She Served Us Well: Mollie Sugden 1922-2009

mollie-sugdenMollie Sugden, star of the British sitcom Are You Being Served? (1972-85), died on July 1 of natural causes. Her five-decade acting career made her a beloved figure in her native England and, surprisingly, in the U.S. as well. Are You Being Served? was set in a department store, a dying breed even in the Seventies. Sugden's Mrs. Slocombe was the doyenne of ladies underwear, a role mirrored in menswear by Mr. Humphries, whose airs and graces she deplored, probably because they got in the way of her own array of affectations. As the series progressed, the outrageous hues of Slocombe’s hair rinses veered from the subdued to the eye-splitting. It was, however, her tribulations with her much loved cat, her sole companion who became a constant conversational prop, that endeared her character to millions. As she innocently regaled those who were interested, though most were not, about the mishaps of her pussy, the smut piled up, as a saucy seaside postcard became flesh. That Sugden delivered her lines like a cut-price Lady Bracknell, imperious and oblivious, made her telling of her pussy standing up in fright all the more hilarious. Since the audience never got to witness this splendid feline, the entire conceit became all the more beguiling. Sugden played Slocombe with incredible pathos. She saw her as an essentially lonely woman, who had resorted to adding yet another layer of slap as her looks deteriorated. Her ample defenses were equally evidence of her vulnerability. Mrs. Slocombe obviously felt that life had dealt her an impoverished hand, and this -- coupled with a certainty that her customers were an irritant, and always wrong -- created a monstrous but strangely endearing character. She wasn't the only matriarch that Sugden brought to life; in a long and glittering career, she specialized in ladies of all classes, from pure brass to high class, and what fell between these polarized extremes. That two such sublime extremes of English oddness, the late John Inman as the outrageously camp Mr. Humphries and the recently deceased Mollie Sugden as the haughty Mrs. Slocombe, should have conquered American hearts so completely, suggests an affinity of taste one would consider entirely improbable. Although little else from Sugden's career translated into American, her career, despite being defined by Mrs. Slocombe, was long, fascinating, and at times surreal. Her role in Come in Mrs. Noah, where she was a housewife marooned in space, encapsulates her ability to harness unlikely roles, and she became a regular fixture on British television screen from the '60s to the '90s, a sitcom familiar, always with an air of mischief and a twinkle in her eye, usually wearing a ridiculous and impractical hat. Her talent to amuse meant she was rarely given the serious roles she was equally capable of harnessing. Mollie Sugden was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire on July 23, 1922. Her aptitude for acting emerged at Sunday School, and on leaving Keighley Girls Grammar School, and after a stint in a munitions factory, she attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. After almost a decade in Rep, she got her first major break via the legendary Thora Hird and the writer Walter Greenwood, casting her as an amorous widow in a play in Blackpool. This resulted in her first television success opposite Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott, where she played a snooty neighbor. She is also fondly remembered as the regular Coronation Street sparring partner of the redoubtable Annie Walker (Doris Speed) when she played Nellie Harvey, landlady of the Laughing Donkey. She was also the terrifying mother of Nerys Hughes in the '60s BBC success The Liver Birds. Although poor health meant little was seen of her in recent years, her name was borrowed and lent to laughter via Little Britain mavericks Matt Lucas and David Walliams. One of their characters, Walliams in drag, is constantly going on about having been Mollie Sugden's bridesmaid., but then has imperious hissy fits once the subject is referred to by the poor waiter she has been trying to impress. That skewed tribute neatly betrays the level of affection in which the actress was held by the British public. Some roles confine one’s career in the public mind. The actress Frances de la Tour will forever be Miss Jones, the desperate spinster of Rising Damp fame; although she has never discussed the role publicly since, and has a long and established career as a stage actress, she is remembered, and rightly so, for the comic mastery of that creation. That Mrs. Slocombe was regularly watched by 15 million viewers, the series even spawned a movie in 1977, and then became an unlikely success Stateside, tied Slocombe to Sugden forever. Mollie Sugden's ghost will long continue to haunt the world of British comedy. She flitted from sitcom to sitcom with such effortless ease, her surname as synonymous with characterful characters as with the name of her most famous creation. Few can lay claim to such a status. An accolade as elusive as that legendary cat. - Robert Cochrane cochrane.jpgMr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath will be released soon.