The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Mr. Humpries, Are You Free?

Well, he’s free.

Actor John Inman, best known for his role as camp shop assistant Mr Humphries in the long-running BBC comedy “Are You Being Served?” died aged 71 on Thursday.

Inman, who later became a pantomime regular, was one of the sitcom’s most memorable cast members and his catchphrase “I’m free” became part of popular culture.

In 1976, he was voted “Funniest Man On Television” by readers of TV Times magazine and was also named BBC TV’s “Personality Of The Year.”

He died at St Mary’s Hospital in London after having been ill for some time, his manager Phil Dale said in a statement.

If you don’t know who John Inman was — not to mention his famous character, Mr. Humphries — you’ve been missing out.

I don’t remember when I first saw Are You Being Served?. I must have been channel surfing one night and landed on PBS, which was showing reruns of the BBC series. I’m not sure if I’d ever seen gay or “proto-gay” or “stealth-gay” characters on television at that time, but I “got” Mr. Humphries right away and was glad of it. Inman may have come under fire by gay activists for Mr. Humphries’ stereotypical mannerisms, etc., but to an effeminate, non-atheletic, black, gay boy growing up in Augusta, GA, Mr. Humpries’ sense of humor, apparent self-acceptance, and unrestrained flamboyance was a breath of fresh air.

I’m free!,’ shrieks Mr Humphries from menswear as, tape measure in trembling hand, he makes a beeline across the shop floor towards an unsuspecting male inside leg; meanwhile Mrs Slocombe, sporting an outrageously dyed bouffant, wonders aloud whether anyone has seen her pussy (she was, of course, referring to her cat) – and the British nation knew what it was in for: half an hour of sub-Carry On innuendo, sauntering alongside rather than attached to the accompanying plot. Broad, rude, crude and offensive were just a few of the criticisms levelled at this scatological sitcom, but the show had the perfect response to such highbrow jibes: ratings. It was loved by the public and they watched it in huge numbers, culminating in over 22 million viewers for a 1979 episode. To date, it remains phenomenally popular in re-runs.

… John Inman’s portrayal of the limp-wristed, pouting Humphries drew as much criticism as it did plaudits. In 1976 he was voted ‘Funniest Man On Television’ by TVTimes readers and was declared BBC TV’s Personality Of The Year, but at the same time he was under attack from gay groups offended by his stereotypical portrayal of a theatrical homosexual. (Rather limply, Inman always denied that the character was homosexual.) In hindsight, some of Humphries’ detractors, revisiting the character, grudgingly admit that they find him funny, but others still see the portrayal as indefensible, especially because, in its time, there were so few positive images of homosexuals to redress the balance.

My only other gay role model at the time, and the only visible one I could find, was Boy George. Between him and Mr. Humphries, I learned something: if I was never going to succeed at being like the other boys — can’t walk “right,” can’t talk “right,” can’t throw, can’t catch, can’t fight, etc. — then why bother? Why not just be who I am and turn up the volume?

Strangely enough, Mr. Humphries was never explicitly identified as gay. Inman, however, was.

Inman’s long-term partner Ron Lynch was “devastated” at the news, the BBC said.

I also didn’t know he was a famous “pantomime dame,” a term I had to look up just to be sure I knew what it meant. I do know that Mr. Humphries was fabulous, as was John Inman in the role, and both helped me give myself permission to be so as well.

Well done Mr. Inman and Mr. Humpries. Off to the canteen with you, now.

And, if you’re not using it anymore, may I borrow your tape measure?

9 Comments

  1. Ah… Inman/Humphries provided many a good time for us all!

  2. Thanks for the video clip… it made me laugh and then feel sadder at the news.

  3. I loved him…i’m sad to hear that yet another great has left us….as long as we have that show he will always be in our hearts

  4. I first saw “Are You Being Served?” when I was still in elementary school and it quickly became my favorite British comedy, with Mr Humpries being my favorite character. I felt a connection to his persona even though I had no idea what gay or bi even was. Looking back he was my first image of what a gay/bi person was and in a way it helped my relate more to myself (as I eventually came out).

    Inman was a great actor who has brightened my life a will be missed.

  5. I grew up watching britcoms on PBS. While according to to John on a special about Are You Being Served, Mr Humphries was not actually gay. Still the character provided a role model for a lot of people I know that. Britain and the world has lost a fine actor.

  6. I recently acquired the entire “Are You Being Served?” DVD collection… best darn purchase I’ve ever made! I’ve been watching that show ever since I was a kid as it aired on PBS here in the states. Of course, back then my parents just thought it was innocent British humor… oh, how little did they know 😉

    I’m very sad to hear that Mr. Inman has left us… he always made me smile… and I have memories to remember him by…

  7. It didn’t matter that Mr. Humphries may have been the first “Bi” character on TV. Affectionate and flirtatious with everyone…we could have worse role models on TV today.

  8. If you have seen the second incarnation of “Are You Being Served?” called “Are You Being Served Again?” in US and “Grace and Favour” in UK you have really seen Inman at his very best. The show takes up years later and the Grace Bros. folks find their pensions tied up in a bed and breakfast in the countryside that they choose to run. It’s hilarious and if you didn’t love Mr. Humphries before, you certainly will after seeing these little BBC gems. John and Wilberforce Claiborne will both be sorely missed…they brought a gentle humor to our lives that made the world look a little rosier. Goodbye old friend!

  9. My parents enjoy most everything BBC TV ships over here, which they watch on PBS. So, I got started on watching them as a kid. My husband and I have BBC America (good old DirectV!) and have always watched “Are You Being Served?” and “Keeping Up Appearances” among others. Just watching to see what color hair Mrs. Slocombe was going to sport that episode alone made it worth watching, if you know what I mean. The show was so entertaining, even as old as it is now, the character of Mr. Humphries endures. Humor! I love it! (A nod to Mr. Data, in another universe.)

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