Preview: Are You Being Served?

This weekend sees the launch of the BBC’s Landmark Sitcom Season, in which the broadcaster revisits hit shows of yesteryear with a string of brand new episodes.

© BBC / Kieron McCarron

© BBC / Kieron McCarron

Are You Being Served? stars Jason Watkins alongside TVO regular Justin Edwards and a host of big names, while the team behind it have produced shows as diverse as BenidormCrimsNighty Night and Still Open All Hours.

But is it any good? Here’s our verdict:

There’s a strange dichotomy at work around the press (and public) reaction to the BBC’s Landmark Comedy season. By choosing to celebrate the popularity of some of the broadcaster’s biggest sitcoms, they’ve chosen to recreate several of those which, despite what they tell you in retrospect, were never really darlings of the critics in the first place. Audiences lapped these shows up, and perhaps have more of a right to an ‘outcry’ over remaking old favourites, but as an experiment, this season is one that’s had a real uphill struggle.

Originally running for 10 series between 1972 and 1985 (and a two series spin-off, Grace & Gavour in the early 90s), Are You Being Served? was – let’s be fair here – pretty mainstream, lowest-common denominator stuff on the surface, but underneath the cheap pussy jokes, sophomoric toilet humour and rampant stereotypes lurked an occasional spark of fourth wall breaking, and writers Jeremy Lloyd & David Croft were masters of their craft, making dialogue which still managed to bristle with energy. Fused with powerful performances from a cast that included John Inman, Mollie Sugden, Frank Thornton and Wendy Richard, the series was a smash hit with viewers, even if critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

Perhaps then, it is fitting that Derren Litten – the man behind ITV’s mega-smash hit Benidorm – is responsible for penning this continuation, which fans will be pleased to note, remains incredibly faithful to what has gone before it, with the only modifications to the tone and structure coming as a consequence of how far television has moved on since the show ended over three decades ago.

Alongside producer James Farrell (Crims, and more tellingly perhaps given the expected audience, Mrs Brown’s Boys) and Dewi Humphries (Nighty Night, and also more tellingly perhaps, Still Open All Hours), Litten has concocted a pitch perfect relaunch of the format that – quite simply – has series written all over it.

A slavish recreation of the original set is one thing, but to capture the vibe of the original the team required the best cast they could get: and there’s no denying the talent on display here, who each take differing approaches to stepping into the shoes of their predecessors.

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

Jason Watkins – so brilliant in comedic as well as dramatic roles in shows as diverse as Psychoville, Being Human, W1A and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries – is wise not to directly imitate the inimitable John Inman, lest his Mr Humphries descend into parody. Of course, the character is still a raging ball of camp smut, but somehow Watkins manages to not make that feel out of place in 2016.

Similarly, comedy behemoths Roy Barraclough and John Challis are on fine form as Captain Peacock and (the revived) Mr Grainger, taking the essence of the original characters and leading them to somewhere slightly new but oh so familiar. As Mrs Slocambe, Sherrie Hewson is perhaps sticking closest to the formula – but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and that’s a comic creation that’s always worth watching.

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

Slightly less time is given over to Niky Wardley’s Miss Brahms and Justin Edwards impeccable Mr. Rumbold, but both shine with what they are given, and play well off their various comic foils. Mathew Horne is a welcome surprise as the new owner of Grace Brothers: determined to drag the firm into the 80s, even though it’s already 1988 and time is running out fast. And Arthur Smith makes a short but sweet appearance as handyman Mr Harman, being… well, being Arthur Smith, as it happens. But again, it works.

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

The real heart of the piece, however, is new character Mr Conway, played by relative newcomer Kayode Ewumi (#HoodDocumentary). As the only ‘normal’ member of the team, he’s our eyes and ears back into this world, and easily the most realised character as a result.

To say much more would spoil the fun: and that’s the sincher, really… this is fun. It may not exactly be of the calibre of Camping or Stag, for example, which set the bar for 2016 pretty damn high. And it’s hardly the nuanced masterpiece that Inside No. 9 is almost certainly going to be in the months ahead.

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

© BBC / Scott Kershaw

But in all honesty, that doesn’t matter. There’s a real warmth to Are You Being Served?, made with love by a team who respect the original, and want to do it justice. It shows, and the studio audience lap it up. There’s an infectious roar when Mr Humphries finally says “I’m Free!”, the jokes about Mrs Slocambe’s pussy are deliciously filthy (as are a wonderful set of gags concerning plugging in Mr Rumbold’s new Amstrad), and there’s a setpiece involving seafood that is set up so deftly it could almost be textbook material on how to write a good joke.

So switch off preconceptions, and savour the good vibes, because as uncool as this may sound: if the powers that be decide to make more, we’ll be watching. Consider ourselves served.

Are You Being Served? airs on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, 28th August.

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