Born in Preston, NW England, in 1935, from an early age John Inman exhibited a tendency towards camp which would become a hallmark of his later success. His mother ran a boarding house and his father was a hairdresser, but Inman was always determined to become an actor, no doubt influenced by his parents’ move to Blackpool when he was twelve. His parents supported his ambition, paying for him to take elocution lessons at their local church hall. As a child, Inman was also noted for his love of dressmaking.
Within a year of moving to Blackpool, Inman secured small roles at the Pavilion on Blackpool’s South Pier. At fifteen he took a menial job at the pier, occasionally playing parts in some of the plays.
After leaving school, Inman gave up the theatre to work as a window dresser in a gentleman’s outfitters, and moved to London to work in Regent Street two years later. He remained in retail for another four years before leaving to work as a scenic artist with a touring company in order to earn his Equity Card, a licence which was required for all professional actors.
It was another ten years before Inman’s gamble paid off and he made his West End debut. He acted in a number of stage plays across London, and established himself early on as a pantomime dame — a stock drag character whose lowbrow style of camp is beloved of adults and children alike.
In 1970, Inman made his TV debut, and his big break came two years later, when he was asked to play a part in the pilot of a new show for the BBC, titled Are You Being Served? Set in the clothing section of a department store (a case of art imitating life!) Inman played the minor character of Mr. Wilberforce Claybourne Humphries, an assistant in the menswear department. The writers, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, soon asked Inman to “camp it up,” Mr. Humphries became a central figure in the cast, and despite misgivings from the BBC over including such an ostentatious character, the first five episodes were broadcast in 1973.
Are You Being Served? ran for ten series, lasting into the mid-1980s, and at the height of its popularity in the late ’70s it regularly attracted up to 22 million viewers. Inman won BBC TV Personality of the Year in 1976, and a TV Times poll voted him the funniest man on television. Mr. Humphries was almost universally adored, despite his limp wrist, mincing gait, high-pitched voice, and penchant for men in uniform. His catchphrase, “I’m free!” still exists in the common vernacular.
Indeed, the only people who seemed opposed to the character’s success were members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, who picketed the shows in protest.
They thought I was over-exaggerating the gay character. But I don’t think I do. In fact there are people far more camp than Mr. Humphries walking around this country. Anyway, I know for a fact that an enormous number of viewers like Mr. Humphries and don’t really care whether he’s camp or not. So far from doing harm to the homosexual image, I feel I might be doing some good.
— John Inman
The writers always maintained that Mr. Humphries had no stated sexuality, that he was “just a mother’s boy”, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines and see that the character certainly had sexual agency. He was escorted to work by a number of different gentlemen (usually in uniform, and usually with an interesting story of how they just happened to meet); when a fire threatened the department store, he flung himself into a rather willing fireman’s arms; and he contracted the mysterious “Marine’s disease,” which led to the entire department being quarantined.
Sexual innuendo was very much a part of AYBS’s humour, and there is no mistaking the implication that Mr. Humphries led a very busy — and queer — social life. Yet despite being an obviously queer and sexually active man, the character was universally adored. A large part of that adoration came from his campness, which rendered him both non-threatening and actively likable. Nobody at Grace Bros. has a bad word to say about Mr. Humphries, and the audience watching at home couldn’t find a reason to dislike him, either. The character brought a queer man into the living rooms of millions of people, and moreover he became their favourite. After the show ended, Inman continued to have a long and successful career appearing in stage and international productions of AYBS, long after the rest of the original cast had moved on. Only Mr. Humphries was irreplaceable.
Inman died on 8th March 2007, of complications due to a Hepatitis A infection. His estate, valued at almost £3 million, was left to his civil partner, Ron Lynch. The couple had been together since 1972, the year the pilot episode of Are You Being Served? aired.