Mollie Sugden, the actress who died on July 1 aged 86, endeared herself to television viewers as Mrs Slocombe of the Ladies Separates and Underwear department in Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's long-running sitcom Are You Being Served?
Like all the best sitcoms, Are You Being Served?, first broadcast on BBC One between 1972 and 1985 and set in Grace Bros department store, drew on the venerable music hall traditions of familiar social stereotypes, heavy double entendre and jokes that could be seen advancing over the horizon from several miles away. The show benefited from strong portrayals by all its main characters, but it was Mrs Slocombe and her counterpart in menswear, the outrageously camp Mr Humphries (John Inman), who made it unmissable.
Mollie Sugden's Mrs Slocombe was a recognisable working type – the shopworn divorcee trying to keep up appearances, defying the years with ever more lurid rinses, and returning home alone each night to her "little pussy", to which there was always at least one reference in every show.
Mrs Slocombe had an arch, Ortonesque way with the unfortunate phrase: "Captain Peacock, I do not respond to any man's finger!", she says in response to a summons from the boss. "Before we go any further, Mr Rumbold, Miss Brahms and I would like to complain about the state of our drawers. They're a positive disgrace."
Mrs Slocombe had no children, which must have been a personal relief to Mollie Sugden, who was more usually cast as the interfering mother figure. As for similarities between the character and her own, she conceded that, like Mrs Slocombe, she could be "a bit bossy", but "unlike me, Mrs Slocombe could never find a fella".
Mary Isobel Sugden was born in Keighley in Yorkshire on July 21 1922. Her father ran an iron and steel company. When she was four years old, she heard a woman reading a comic poem at a village concert. The following Christmas, after being asked if she could "do anything", she read the same poem. It made her realise "how wonderful it was to make people laugh". Her first public performance came a year later in a Sunday School play in which she played a "bold,
Mollie Sugden was educated at the local Grammar School, then worked during the war in a munitions factory in Keighley making shells for the Royal Navy. When she was later made redundant, she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
After graduation she spent eight years in rep with a company that included Eric Sykes and Roy Dotrice, then took small roles on radio and television. Before Are You Being Served? she appeared with Benny Hill, Just Jimmy (as Jimmy Clitheroe's mother), Z-Cars, Up Pompeii!, The Goodies, Steptoe and Son and, in 1968, five episodes of Jackanory.
In 1973 she had a 23 week stint on That's Life! and also appeared as Terry Scott's mother in Son of the Bride.
Her first regular sitcom role, from 1962 to 1966, was as Mrs Crispin in Hugh and I. The series was written by John Chapman and when he got involved with The Liver Birds, he suggested Mollie Sugden for the role of Mrs Hutchinson, mother of Sandra (Nerys Hughes). Sugden portrayed Mrs Hutchinson from 1971 to 1979, and reprised the role when the series was revived in 1996. She also played Robin Nedwell's mother in Doctor in Charge (1972) and John Alderton's mother in My Wife Next Door (1972)
The first episode of Are You Being Served? was a one-off Comedy Playhouse, ignored until terrorists struck at the 1972 Munich Olympics, leaving the BBC with free airspace. The pilot was watched by 19 million viewers and the response was so huge that five more episodes were filmed. In total, 74 were shown between 1973 and 1985. In early episodes, Mollie Sugden had her hair dyed, bleached and re-dyed every time Mrs Slocombe changed her hair colour. It had been her own idea, but it meant that she sometimes had to turn up at her sons' school with her hair a multi-coloured mess. Later, she saved her roots and her dignity by wearing wigs.
In 1978, when it was thought that the series was about to be pensioned off, she appeared in the title role of Come Back Mrs Noah, about a housewife accidentally blasted into orbit on a space rocket, a sitcom which, despite the fact that it had the same writers as Are You Being Served?, is widely regarded as one of the worst ever made. From 1965 to 1976 she made occasional appearances as Nellie Harvey, the landlady of The Laughing Donkey, in Coronation Street.
Mollie Sugden also had roles in other sitcoms, including That's My Boy (1981-86), in which she played housekeeper to Dr Robert Price (Christopher Blake) and his wife Angie (Jennifer Lonsdale), and My Husband and I (1987-8) in which she played opposite her real husband, William Moore, whom she had married in 1958 after meeting him at Swansea rep.
Seven years after the end of Are You Being Served?, five of the original cast – including Mollie Sugden – came together to appear in Grace & Favour, in which the staff are left a manor house in the country by young Mr Grace, head of Grace Bros, who has died while scuba-diving on holiday in the Caribbean with his personal secretary, Miss Jessica Lovelock. This lasted for two series until 1993. Other television appearances included Just William, Oliver's Travels and, inevitably, The Bill.
In the early 1990s Mollie Sugden found herself acquiring "cult" status across the Atlantic – particularly on the San Francisco gay scene – after American television started running repeats of Are You Being Served?. In 1993 she appeared on the San Francisco operatic stage as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a speaking role ("I'm no Pavarotti") in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. In 2002 a tribute programme called Celebrating Mollie Sugden: An Are
You Being Served? Special was aired on American PBS stations, featuring many of the original cast.
Away from showbusiness, Mollie Sugden enjoyed gardening, cooking and driving fast cars. "I used to speed about in a Porsche," she told an interviewer in 1995. "But seven or eight years ago I was done for doing 92mph on the motorway, so now I drive a Mercedes."
Mollie Sugden and her husband had identical twin sons, born when she was 41.She confessed that when they were very young she had to keep them labelled so that she could tell them apart and that "more than once I bathed the same one twice".
Her husband died in 2000.
2nd "Are You Being Served" death this year, I think. Wendy Richard died in February at 65. John Inman died in March 2007 at 71.