American public television's ongoing Anglophilia has resulted in an ironic cultural reversal. The collection of Are You Being Served? highlights that will air around the country during the upcoming PBS pledge drive was assembled near the banks of the Salt River, not the Thames. The Best of Are You Being Served? stitches together slightly more than an hour of bits from the original show using new comedic scenes produced by staffers at KAET-TV, the PBS affiliate in Tempe.
"We're the only American television station to do a British comedy," says Don Harris, fund-raising coordinator for Channel 8, where the special will air at 7 p.m. Monday (August 24) and again on the following Saturday, August 29. "It's also the first fictional piece we've done." John Inman, known to the rabid followers of the show as the gloriously effeminate Mr. Humphries, stars in the new footage. His contribution to the compilation is a telephone conversation between Humphries and his mother. In the grand tradition of British television comedy--in which men are often seen wearing dresses--Inman plays both roles. The original series, a bawdy Britcom best described as Three's Company smeared with Grey Poupon, ran in England from 1975 to 1983. In the late 1980s, Channel 8 became one of the first stations to rerun it stateside. The series' 60 or so half-hour episodes have been airing here ever since. At times Are You Being Served? has been KAET's best-rated show. When Inman came through town on a fund-raising tour a couple of years ago, station management scheduled an autograph session for the actor at a Tempe hotel. A couple of hundred fans were expected. More than a thousand turned out. Other fans posted themselves, groupie-style, outside the entrance to Channel 8's studio on the Arizona State University campus. "It was kinda like having Elvis around," says Harris. Inman, needless to say, also was a great success at soliciting pledges.
Meanwhile, the show had gone on to become a viewer favorite at many of PBS' 300-plus stations around the country. Such widespread acceptance prompted the American distribution arm of the BBC (BBC/Lionheart) to consider the series' first greatest-hits package. KAET, where the show found its original American audience and where Inman had built up rock-star status, would produce. Inman would star. "He liked us and knew our stuff was, well, let's not call it classy, let's just say it was right up his alley," says KAET executive producer Don Hopfer.
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Writer-producer Harris went to work narrowing the selection of clips to a reasonable running time. Fortunately, Channel 8 had a pile of suggestions from local viewers, who had been asked during an earlier pledge drive to mail in their favorite sequences.
The station's creative team (including Harris, Hopfer and program director John Wilson) also had to come up with a way to hold the clips together. They toyed with a couple of different concepts before deciding on the telephone scenario. More than a clever plot device to introduce flashback sequences, the phone-call idea also threw a bone to loyal viewers: Humphries' mother was a regular character on the old series, via telephone conversations with her son, but actually appeared in only one episode. The idea also was fairly simple to film. The shoot happened last March, during a short break in yet another cross-country fund-raising swing by Inman. Interiors, starring Inman as Humphries, were done in KAET's Studio A, which had been dressed as a British flat. Exteriors, starring Inman as Mother Humphries, were done at Scottsdale's Mountain Shadows resort, which had been dressed as the grounds of a posh Hollywood hotel. The crew got a total of 20 minutes of new material during two 16-hour shooting days. Inman, says KAET's team, was a trouper throughout.
"He had great energy," says Hopfer. "He knew the mission. To do that much material, it needed to be nice and clean and simple. The phone gag was just perfect."
The afterlife success of Are You Being Served? has prompted the BBC to reassemble the cast of the original show. A new series has begun in a different setting--the original took place in a department store; the new one is at an inn--but the players, including Inman, are the same. Nothing from Are You Being Served Again? is included in the best-of special, which digs back as far as the original's black-and-white pilot episode. Thematically, The Best of Are You Being Served? is a bridge between the old and the new. Which leads the KAET production team members to believe their work might be of interest to the show's original, English viewers--if only to give them extended exposure to Mother Humphries. "That's probably our biggest hope for it," says Hopfer, "that it'll wind up showing in London sometime."
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