"I'm Free for Tea!" - John Inman: Live and Lively in Buffalo New York

by Jay Bradway

Part I: The Adventure Begins
It all started on Saturday, August 14, 1999. I arrived home in the evening to the sound of Kimmy (my wife) screaming hysterically something about "tickets" and "AYBS" and "John coming..."!! After I calmed her down, she told me the news: our local Buffalo, New York PBS station (WNED) had John Inman lined up for a visit. Kimmy and I were not members of the station at that time (for shame!). But we took the plunge and both pledged $100 each to join; in the process getting on the guest list for what was billed as an "Afternoon Tea with John Inman". It was to be held at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Buffalo, from 2-4pm on August 28. WOW!! We were counting the days!! By Wednesday of the week of the Tea, we had had no word from WNED concerning our "tickets"; with only a couple of days to go I called and spoke to a very pleasant person at the station named Lisa. She told me that we were on the guest list and that we didn't need tickets..just show up. Then she surprised me with wonderful news: since we were NEW MEMBERS, that joined the station specifically because we loved AYBS, we could come an hour earlier than everyone else at 1:00pm and have some "private time and photos" with Mr. Inman. You can imagine our joy and excitement. The regular Tea was to follow from 2-4pm as planned at which the rest of the members (who had paid $60 a ticket) would also be present.

Part II: The BIG DAY Arrives
Kimmy and I dressed in our finest garb and breathlessly drove downtown a little before One O'Clock on the 28th. Upon entering the Hyatt it appeared that the hotel had been swept clean of humanity. No one was in sight except a scowling desk clerk. Spotting the "daily events" monitor a moment later, we discovered that: yes, we were in the right place, the Tea was on the Mezzanine Level in Regency Rooms A-B. We were familiar with the Hyatt's Mezzanine Level; having attended a Drag Gala there a few years ago. Up the escalator we went, expecting any moment to see a crush of new members fighting to get a glimpse of Mr. Inman. Instead we saw: John Inman, a photographer, the WNED Program Director and a helper. In the hall. Just standing around. We were greeted by the Program Director, he checked our names off a list (a very SHORT list) and asked if we wanted our pictures taken with John. OF COURSE!! Kimmy and I sauntered over to John and introduced ourselves, a professional photog took our picture together..and then we had John all to ourselves. Kimmy presented John with a video of the film "Buffalo 66" starring Christina Ricci and Vincent Gallo; Kimmy has a small part as an extra in the film, and since it is the only cool movie ever made about Buffalo, we thought it would make a nice present. We talked about England (Kimmy and I have traveled there four times), his Christmas Panto show, American manners and all kinds of things for about ten minutes. Finally some other new members showed up and had their pics snapped also. At this point it was about 1:15pm and the Program Director ushered John and our little group into a small room for the "private, new member pre-Tea Tea" (I don't know what else to call it).

At this point you must be wondering: Where were all the new members? Didn't any regular members show up early to see John?

The answers are:
1) There were only 5 other new members besides Kimmy and I.
2) No one else showed up early.

We were already in AYBS Heaven..and the fun had yet to begin.

Part III: The Private New Member Pre-Tea Tea
The room we entered was a small conference-style room set-up as a informal café. There were 4 small round tables with tablecloths, and a buffet table with punch, tea, coffee and dozens of different types of tea sandwiches (cucumber, cheeses, etc). VERY British! Kimmy and I shared a table with a single girl about our age, and the rest of the new members took the other chairs. John came in and sat with a couple of girls at the table next to ours. The Program Director said "This is very informal, just have fun and get to know John, ask him questions, whatever you like!".

Dead silence.

Looking around the room I sensed that these new members were very CASUAL viewers of AYBS. Besides the girl sitting with Kimmy and I, and the two girls at John's table, there was one other couple: a male couple in their late 40s.

So...I was obliged to break the ice by asking John about his home in London, did Wendy still live around the corner, etc. That put everyone at ease and for the next 45 minutes John answered questions from, and told stories to, our little group of 7 people.

Can you image it! I tried not to monopolize the party and happily listened to John answer the usual questions about how he got into acting, did he do theatre work as well as TV, etc. (Note to JW: He told verbatim some of the anecdotes from your excellent transcription of his TV appearance on WHRO.) Among the many topics covered where: the Blackpool stage version, the Australian version, the Movie, what all the characters are doing now, his impressions of America, British versus American Soap Operas (he noted "All American soaps are so very DARK, aren't they? I mean, you can barely see the actors! All except Dynasty (which he pronounced it the British way DIN-ISTY) when Joan (Collins) came on the screen, she just LIT IT UP!"

