John Inman – Free to a good home
Famous for mincing and giggling his way through a department store, the mid-1970s also saw John Inman mincing and giggling his way through a series of classic British comedy albums.
DJM Records DJF 20510,
Most sane actors fear typecasting. At its worst, typecasting can spell the end of an actor’s career. The days of playing a wide variety of characters and roles are over. Gone forever. Time and again, a tired wearied actor plagued by typecasting will have to play the same part, until eventually the actor and the role are synonymous in the minds of the public and they refuse to accept him in any other role. Not surprisingly then, most actors will avoid becoming known for just the one role and will content themselves with moving on at the height of their fame in order to scratch around finding other parts in other productions.
Of course the other way of dealing with typecasting is to embrace it, cuddle it and cherish it. And then flog it to death over several decades as your bank balance swells like the trouser area on an amusing animatronic menswear mannequin. Which is of course exactly what John Inman did when, in 1972, he landed the part of Mr Humphries in the Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft comedy Are You Being Served?. While the curse of typecasting meant that John Inman became synonymous with Mr Humphries to the sitcom’s many millions of fans around the world, it did mean that he enjoyed steady constant employment, still playing Mr Humphries in Grace and Favour over twenty years later. Yes, it robbed us all of the chance to see John Inman tackle King Lear, a great shame as it was a part he was born to play, but by mincing around and exclaiming “I’m free” at every opportunity he managed to accrue a fortune of nearly £3million by the time he died. Not bad for a typecast actor.
John Inman found fame later than most, he was 37 by the time Are You Being Served? arrived and he certainly made the most of his sudden rise to prominence (oo-er). Previously he had worked for many years in Austin Reed, a London clothing store not dissimilar to the menswear department of the fictional Grace Brothers, although with fewer amusing animatronic mannequins. This employment was ideal preparation for playing Mr Humphries, just the sort of meticulous research and attentive method acting that wins the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Robert De Niro bags full of awards.
Unlike De Niro and Day Lewis though, Inman never really played any other character and despite being voted the funniest man on television in 1976 by readers of the TV Times, the Oscar committee chose to ignore his work on the Are You Being Served? movie. His two major ventures outside of Are You Being Served?, namely Odd Man Out and Take a Letter Mr Jones, saw him play minor variations on the theme of Mr Humphries, but essentially it was the same routine of shrieking, pouting and mincing as before. Regular panto seasons made up the other large part of his work, allowing him the luxury to give up all pretence of normality and parade around for weeks at a time dressed as Widow Twankey.
John Inman’s fame in the 1970s was such that he released three albums: Are You Being Served Sir? in 1975, I’m Free in 1977 and With a Bit of Brass in 1978. The first two clearly owed a debt to the character of Mr Humphries while the third is a real oddity that sees John collaborating with The Webb Ivory Newhall Band as well as The West Midlands Police Male Voice Choir. Probably as part of some community service ordered by a local magistrate. Who knows?
I’m Free, the second instalment in what I often refer to (in my less lucid moments) as the Inman Trilogy remains, if not the best, then certainly the least annoying of his vinyl outings. Shorn of the first album’s irritating novelty nonsense (all limp-wristed sailors and teddy bears) and mercifully free of the third album’s booming brass and harmonising off-duty riot squad, it can be listened to through ears only half stuffed with boiled cabbage leaves. There is also possibly the trace of a vague concept discernible in the album, it’s not up there with the greatest of concept albums admittedly but it’s better than anything Rush ever released.
You see, this album is all about freedom and the wonderful things being free can grant you, like the freedom to release comedy albums without a trace of shame or regret. To John Inman, being free was more than a catchphrase it was a philosophy. For many, the opening track I’m Free probably remains a jaunty bouncy catchphrase-infested piece of nonsensical froth but as the record proceeds through Irving Berlin’s No Strings and Buddy De Sylva’s Best Things in Life Are Free on to I’ve Got No Strings from Disney’s Pinocchio, it becomes clear that there is more to this epic statement etched for eternity into vinyl.
This is John Inman’s glorious celebration of freedom, on a par with Consolatio Philosophiae, or The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but while Boethius and Wilde had to suffer years of imprisonment and deprivation to realise their masterpieces, all it took Inman was a few years in a sitcom populated by amusing animatronic mannequins that did vaguely rude things whenever people walked by.
Okay, so there are moments of clunky innuendo, something Boethius was not known for. Tracks like Alley Cat with its proliferation of really very inevitable pussy references drag the philosophy concept down slightly, and the music hall madness of Oh the Fairies again makes my teeth itch, but freedom is a great thing and John Inman is one of its biggest fans. While some may compare John Inman with Nelson Mandela, let us remember that it took Mandela forty years to finish his long walk to freedom, whereas Inman managed a short mince to freedom in just under forty minutes and accomplished it in just two sides of vinyl.
As a bonus, the record ends with the theme tune for Odd Man Out, a ditty that sounds like it was an off-cast from an early Fall album, but which was actually written by Vince Powell. So, here to play us out is not that track but instead No Strings, because it’s hard to mess up an Irving Berlin track. Even if you’re John Inman.
Browse through the Official AYBS site for more Inman-related goods: