TV blog: Are You Being Served

Benjie Goodhart / 25 August 2016

A one-off return for the Seventies classic sitcom, plus Britain’s answer to Versailles and the best of the rest on TV for the week ahead.

Are You Being Served, Sunday 28th August, 9pm, BBC One

You never really stop loving your first love. For me – and this is not a confession I make lightly – it was Miss Brahms. Either her or Isla St Clair. Or possibly Selina Scott. Anyway, I think it safe to say that I spent a large chunk of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s gazing longingly at the screen. The point is, I loved Miss Brahms, in spite of the fact that it turns out Wendy Richard was old enough to be my mother.

I also rather loved Are You Being Served, which has been re-made for this one-off special as part of the BBC’s Landmark Sitcom season. I loved it but – a couple of important caveats here – it was the 1970s, and I was seven. Since then, comedy has changed. Attitudes have changed. I like to think I have changed (matured by at least three-to-four years).

So, what to make of this strange beast, then? It looks absolutely identical to the original, right down to the rows of unwearable tat hanging off the railings, and those ever-present elevators watching over proceedings at the top of the half-flight of steps. And that gloriously evocative theme tune is still in place. And the jokes? The jokes don’t seem to have moved on since the 1970s either.

The first moment Mr Humphreys (Jason Watkins) minces across the floor is an awkward one. It feels odd, in 2016, to be asked to laugh at the effeminacy of a gay man. Meanwhile, Captain Peacock (John Challis, Boycey in Only Fools…) still wanders about all world-weary and aloof. Old Mr Grace has gone to the great department store in the sky (10 per cent off harps til Friday!) but young Mr Grace is played as a sort of Bryll-creamed spiv by Matthew Horne.

Nothing has changed. The store seems almost entirely bereft of customers – not surprising, when you look at the stock that would have disgraced the 1950s. The jokes are still of the “Ooh, I can’t get it in, it’s much too big,” variety. Mrs Slocombe (played with relish by Sherrie Hewson) still has her, um, feline pet. And I’m still slightly in love with Miss Brahms (Niky Wardly).

It all feels extraordinarily dated. And yet… Weirdly, it actually sort of works. There is a peculiar innocence to the unsubtle bawdiness of the humour. The sub-Carry-On-ness of the jokes feels like a guilty, nostalgic pleasure. Do I want to watch a series of it? About as much as I want to buy a slightly shiny, shoulder-padded suit from Captain Peacock. But as a one-off, it’s a surprisingly welcome trip down memory lane.

The way we watched: the TV shows your grandchildren were never believe were real

Victoria, Sunday 28th August, 9pm, ITV

Summer is definitely drawing to a close. The Olympics have finished, shops are full of kids getting new school shoes, and the broadcasters are starting to bring out the big guns for the traditional autumn battle. Pretty soon we can put away the barbie, close the curtains, draw a sigh of relief and settle down to eight months of uninterrupted telly (other winter activities are available, but are profoundly inferior).

First out of the blocks (you can tell I’ve been watching a lot of Olympics) is ITV, with their much-heralded blockbuster Victoria. This eight-part series is Britain’s answer to Versailles, with a bit of Downton Abbey thrown in. There’s opulence and romance and scandal, affairs of state, politics, and Machiavellian scheming both above and below stairs. And then, at the centre of it all – be still my beating heart – is the luminous Jenna Colman as Victoria herself.

Most of us know a little about Victoria. She was on the throne for a heck of a long time, she had more children than the old woman who lived in a shoe, she spent a lot of her life dressed in black after Prince Albert died, and she was pretty austere and generally not amused by life.  You can tell this because in most photos, she looks like someone just stuck their socks in her soup.

But before she reached a certain age and turned into Judi Dench and fell in love with Billy Connolly (my historical grasp may be somewhat loose here) she must have been young and vivacious and impressionable and guileless. Not least when she acceded to the throne. At an age when most of us are revelling in the chance to go to the pub legally, and are taking our first, faltering moments behind the steering wheel, she became the most powerful person in the world.

