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Inman, John (1935-2007)  
 
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Acclaimed comic actor John Inman gained international fame for his endearing portrayal of the fey salesman Mr. Humphries on the television series Are You Being Served?. He was also a perennial favorite on the pantomime circuit in Britain, specializing in traditional "dame" roles in which he appeared in drag.

John Inman grew up in Lancashire in northwest England. His parents were hairdressers and owned several shops in Preston, where Inman was born on June 28, 1935. About a decade later the family moved to the seaside town of Blackpool, where they ran a boardinghouse.

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As a small child, Inman enjoyed making costumes and putting on little shows for his neighbors. As a schoolboy, he was an enthusiastic participant in plays. "I had a headmaster who was sensible. He knew that acting was what I was going to do with my life, so when the town's professional theater needed a boy and got in touch with the school, they got me," Inman recalled.

With his stage debut at thirteen, Inman had found his calling. He quit school two years later and began doing whatever he could--"sweeping up, making tea, moving scenery"--at the theater.

To support himself, Inman became a window-dresser at a menswear store in Blackpool. After two years, however, he moved to Britain's capital since "even the shows done in Blackpool were cast in London."

He found another window-dressing job at a Regent Street store, but acting opportunities were scarce until a fellow employee, Kenneth Kendall (who later became well known as a newsreader on British television), invited him to join a touring company.

Inman, then 21, began as a scenic artist but soon returned to the stage. He found the work in repertory valuable because "in repertory you find out what you're best at. You play parts you're dead wrong for--and parts you're dead right for. All of a sudden, I became the funny man of the company. Fine with me. I like the sound of laughter."

Inman was also making a name for himself in pantomime, musical shows usually based on fairy tales. Inman specialized in traditional dame roles, memorably teaming with drag artist Barry Howard as the "Ugly Sisters" in productions of Cinderella. The two of them sewed their own costumes of outrageous design and color combinations. They performed together in pantomime until Inman was cast in Are You Being Served?.

It was, however, "a long time before I became a full-time working actor," stated Inman, who held on to the window-dressing job while establishing himself in his career.

He made it to London's West End in 1969, performing in the musical comedy Ann Veronica (book by Frank Wells, based on a novel by H.G. Wells; music by Cyril Ornadel, lyrics by David Croft).

The following year he made his first television appearance as a guest on the series Two in Clover.

In the spring of 1972 David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd created Are You Being Served? as an episode of the BBC series Comedy Playhouse. Croft tapped Inman to play Mr. Humphries, the role that would make him a star.

Set in the fictional Grace Brothers department store, the bawdy comedy featured the antics and misadventures of the eccentric but appealing sales staff in the mens- and womenswear departments. The pilot, which aired in September 1972, was a great hit, and Croft and Lloyd sought to turn it into a regular series.

BBC officials recognized that the show was a winner, but one reportedly voiced an objection: "All right, you can do it, but I don't want the poof in it," to which Croft is said to have replied, "Without the poof, there's no series. Mr. Humphries is the funniest character." Viewers ratified that opinion (if not necessarily the expression of it): in 1976 Inman was voted the Funniest Man on Television by readers of the TV Times and was also chosen BBC TV Personality of the Year.

With Mr. Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries still on the Grace Brothers staff, Are You Being Served? began its highly successful run as a series in 1973 and remained on the air in Britain until 1985.

Camp and fey, sweet-natured and charming, the Mr. Humphries character became known for warbling the signature line "I'm free!" while mincing his way to serve a customer by measuring the gentleman's inside leg.

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John Inman as Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served?. Undated BBC publicity photo.
  
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