Thursday, 2 July 2009

Death of a Star

Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe

John Inman's Mr Humphries and Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe

I FIRST EXPERIENCED TELEVISION in 1958. For many years the single channel available in Bermuda aired tapes, usually from the American CBS Network, on a delay basis of, I think, a week. The CBS Evening News, however, was flown to Bermuda on tape and broadcast the night after it aired in the USA.

Television only aired from about five o'clock in the evening till midnight at the latest. There was a locally produced programme that went out live called Junior Club. Children, just a very few of them, joined host Bob Harbin, a magician in the studio and were encouraged to look enthusiastic as Uncle Bob did his magic. A peculiar machine had to be tweaked by one lucky child to permit taped cartoons to be run for the viewers. It was very simple, very white. My sister and I went along once. Later a black presenter, Auntie Nell, expanded the format. The magic had gone, I think Uncle Bob left the Island.

The Bermuda Evening News was read by Wilf Davidson, a Canadian. I think everybody knew Wilf was as gay as pink ink, and liked his vodka. He was known to frequent the Horse and Buggy bar where he'd chat up sailors. On a Saturday night the television station pulled out all the stops and ran a late movie that Wilf Davidson would host from an armchair. The advertiser was a local liquor merchant and Wilf would sip Smirnoff Vodka in front of his fake fireplace in commercial breaks through the featured film, getting more and more inebriated. At the end of the film Wilf would give a brief overview of the day's news and the latest weather report. Famously, one night that I did see for myself, the very squiffy Wilf predicted dizzle and frog for the overnight weather forecast. He realised his mistake and went into a fit of drunken giggles. I suppose he wobbled out of the studio and rode his Vespa Scooter to the Horse and Buggy before the rains came.

Wilf eventually hosted an early evening interview show called Date before Dinner with Jane Bainbridge. I went on that programme once to chat about a magazine I was involved with. Wilf left Bermuda and returned to Canada, and died many years ago. Jane Bainbridge left Bermuda too, but did not return to her native England. She died in the USA just last month.

When I lived in the UK in the 1960s I finally got to watch some real television, though I recall that many of the popular programmes were imports from the American networks, particularly the westerns like Rawhide and Bonanza and animated shows like The Flintstones.

In the early 1970s a BBC situation comedy classic was launched. Are You Being Served? probably needs no introduction anywhere in the world as of 2009. A cast of odd characters work in a rather dusty and inefficient and outdated department store called Grace Brothers. I dare say viewers of the original series and the endless reruns that continue to this day around the globe will have their favourite characters and episodes. Camp Mr Humphries in menswear, who usually was able to chirp "I'm free" when asked if he was busy, was played by John Inman who died in March 2007. Sexy Miss Brahms was played by Wendy Richard. Ms Richard went on to do almost 20 years in Eastenders as the not very sexy Pauline Fowler. She died in February of this year, 2009.

My favourite employee in the Grace Brothers ladies' department was Mrs Slocombe. Actress Mollie Sugden was Mrs Slocombe, and always will be, with a different colour hairdo each week and her worries about her pussy. Mrs Slocombe was bossy, pompous and ridiculous and I'm not sure that even a run-down establishment like Grace Brothers would have kept anyone like her on staff. Mind you, who would dare fire her?

I suppose someone a good deal younger than I am, in search of a degree, might write a thesis comparing Mollie Sugden's Mrs Slocombe to Lucille Ball's incarnations over in the USA. Lucy (which is not to say the actress) was shallow and usually clueless. Mrs Slocombe put on airs and graces and had opinions about everything. One doesn't recall Lucy having anything important to say. But both characters would get into bizarre situations (thanks to the writers) that stretched belief. Of course, Lucy could not say anything suggestive and the British viewers demanded that of Mrs Slocombe.

If John Inman's Mr Humphries was as camp as a row of pup tents (Inman was gay, for all I know he may have walked that way easily), Mollie Sugden's Mrs Slocombe must be a gay icon. People do dress up as Mrs Slocombe, and if you have a pastel-coloured wig, why not? I'm not much for drag, but the best Mrs Slocombes are male. She was that kind of character.

Mollie Sugden died yesterday, 1 July 2009, after a long illness. She was 86. Mrs Slocombe and her pussy will live a good deal longer.


sarah corbett morgan said...

Hi Ross. I've been absent from the world of blogs for a bit. I'm having trouble just keeping up with events on the ground here, but I did want to say hello and tell you that I loved this tribute to Mollie Sugden and Mrs Slocombe (and her pussy).

I also enjoyed your reminiscences of TV in Bermuda. I think TV did not enter our house until I was in junior high school, but I did catch some of those kid oriented shows at friends' houses.

Thanks for the read!


Ruth L.~ said...

Are YouBeing Served? Loved that. So funny as only the Brits can be.

We've had a lot of deaths of stars in the U.S. recently, but I didn't hear of Mollie Sugden. Michael Jackson is getting all the dead star air time.

Loved the dizzle and frog. We've been getting our share of both in Massachusetts, but I now realize that I might get by a little better with a bit of Smirnoff.

suz said...

wilf was gay??????
:O khairete

Anonymous said...

I knew Wilf in Toronto in the early '80's. He had a pacemaker at that time and was living in an apartment close to the hospital where he went for checkups. Never heard the 'dizzle and frog' story from him, but a few others from his early Winnipeg days. I also remember that he had a great stamp collection

GT said...

Great to be reminded of Wilf Davidson on Bermuda television, I never missed the evening news (69-75).

Were you in Bda when Colin Benbow ran a series on American History and at the end organised for viewers to take the GCE exam in the subject?