When I was in college back in the early/mid 90’s and living with my best friend Troy, we go into the habit of watching “Are You Being Served?” on the local PBS station. We even sat through an all-day marathon of the shows once, hosted by none other than Molly Sugden (Mrs. Slocombe). I remember it being a silly British show poking fun at the stiffness and over-formality of working at an old-fashioned department store. It had some great characters: the crabby old senior salesman, the pompous, lecherous floorwalker, the gossiping senior saleswoman who always talked about her pussy (cat), the busty junior saleswoman, the cheeky, smartass junior salesman, the ancient, skirt-chasing store owner, and (of course) the mincing queen whose attempts at sexual ambiguity were completely in vain. Anyway, the show was just a dim memory for me, so Critter and I thought it would be fun to rent the entire series (14 volumes’ worth) from Netflix and just plow our way through them.
We’ve been enjoying watching it and seeing how the series changed over the years, but we’ve found that as the seasons wear on, some of the writing gets less clever and relies more on filler material like musical numbers or having them all dress up in some sort of costume. This is painfully obvious in the 1981 Christmas special titled “Roots?”, which we watched last night. The episode was basically an excuse for the cast to dress up and sing and dance and act silly in honor of the boss’ 90th birthday. They went through several time-wasting musical numbers in various costumes, but at the end of the show they all ran out onto the stage wearing red jackets and black-and-white striped suits, singing loudly with tamborines in hand…and all but one of the main cast was in blackface, with a poofy afro wig. Critter and I stared at the screen with our mouths open in horror, saying “Whaaaaaat theeeee fuuuuuuck??”
The cast danced their way through their big finale, ran off the stage, then ran back on for a bow. When it ended we were a bit shell-shocked. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a BBC show do the minstrel thing, though usually it’s used for absurd or edgy humor — “Little Britain” joked with it a little, and “League of Gentlemen” has a creepy/hilarious circus ringleader character named Papa Lazarou who is unforgettable once you’ve seen him. But we never expected the cast from like this show to go all minstrelsy! The timing was weird as well, because just a couple of nights before we were wondering why some British comedies seem to have a “thing” for minstrel humor. (Wikipedia has an interesting article on the history of blackface if you’re curious.)
Anyway, I had definitely never seen it, since (as I later found out) some PBS stations choose not to air it, and I think I would have remembered if I had! I also noted that Miss Brahms isn’t in the makeup…from what I can gather on Google, she was either uncomfortable with doing blackface or traditionally only the men do it. But Mrs. Slocome was all made up, so who knows.