John Inman is dead. But Mr Humphries is alive and well in a number of surprising hearts. Mine included. “Are You being Served?” ran for a gratifyingly suggestive 69 episodes between 1972 and 1985. And many gay men hated it. We protested against it. But in the last ten years or so, reassured by retro and equipped with a political and social confidence we never had before, we embraced the mince and took John Inman to our hearts. One gay friend claims he has never shrieked “I’m free!” – even in his weakest moments. But he’s the only one. What changed? Society changed.
In the seventies we were poufs. And John Inman was the uberpouf. Larrry Grayson was his right hand man – oooeerr missus. Inman’s entendres were not just double, but like heart bypasses, they were quadruple. He was the suggestive gargoyle of suburbia, the human embodiment of the doiley. Inman’s wasn’t a show, it was a performince. His entrances, anticipated with more and more incipient hilarity by viewers of every episode, were like Shirley Bassey’s. His were the limpest wrists, the most swivelling hips. And as he fairy footed it across the shop floor, warming the metal end of his tape, in a desperate lunge to measure an inside leg – which of course is what he was permanently free for – we cringed. He humiliated us. Because if we were gay we had to be poufs. It was Inman or the closet. Even though Inman’s closet, which he remained firmly inside until he married his partner Ron Lynch in 2005, was painted such a gorgeous nelly pink it screamed gay at an almost deafening pitch. And straight boys didn’t like poufs because we liked theatre, and sewing and… boys.
If you were teased, abused or beaten, it was because you were one of “them”. Not one of us whose wrists were as stiff as our lips and who walked as straight as we were. But one of “them”, an Inman whose eyes roved lasciviously over real masculinity. Yet Inman was safe. Poufs on the telly never had sex. They just suggested it. Yearned after it. Measured the inside leg of the possibility of it. But we did have sex. It went from being illegal to being underground and we just wanted it out in the open. Oooerr again. Mr Humphries became the boundaries of our identity.
But we have learned to defy the power of the insults. We’ve started to enjoy the ambiguous manliness being gay gives us. We don’t mind being poufs now. We had a massive sense of humour failure. Mainly because there was a link between the pouf on the telly and the fist in our face. That still happens but now we can realise that it’s not us who have to stop being nellies, it’s them who have to stop being bullies. We’ve found our confidence. So altogether now, put your coats over your shoulders, let your wrists go limp and shriek through those lips pursed like a pussy’s behind “I’m Free!!!”