The Bootleg Files: Are You Being Served? (Australia)

BOOTLEG FILES 687: “Are You Being Served?” (1980-81 Australian version of the popular British sitcom).

LAST SEEN: A few episodes are on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available outside of Australia.

Not in the U.S., mate!

One of the most beloved programs in the history of British television was “Are You Being Served?”, which followed the zany antics of the staff of a badly-managed London department store. The show first aired on the BBC as a pilot episode in September of 1972 and with a five-episode first season broadcast in March and April of 1973, and it was an immediate hit with British audiences.

The BBC realized that “Are You Being Served?” was a valuable commodity and began to shop it around to countries within the British Commonwealth. In 1974, Australia’s state-owned ABC Television picked up the series – Australian television at the time was heavily dependent on British imports, but this program was quickly recognized as being much more than a space-filler on the schedule. In 1978, the commercial Seven Network gained the rights to “Are You Being Served?” and it became one of Australia’s most-watched programs.

American audiences didn’t get to appreciate “Are You Being Served?” until several PBS stations began to air the program in 1987. In 1978, producer Garry Marshall attempted to create an Americanized adaptation of the program with a pilot episode titled “Beane’s of Boston.” But the effort was a failure – the wicked parody of the British class system that fueled “Are You Being Served?” could not be replicated in an American setting, and the farcical material that seemed charming and fresh when performed by a British cast was steamrolled beyond recognition by their counterparts across the Atlantic.

The Australians were probably not aware of “Beane’s of Boston,” as they believed that they could transplant “Are You Being Served?” into their distinctive environment. To help with the transition, Australia’s Network Ten sent for John Inman, who played the flamboyant Mr. Humphries on the series, to recreate his role in the Australian version that premiered in 1980. But rather than adapting “Are You Being Served?” to fit into the Australian culture and sense of humor, this endeavor mostly grabbed the original scripts that had already played on Australian television and remade them with new actors.

The result was astonishing, for all the wrong reasons. The Australian “Are You Being Served” looks and sounds like it came out of a parallel universe – all of the recognizable characters are there, but they are given new names and are played by actors doing terrible imitations of the original cast. Even worse, they flatfoot their way through the scripts, ruining every punchline and sight gag along the way.

In this version, Mr. Humphries is dispatched by his boss at Grace Brothers in London, the decrepit yet randy Young Mr. Grace, to Australia to help with sales at Bone Brothers, a store run by the equally ancient but oversexed Young Mr. Bone, who is a cousin of Young Mr. Grace. (There was a retailer in Australia called Grace Brothers, hence the name change for this series.) The first episode of this version is the only original scripted offering and it focuses on the visa problems that Mr. Humphries has in taking up Australian residence.

From there, the Australian “Are You Being Served?” most retreads the episodes from the British original’s seventh season, when the Mr. Goldberg character was part of the cast. In this go-round, Inman’s Mr. Humphries found himself working in a very similar setting to his Grace Brothers job with characters who sort of resembled those he left behind. Instead of Mrs. Slocombe, the obstreperous senior saleswoman with multicolored hair in the ladies’ department was Mrs. Crawford (played by opera singer June Bronhill, making her sitcom debut). Mr. Goldberg’s senior sales position in men’s wear was taken by another elderly Jewish man, Mr. Mankowitz (veteran British-born character actor Tony Bazell), while the smart aleck junior Mr. Lucas became the cheeky Mr. Randel (comic Shane Bourne). The pompous floorwalker position held by Captain Peacock in London was occupied by Captain Wagstaff (played by Reg Gillam).

The problem with the Australian version was that it was too polite and too laid-back. Whereas the original British series was excessively saucy with its double-entendres and sophomoric slapstick, the Australian reboot seemed like a school pageant staged for conservative parents. The sharpness and unapologetic rudeness of the original is erased here, which dilutes the fun considerably.

It also didn’t help that this effort was plucking most of the seventh season scripts from the British original. During the seventh season, a lot of the original energy that fueled the earlier seasons dissipated and these offerings were merely amusing when they should have been hilarious. One Australian episode that was pinched from the original’s first season, “Camping In” – with the cast stuck in the department store overnight due to a transport strike – lacked the ferocious sexual innuendo of the original as well as the touching nostalgia of the British version when the cast gathers for a singalong of World War II-era tunes.

Also damaging the Australian version was the miserable fact that the cast could not get a handle on material. Poor June Bronhill could not duplicate the brilliance of Mollie Sugden’s outlandish Mrs. Slocombe, so she was mostly stoic in her robotic line readings. Shane Bourne’s Mr. Randel came nowhere near the anti-social bad-body antics of Trevor Bannister’s Mr. Lucas – he was merely an annoying bloke rather than an instigator of mayhem. Tony Bazell’s Mr. Mankowitz was more reserved and grandfatherly than Alfie Bass’ abrasive Mr. Goldberg, and also less funny. And Reg Gillam’s flat Captain Wagstaff was miles removed from the deeply textured creation of Frank Thornton’s Captain Peacock. As for John Inman, he phoned in his performances – he had no synergy with the Australian cast and barely bothered to sell himself to viewers. (Inman sang part of the show’s opening theme, but his vocalizing was lifeless.) Indeed, the show had so little vitality that the actors playing the Miss Brahms and Mr. Rumbold roles were replaced when the Australian show went into a second season – and no one noticed the difference.

Australia’s “Are You Being Served?” played in eight episodes in 1980 and eight more in 1981. Although it was popular in its initial presentation, it has been mostly unseen in Australia since the 1980s and was never broadcast elsewhere in the world. Today, a few episodes can be found in unauthorized postings on YouTube, with annoying time codes taking up part of the screen.

The Australian “Are you Being Served?” provides a painful lesson in how not to remake a classic series. At best, it is a Down Under curio. At worst, it should be buried very deep down under the soil, lest it inspire anyone to repeat its ghastly errors.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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