Are You Being Served? – The Father Christmas Affair (26th December 1976)

AYBS? is a curious beast. No other series in the Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry canon has quite the same feel – this was a show that often resembled Frankenstein’s monster (in the way that numerous disconnected pieces were jammed together in order to form a whole).

I’m not entirely sure how the writing process worked – presumably Croft and Lloyd worked separately and then cherrypicked the best moments from each of their scripts. If so, that would explain how in today’s episode we jump from Mr Grainger performing the hits of Al Jolson to the whole department dressing up as Santa Claus ….

If there’s one moment from The Father Christmas Affair which has endured then it’s the flashing Father Christmas.  BBC Visual Effects seemed to relish working on AYBS? almost as much as they did on Doctor Who and this very silly Santa is well up to their usual standard.  It’s Mr Humphries’ reaction which really sells the moment though – but since we’ve already had the reveal (Santa – like Action Man – is bereft of working parts) this doesn’t quite satisfy.  Surely it would have been better not to have shown exactly what Santa was hiding under his robe, that way we would have been left guessing about why Mr Humphries suffered such a dramatic swoon.

If I was the sort of person to worry about these things, then I’d worry about who was looking after the customers whilst all the staff were crowded around this work of technological art. Luckily I don’t.

I always enjoy the canteen scenes. In the first phase of the series they provided Mr Lucas with the opportunity to grievously insult Mrs Slocombe on a regular basis (he doesn’t disappoint on this score). They also provided ample scope for some ramblings from Mr Grainger (again, we’re well served today).  Possibly the most notable thing about the scene is the way that Wendy Richard very visibly corpses on more than one occasion. Something was clearly tickling her fancy.

The middle part of the episode is where things get a little odd, although as I touched upon at the start, complaining about structure in an average episode of AYBS? seems to be a pretty futile pastime.

Mr Grainger has, once again, elected to entertain the old folks at Christmas. And since his impression of Winston Churchill has been deemed to be old hat, he’s decided to come right up to date – by impersonating Sir Stafford Cripps. There’s something rather delightful about this reference, which would have been dated in 1976 (after all, Cripps passed away in the early 1950’s) never mind forty or more years later.

This idea is quickly knocked on the head and it’s suggested that miming to an Al Jolson record would be a safer bet (although maybe not if you want to earn any repeat fees in the twenty first century …)

There’s no reason why Mr Humphries and Mr Lucas should have learnt such an intricate series of dance moves, but it provides us with a few minutes of entertainment, so let’s be generous (it is Christmas after all).

Since the automated Santas wern’t a great success, a human replacement has to be found. With a handy cash bonus on offer from young Mr Grace it’s no surprise that everybody rushes into their suits with alacrity. Mrs Slocombe has some lovely lines, reminding a nonplussed Mr Rumbold that since “Parliament has passed a Sexual Relations act” there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t take on the role.

Mr Humphries once again steals the show with his Santa ensemble. I wonder what the rest of the cast felt, every time that Inman was handed a prime bit of comedy business? With a few exceptions they remained together for a long time, so presumably they accepted that there was a definite pecking order.

When Mr Grainger arrives he’s still blacked up as a Minstrel (he was unable to get the make-up off). This provides us with the episode’s punchline – a young child (Donald Waugh) is brought in to pick out the best Father Christmas from the line-up and naturally picks the one who – like him – is black.

This moment hasn’t aged well, but since AYBS? never comes across as unpleasantly dated as the likes of On The Buses, it seems more like an innocent gag rather than anything inherently racist. Certainly it’s of its time, but since this a strong – if bitty – Christmas special, it’s a slight shame to think that it’s probably not now going to be the first to get a repeat airing. Mind you, it last surfaced on BBC2 as recently as 2009, so you never know.

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