Mollie Sugden, 86

Mollie Sugden, 86; British Actress 'Served' Laughs with Comedy Series Persona

British actress Mollie Sugden delighted British and U.S. television audiences.
British actress Mollie Sugden delighted British and U.S. television audiences. (By Press Association Via Associated Press Images)
By Martin Weil Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mollie Sugden, 86, the British actress who provoked hilarity on both sides of the Atlantic as an absurdly haughty department store functionary in the television comedy series "Are You Being Served?," died July 1 in Guildford, England. No cause of death was reported.

In the series, produced in Britain and laced with campiness and double entendre, the veteran actress endowed the role of Betty Slocombe with a ridiculous snootiness and an over-the-top arrogance. It was a straight-faced performance that mocked bureaucracy, the British class system and the universal capacity for foolishness and self-delusion.

One of Britain's most popular shows, "Are You Being Served?" ran from 1972 to 1985 and subsequently developed a strong following on American public television. Such was her allure, and that of her show, that Mrs. Sugden was brought to the American airwaves to buttress appeals for money during public TV's fund-raising drives.

Mary Isobel Sugden was born in Keighley, England, on July 21, 1922, and gained an appreciation for comedy in childhood. After a reading of a comic poem at a neighborhood Christmas event at age 5, she was struck, as she later said, by the satisfaction with making people laugh.

After secondary school, she worked in a factory during World War II, making munitions for the Royal Navy. Then came training at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, followed by acting with a repertory company, and radio and TV work. In the 1970s, she did well in maternal roles, and in 1972, "Are You Being Served?" premiered.

It was an immediate success. She allowed that her Mrs. Slocombe was "a bit bossy." Others described her as an archetypical battleaxe.

Part of the fun lay in her refusal to provide any hint that she recognized the low humor and double meanings that ran through her lines. As the sternly prim empress of the Grace Bros. ladies underwear department, it was almost plausible for her to complain "about the state of our drawers."

A good deal of her success and that of the show was attributed to her ability to deliver such lines with utmost seriousness. Although her hair color seemed to change from one episode to the next, and the show reminded many of burlesque and vaudeville, Mrs. Sugden resisted permitting her character to become a caricature.

In recognizing the human being behind the punctilio, Mrs. Sugden was quoted as seeing Mrs. Slocombe as a woman who was at bottom not impossibly self-assured but actually insecure and vulnerable. "Lonely, too."

Mrs. Sugden was married in 1958 to actor William Moore, who died in 2000. Their two sons, who survive, are identical twins. The comic actress did not fail to find the fun in that. "More than once," she once said, "I bathed the same one twice."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company