Impressions of John:
During this time, sitting within four feet of him, it was normal to chalk up a number of observations about our dear friend:

He loves Gin. The Program Director kept him plied with glasses during the entire time we saw him. John takes a Lime with his Gin and claimed at one point: "My normal day on tour is ...ten Gins and then to bed!" He may have been exaggerating ..but then again maybe not. It was amusing to see the WNED Program Director fetching John his drinks; it seemed his only purpose during this part of the day, as myself, Kimmy and the other new members did all the talking.

John is a natty dresser. He had on a striped button-down shirt, no tie, a light colored suit jacket, pants, loafers with a little gold buckle, lots of gold rings with diamonds, large Elton John-like gold wire-rim glasses with curvy detailing.

John looks EXCELLENT for his age. At 64 his skin is very youthful and almost babyish looking, the teeth are pretty much the same, the hair doesn't look that much thinner than it did late in the series. You could not help recognizing him on the street, and in fact he mentioned he wears a jogging suit and baseball cap when he doesn't want to be recognized. "But," he giggled "when I need a cab, I just take off my cap and BOOM, there's a cab pulling right up to me. The driver will say, 'Hop in John', and take me right home, they all seem to know where I live!"

He is VERY MUCH like the Mr. Humphies character as the voice (a bit deeper maybe), hand movements, inflection, and laugh are entirely genuine and his very own.

Finally: Yes...I did put in a plug for the UAYBSFC, asked John how he liked the birthday package etc. He talked about getting his web site up, and finding there were lots of people also named John Inman (one is a pro golfer it seems.) "Just so I don't get their BILLS." He joked. "I have a computer. I mean I just OWN one, I don't really use it myself. Once in a while my assistant will find something and say 'Oh, John take a look at this' and he'll use his little mouse to poke around and such."

Finally it was 2:00PM (too soon, too soon) and we had to move to the larger room with John for the regular Tea. However, not before we got our books signed! I had two copies of the Twenty-Fifth book, one he signed to Kimmy and I, the other to Kimmy's mom, Maxine. When presented with the books, we had a ballpoint pen ready in case he needed it. But he waved it away saying "No, no, I have a MUCH NICER pen." And pulled out a black fountain pen with gold nib, signing the books with a flourish.

Part IV: The Main Tea
Kimmy and I went next door where we found about 30 people sitting at 6 or so larger tables. That was it; adding to that our 7 new members, the total people for the main Tea was under 40... still very cozy. The buffet table here was much larger: 10 types of flavoured iced-teas, lots of hot teas and coffees, mounds of cool treats, scones, jams, everything. For background music they hired a Harp player. Yes, a live, full-size orchestral harp playing beautiful music. You can tell by the description that the station did quite a job on this event: I was disappointed that the turnout wasn't larger, but for us it was great!

John had stayed out in the hall at this point, and the members in this larger room had not gotten a glimpse of him yet. The Program Director gave a little history and mini-fund-raising speech and finally announced: "Without further ado I'll introduce our guest by uttering those immortal words: "Mr. Humphries, are you free?" "I'm Free!!" came the familiar high-pitched voice as John walked in. The crown applauded and John took the wireless microphone. "One thing I'll do", he said immediately "is I'll try to be more entertaining than HIS presentation." That got some laughs at the expense of the Program Director, and from here John went into a more prepared talk for about 20 minutes or so. The floor was then opened to questions, the highlights of which are below:

John is a member of a club called the "Water Rats". It is an entertainment business charity group that raises funds for disabled performers. He explained it as "Well, if a dancer loses one of his toes, and he can't dance anymore..we take care of him. If a juggler loses one of his BALLS..I mean fingers...we take care of him." Members of the Water Rats have been Lauren and Hardy, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope and many others. There are about 150 members at present.

John told a funny story about filming a scene from AYBSA (Grace and Favor). "We were doing a bit where I had to milk a cow, a real one! Well, as I was getting the hang of it (he mimes pulling on the cows udders to lots of laughter) I saw in the corner of my eye the TAIL of the cow going up and up. I tried to hurry my lines but it was too late: PHRRARTT!!. The cow messed all over the cameraman, on my pants, all over the set!! It took us an hour and a half to clean up the mess and go it over again."

