious on ITV, about an elderly gay couple, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi, currently in it's second season. I personally enjoy the bitchy queenie vibe, and love those two eminent actors, but yet again, it's criticised by some gays for the camp style. I know you would LOVE it, and hope it's shown all over North America very soon. :D

    1. So happy you enjoyed it! It was definitely an unexpected and pleasant surprise to learn about for me too. :) How cool that you both learned to skate in the same rink.

      Mainly owing to the fact many British sitcoms - AYBS, Keeping Up Appearances, One Foot In The Grave, As Time Goes By and many others -
      were shown almost daily for years on both PBS and YTV in Canada in syndication, Britcoms are beloved here by many. AbFab was/is huge here too as was Queer As Folk back in its heyday.

      There always has been and will be that undercurrent of gay men sneering at more effeminate gay men and being an effeminate gay man, I've always just kind of smiled and nodded at that kind of attitude. It's nothing new. It's two years old, but on that topic here's a WONDERFUL read from Tyler Curry in The Huffington Post called "The Strength In Being A Feminine Gay Man":

      Will have to check out Vicious at some point. Ian McKellen is a legend. I just honestly have so little time to watch television. Am lucky to sneak in an hour occasionally some days. :)

  2. Thanks, that was a great article by Tyler Curry, and I totally agree with him.

    If you get any spare time, and are at a loose end, I've just checked out YouTube, and not only do they have a couple of episodes of Vicious, and alot of clips, but apparently it's being broadcast on PBS! :-)


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