It’s week 21 of working from home for me—the return-to-office plan has been adjusted yet again due to rising cases of coronavirus infection in the United States and the new estimate, hot off the presses, is October. I am not sure if my waistline is marking each passing week with a new layer of adipose tissue, the way tree trunks record their years, but I am grateful for my other half’s foresight months ago in setting me up with an indoor bike trainer. With renewed fervor, I am pedaling more frequently, each time with the ideal accompaniment of a half-hour episode of the ’70s British sitcom Are You Being Served?.
The show takes place almost entirely within the walls of a fictitious department store called Grace Brothers, and the tropes make fun of corporate hierarchy to no end. It’s a politically incorrect world where bowler hats are only allowed on the heads of upper management, and floor walkers (self-proclaimed “lower middle management”) must wear a red carnation in their buttonhole—not another color of carnation, nor a different kind of flower.
The sales staff impose their meager authority in pecking order every chance they get, while the unionized maintenance crew (who are repeatedly chastised for appearing on the shop floor during opening hours) devise myriad schemes to earn overtime pay, coming out on top in the grand scheme of things. (In Roots [Christmas Special], Mr Harman sits down to chitchat with the sales team in the canteen on their lunch break, and then announces, “‘Ere. In ‘alf a minute, it’ll be my official tea break. I’d better get back to work.” When questioned on why he would work when it’s his tea break, he replies, “Because, brother, if I work during my tea break, I’m on overtime!” Duh, brother!)
Perfumery is on the ground floor, as the opening jingle informs us, but also makes regular cameos on the first floor ladies’ department. Season 9, episode 1 (The Sweet Smell of Success) does one better and showcases it front and center.
As the staff lament wage cuts and worry about their future, Mrs Slocombe smugly reveals that she has a “sideline.” When pressed, she hints, “It’s to do with nature,” before explaining that she has been making perfume at home. “I’ve been experimenting for years,” she rhapsodizes. “I love the aroma of flowers.”
As to how she expects to make money selling homemade perfume, she replies confidently, “I’ve mixed herbs that no one else has ever mixed before,” and she’s come up with something that attracts the opposite sex.
“Which opposite sex?” queries a visibly intrigued Mr Humphries (arguably the most beloved character, a true dandy).
“Whichever sex is wearing it, it attracts the opposite!”
Not only that, “the ingredients are so simple,” Mrs Slocombe continues. Apart from her “secret ingredient X,” her recipe is “panther’s breath“:
- A compôte of roses and wild thyme
When she brings in a large jug of it to sell “under the counter” at the department store, her coworkers realize it doesn’t have a proper name. “It’s not easy to find a name, you know—’specially one that applies to both sexes,” Mrs Slocombe remarks. Right away, Miss Brahms—who never gets the credit she deserves due to being a young woman with a “common” accent—proposes a brilliant solution: “Why don’t you use separate labels and call it ‘is and ‘ers?”
Which is exactly what they do—well, almost. Instead of having “his” and “hers,” they have the same label for all as “his and hers.” They could be sensible sometimes!
To my delight, the color of the perfume was the same as my own very first attempt at making “perfume.” As a child, I had been fascinated by a sample vial—it was something by Christian Dior that a cousin had given me because he didn’t want it. Later, I tried to make my own by squeezing the reservoir of a marker pen into water, and the loveliness of the diluted cherry-red color made me almost able to convince myself that I could smell something other than very diluted marker ink.
Who knew it was an augury of things to come decades later.
Any suggestions on what “secret ingredient X” should be?