Camp Icon: Mollie Sugden, 1922-2009

In a week of seemingly endless death in Hollywood, let us take time to consider the British actress Mollie Sugden, who had nothing to do with Tinseltown and died today in Surrey. Sugden was a performer who struggled for years to break out of the wilderness of Britain's regional theater before appearing on the serial Coronation Street and, eventually, moved on to The Liver Birds and Are You Being Served? It was on this last show that her clueless, barely double entendre-burbling character achieved immortality. Years after the program ended, Sugden became a gay icon in San Francisco, where she was given a non-singing part in Donizetti's opera, La Fille du Regiment.

With her hair appearing in ever-changing pastel tints, dotty Mrs. Slocombe was invariably late to her job in Ladies Separates and Underwear at Grace Brothers department store. She was also often all-too ready to reference her pet cat in the best (or was it the worst?) tradition of British musical hall comedy. Are You Being Served? also introduced one of television's earliest gay characters, the flaming Mr. Humphries, played by John Inman, whose stereotypical flamboyancy earned both Humphries and Inman the ire of gay militants. Together, Sugden and Inman continued the kind of inexcusable farce that had convulsed audiences from Wilde to Orton, but which has vanished forever.


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