The opening, feature-length episode (episode two is the following night) deals with her accession to the throne, and the power struggles that ensued around her, as people jostled for position in her court. Colman is wonderful as Victoria, capturing the balance between wide-eyed ingénue and iron-willed young lady with effortless charm. Rufus Sewell fills the role of Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister to whom Victoria was famously devoted, with wisdom and kindness and just a hint of loucheness. On the baddie side of the equation sit Sir John Conroy, played with deliciously chilly hostility by Paul Rhys, and the Duke of Cumberland, a pleasing pantomime villain turn by Peter Firth.

I don’t claim to be a historian (I think that much may have already become apparent). I suspect that many of those who are will object to various aspects of this story. Pretty much all historical dramas play fast and loose with the facts. But if that’s the price we pay for a hugely entertaining and involving drama such as this, so be it. Provided aliens don’t land on the Mall in episode two, I’m happy for a bit of poetic licence, especially when the end product is this good.

The best – and the rest

Saturday 27th August

Casualty, 8pm, BBC One: The new series begins with a feature length special to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary. Some disaster or other will befall the hospital, and some old faces will return to help out. As ever, bestriding the whole thing and keeping everyone well-stocked with bedpans, is Charlie, who’s been there from the start.

The X Factor, 8pm, ITV: Series six trillion of the music show sees the return of Sharon Osborne and Dermot O’Leary to the hand that continues to feed them most lucratively. Having seen it all before countless times, it’s no longer a hundred per cent yes from me.

The Good Terrorist, 8pm, Channel 4: Documentary telling the story of John Harris, an anti-Apartheid campaigner who, in 1964, planted a bomb that killed a 77-year-old man. He was hanged eight months later. But were his actions justifiable?

The Truth Commissioner, BBC Two, 9:30pm: Roger Allam stars in this adaptation of David Park’s novel about a truth commission established in Northern Ireland, and the digging up of ghosts from the past.

Sunday 28th August

Ellie Simmonds Swimming with Dolphins, 7pm, ITV: Ahead of the Paralympics on Channel 4, Ellie Simmonds fulfils a lifelong ambition to swim with dolphins. With her extraordinary talent, she’ll probably teach them how to do it better.

Antiques Roadshow, 8pm, BBC One: People turn up and discover either that their treasured heirloom is a piece of costume jewellery worth bobbins, or that the vase they bought for 50p could buy them a house. The rest of us play along at home with hopeless guesses. A quiet joy.

Monday 29th August

Joe Wicks: The Body Coach, Channel 4, 7:10pm: I thought Joe Wicks was a character in EastEnders, but apparently he’s the new body/fitness/diet guru. The mere mention of those words brings me out in a rash.

Celebrity Home Secrets, ITV, 8pm: New series from ITV in which celebrities take us round all the places they have lived. For some reason. If you ever wanted to see where Nigel Havers keeps his lawn mower, tonight is your lucky night.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, 7pm, BBC One: Marching, drills, explosions, fireworks, human pyramids on motorcycles… it’s all here, like the Royal Tournament of yesteryear.

Tuesday 30th August

Garden Nightmares, ITV, 9pm: The full gamut of horticultural horrors, from coastal collapses devouring much-loved spaces, to massive slug invasions stripping whole gardens bare.

New York: America’s Busiest City, BBC Two, 9pm: A team of presenters, including Anita Rani and Ade Adepitan, look at life in the Big Apple. In truth, mostly they look at transport in the Big Apple.

Wednesday 31st August

DCI Banks, ITV, 9pm: Stephen Tompkinson returns as the eponymous copper, wondering how there’s anyone left in Yorkshire what with the fact that every case he works on is a murder.

All Star Mr and Mrs, ITV, 8pm: Pip Schofield allows us the opportunity to discover if two people, one of whom was once slightly famous, know what the other likes for breakfast. Or something.

Thursday 1st September

Ingenious Animals, 8pm, BBC One: Normally, when you see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with an animal, he’s about to kill and eat it. But the creatures in this new four-part series can breathe easy – he’s just out to discover the wonders of the animal kingdom.

Friday 2nd September

Gardener’s World, 8:30pm, BBC Two: As irrepressible and glorious as a bed in bloom, the excellent Monty Don and his team return for the first of eight hour-long episodes.

Lady C and the Castle, ITV, 9pm: One off documentary featuring the extraordinary Lady Colin Campbell, and her efforts to renovate Goring Castle in Sussex. Worth a watch, if only to observe one of life’s true eccentrics.

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