Suffolk tributes to actor Inman

TRIBUTES were today paid to an actor once voted as the funniest man on television.

TRIBUTES were today paid to an actor once voted as the funniest man on television.

As fans of comedy actor John Inman were left saddened by news of his death today, an unusual Suffolk link to the star was revealed.

Mr Inman, star of TV sitcom Are You Being Served? died early this morning. The actor aged 71, died in St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, west London, at 4am after being ill for some time.

Despite being best known for his performances as Mr Humphries in the long running and popular comedy, Mr Inman was also a star in the world of pantomime.

And it was today revealed that Suffolk audiences who watched the Regent Theatre's pantomime at the end of last year were not only watching Snow White, they were also being given a glimpse of Mr Inman's own pantomime memories.

After starring in countless pantomimes during his career, Mr Inman had built up one of the largest private collections of pantomime dame costumes.

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And when he discovered that his friend and theatre protégé Malcolm Lord would be starring as the dame in the Ipswich show, he invited the actor to choose all the costumes from his private collection.

Barry Stead, of Duo Entertainment, the company behind the pantomime, had worked with Mr Inman many times over the years and today spoke about the man he would always remember as a friend and a true professional.

Mr Stead said: “He was loved by the audiences, he was a great man, very kind and very generous.

“He never complained even though he was ill for long time. He was one of the greats, a great actor and he had fantastic comic timing.

“He brought so much pleasure to so many people and he had so many friends because he was as nice off stage as he was on it.”

Mr Stead revealed that Mr Inman had been keen to share his long pantomime history with new audiences and insisted that Mr Lord have his costumes when he heard about the Snow White show.

Mr Lord had once taken over from Mr Inman in a show in Richmond where he was his understudy.

Mr Stead said: “He said he could come and have his pick of any of them, he had scores and scores of these costumes and said Malcolm could have any he chose. I think every Christmas his greatest regret for the last three years was that he wasn't on stage.

“I feel that I have lost a very good friend, you have many acquaintances in showbusiness but he was a real friend.

“The last time I saw him we met up for a drink and a meal, there was a crowd of people all saying hello and he came straight over and said 'thank goodness you're here, we can have a laugh now,' and that's the sort of friend he was - he was a great friend to myself, my wife, and my children.”

Mr Inman's manager Phil Dale said: “John, through his character Mr Humphries of Are You Being Served? was known and loved throughout the world.”

Inman's partner of 35 years Ron Lynch is said to be “devastated” at his death.

The actor suffered from hepatitis A - an inflammation of the liver which he believed was caused through eating contaminated food - and had been taken into hospital for tests after problems with his liver. His health problems in 2004 were the second scare in three years, after he spent three days in intensive care in 2001. Then at 65, he was admitted with breathing difficulties to St Mary's, the same hospital as where he died today.

PAULINE Walker, of Ipswich group the Co-op Juniors, was among the first people in Ipswich to pay tribute to the star. She said Mr Inman's death was a sad loss to the theatrical world.

“I think everybody involved in theatre has got fond memories of the shows that he did,” she said.

“He was a brilliant performer and was quite a favourite at the time that Are You Being Served was on the air, he brought a new idea and a new storyline and everybody remembers him for that.”

In later years, Mr Inman had become known for playing pantomime dames and Mrs Walker said he gave memorable performances.

She said: “Good pantomime characters will always stay in people's memories.

“He made a great name for himself. It is a real loss because he was just such a lovable character and was always good fun.”

JOHN Inman played camp salesman Mr Humphries in the comedy series Are You Being Served? for a decade from the mid-1970s.

He starred alongside Wendy Richard, who went on to play Pauline Fowler in EastEnders, as well as Molly Sugden, Frank Thornton and Trevor Bannister.

Are You Being Served? ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985 and depicted the antics of the staff of Grace Brothers, an old-fashioned department store.

Inman's character, Mr Humphries, the senior sales assistant in the menswear department, was known for his catchphrase “I'm free” and for his overt campness.

The actor's portrayal of the pouting character was popular and in 1976 he was voted Funniest Man On Television by TV Times readers and declared BBC TV's Personality Of The Year.

But he was also attacked by gay groups offended by his stereotypical portrayal of a theatrical homosexual, although he argued that his sexual orientation was never stated.