With his hand on his hip and the catchphrase “I’m free!”, John Inman made the character of camp Mr Humphries one of the most memorable in the TV comedy series Are You Being Served. Full of innuendo, the long-running BBC show (1973-85) centred on the members of staff in the clothing department on the first floor of Grace Brothers. Vilified by some and appreciated by many, Inman’s role as Mr Humphries quickly made him one of Britain’s biggest light entertainment stars and he went on to top bills in variety shows and pantomimes throughout the country. The series was later shown throughout the world, bringing Inman virtually superstar status in America and Australia.
The gap-toothed bachelor with distinctive precise gait and doll-like face was born on June 28, 1935 in Preston, where his family owned a hairdressing salon. They later moved to Blackpool, where his mother ran a boarding house. As a child, Inman used to frequent the local theatres, and one of his favourite performers was Frank Randle, to whom he paid tribute on TV.
At 13 he made his stage debut in Freda (South Pavilion, Blackpool) and then trained as a window dresser at Austin Reed in Regent Street, London. He claimed that he used to pose in the window, trying to keep a straight face, with a sign attached to him saying: ‘Available in other colours’. He joined Crewe rep at the age of 21 and for may years played older character roles. He was also half of one of the most celebrated Ugly Sister acts in pantomime with Barry Howard, later Barry Stuart-Hargreaves in Hi-de-Hi!.
He made his West End debut in Anne Veronica (Cambridge Theatre) and followed it with roles in Salad Days, Charley’s Aunt and My Fat Friend. In the early seventies he had a long run as the gay character who is converted in Pajama Tops at the Windmill Theatre before playing Mr Humphries in the BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot of Are You Being Served?
Inman played the role with blatant homosexual overtones – based, he said, on assistants he had known in his days as a window-dresser – and throughout the seventies he was the object of criticism from gay rights groups and many of his stage shows were picketed. Inman remained unconcerned. “I’m not getting into a state,” he told a Mirror reporter. Writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft also wrote a spin-off film and the TV sequel Grace and Favour, set in a stately home and first broadcast in 1992. In 1976 Inman was named both BBC TV Personality of the Year and the TV Times reader’s Funniest Man on Television.
He was widely considered to be one of Britain’s finest pantomime Dames, often topping the bill in pantomimes throughout the country and at the London Palladium. His favourite role was Mother Goose, which was much admired by his peers.
Inman’s other TV roles included rock factory proprietor Neville Sutcliffe in Odd Man Out (1977) and male secretary Graham Jones in Take a Letter, Mr Jones (1981). He appeared in six Royal Variety Performances and made numerous guest appearances on The Good Old Days. His most recent TV series was Revolver (2004).
A prolific fundraiser for theatrical charities he was a Past King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats and in 2002 was president of the Heritage Foundation.
Towards the latter part of his career John Inman has suffered from ill health. He had been hospitalised on several occasions for severe asthmatic attacks and in 2004, after cancelling a pantomime engagement at Richmond, he was diagnosed with hepatitis.
He died on March 8, aged 71. He is survived by his longtime companion, Ron.
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