Bafta winning star Jason Watkins reveals how he felt about playing sitcom icon Mr Humpries in the remake of Are You Being Served?
The all-new Are You Being Served? (BBC1, Sunday, 9pm) kicks off the BBC’s sitcom celebration season that includes other revived classics such as Porridge, Goodnight Sweetheart and Steptoe & Son.
Bafta winner Jason Watkins (Mr Humphries) will star alongside Sherrie Hewson as Mrs Slocombe, John Challis as Captain Peacock, Roy Barraclough as Mr Grainger, Arthur Smith as Mr Harman and Mathew Horne as young Mr Grace among others.
What’s On TV recently caught up with Jason, who told us much more about the comedy’s return and what his version of Mr Humphries is really like…
It’s amazing that Are You Being Served? is coming back to BBC1 after 31 years away. Many who remember it are excited. Were you a big fan? “There was some kind of record broken in terms of people trying to get seats to the studio in Manchester when we did the multi camera live record – I think 38,000 people tried to get tickets. It was off the scale I know that.
“I watched the show when I was younger and it was part of my family’s viewing. It was the kind of show everybody watched – I don’t know what the figures were but I think it was about 15 million every week so it was massive, so the idea of it being done again playing Mr Humphries, a character I'd loved so much and was so adored, was extremely exciting and occasionally daunting.”
How did you create your version of Mr Humphries? Was he similar to the original played by John Inman or did you give him your own spin? “You have to acknowledge both things really - the audiences will want to see something not too dissimilar and yet you’ve got to make him your own man and go beyond mere impersonation. So it was a mixture of those, bring Mr Humphries to life again, plus trusting your own comic instincts.”
Are we going to see Mr Humphries skipping about and shouting ‘I’m free!’ in his famous sing-song voice? And of course there must be a mention or two of Mrs Slocombe’s pussy? “Ha ha I’m not going to reveal that – people are going to have to wait and see, but our show acknowledges very accurately what was seen before. John Inman’s performance wasn’t just about skipping around being camp – he was an extremely skillful performer and his character is a three dimensional person. Mr Humphries is celebration of camp people in our society and at the time.”
What made Mr Humphries so special? “It was a very different world back in the 1970s and early 1980s and I think what’s fortunate about being able to do his kind of character again is that gay men are much more accepted now.
"People are much more accepting of the diverse nature of our community so his joy in his work and his compassion are celebrated, along with his rapier wit. This one-off show does have a life of its own and I think that very much comes from the writer Derren Litten, who honed his skills creating Benidorm.”
This new version of Are You Being Served? is set in 1988. How does it play out? “Yes, it’s set three years after the original series ended so looks at what’s looming ahead in the 1990s which is this massive shopping revolution. Very few stores like Grace Brothers exist now and that’s one of the joys of looking back on the setting – you’re looking back at a different world, so it’s almost at a period piece.
"It’s a celebration of something that was exceptional. I’d say it’s like celebrating a beautifully made suit and we all like to wear nice suits.”
Other characters are very familiar, including Mrs Slocombe (Sherrie Hewson) and Captain Peacock (John Challis). Will we see the little clashes they all used to have? “All those characters are there and you can see their strange vanities, foibles, insecurities and all their idiosyncrasies. It’s a very generous and joyful straightforward comedy.”
What about the new characters? We’ve heard a Miss Croft and Mr Conway are coming in? “There are new characters. The world that’s ahead of Are You Being Served? is coming towards it fast. The younger characters have different attitudes. The actors are all such highly skilled comic performers and you see them at their best.”
Is this just a one-off or could it be a pilot for a new series? “I’ve no idea what the plans are, but being able to play Mr Humphries would always be a joy. When it starts, Mr Humphries is on the shop floor as the famous title music plays. As the music was pumped into the studio and I was dressed as Mr Humphries ready to go, it was such an extraordinary thing.”
In the original series, a lot of characters spoke about their home lives so we could imagine their world. Does this still happen? “Yes – and it’s a joy as you’re imagining a world beyond… Mr Humphries and Mrs Slocombe talk about their life outside and it’s up to the audience to imagine the horrors and joys that exist that beyond Grace Brothers…”
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