He also told the story of the AYBS episode "The Hero". "The man who wrestled me was a well know TV wrestler, and we had the entire fight choreographed a certain way. However, when the live filming began, the wrestler got stars in his eyes and started throwing me around, not following the scripted fight at all! I was so glad when it was over. After the fight, one of the writers walked up to me and said 'John, I'm really sorry...' I said I didn't mind and felt OK. He replied 'What I'm sorry about is you have to do the whole thing again, the cameras couldn't follow the ad-libbed fight, and we have to film it again the way it was supposed to choreographed.' Well, you can image I was hurting after that. No has seen the first version of the fight, the one on the show was the tame version!"

Someone asked him to do his famous "walk" and of course he obliged. He then told the story of how the walk was "invented". "The night before that filming, I had been playing 'Pennies Up the Bum" (lots of laughter). Oh, you don't know that game in America?, well, you take a stack of coppers...coins you know.. and put up between your...um...bum...and you HOLD them there. Then you walk with them up there to a pail, or dish and let go. The object being to get the pennies to all land in the dish. If fact, it sometimes feels like I still have one up there! That's where I got the walk from. The scene in which I first did the walk was actually only an upper-body shot of me. But everyone thought if was so funny, they re-shot it as a full-body shot. It got to the point that if I didn't do the walk every episode, I'd get mail saying: YOU DIDN'T DO THE WALK!!"

He spoke about the rigors of travel and mentioned that next he was going to New York City for fun ("I'll EAT my way through the city.") Then on to Akron, OH (for the Kent appearance.) "Akron", he mused thoughtfully, "I fly in there and then on to an even smaller place called Kent. Must be the LAST PLACE on earth God made."

As far as America was concerned, John said, "I'm finally getting the hang of speaking in the correct way, for instance, if I wanted some more water in a restaurant, I'd normally ask 'May I please have a glass of water, if its not too much trouble?', but here in America, you yell 'Hey, over here! Some water!'". He yelled this himself in a flat, rude-style, American accent which had everyone rolling.

Many other questions were asked, most of which people reading this account will know the answers to already, so I won't repeat them.

Finally I decided to liven up the crowd a little with a purposefully silly question:

"John", I asked with a angelic straight face, "one of the most popular characters on the series is one we never really get a good look at: Mrs. Slocombe's PUSSY." At this, the other members tittered (except the 8-year-old boy with his parents). "I wanted to ask you, John: 1. Did Mrs. Slocombe actually HAVE a Pussy, 2. if so...did you ever get a peak at it... and if you did, 3. what color was it?" Of course this cracked up the members and the station staff. John himself was flabbergasted. He didn't say anything for a few moments and then slowly said "The pussy DOES usually come up as a question during my talks...but...no one has ever actually phrased the questions in such a direct way." He laughed as he repeated the questions saying "Yes, she did actually have a pussy, I did see it, and it's the same color as her HAIR." Unfortunately, no one was video recording the talk, and no audio recording was in evidence either.

Part V: Parting is Such Sweet...
The fun went on and on until a little before 4pm, at this point the talk ended and the regular members queued up to take John's picture and get flyers signed. Kimmy and I went up after he was mostly through the last members and said our good-byes. We talked for a few more minutes about theatre in and around Buffalo, and I asked him since he was just in Toronto, if he had ever seen the Phantom of the Opera. "Oh, that old thing!", John said as he rolled his eyes, "I've seen it twice and fell asleep half-way through both times." I then mentioned that the ex-singer of KISS, Paul Stanley, was playing the Phantom in Toronto at present. "Well, he could bring his own MAKEUP then, couldn't he?", John quipped. I took another picture of just John and Kimmy and then we hugged him and left. His last words to us were: "It was delightful to meet you, and KEEP WATCHING." Those last words chirped out in his signature, fluted, vocal style.

As to the other 30 or so members at the Tea, only one other person had a book, but as previously observed, there was NO ONE who could be considered a AYBS fanatic (can we call ourselves that?). Most appeared to be older (60+); rich philanthropists that came to the Tea as an amusing Sunday afternoon outing. We didn't exchange names or numbers with anyone there, but I did tell them about our Internet club and I'm sure some will join (none of them had ever gone to the site it seemed.)

All-in-all in was much more personal, close-up and fun that we ever imagined. John is absolutely the most charming, suave, easy-going, sharp and witty gentlemen I've ever met. The next time Kimmy and I are in London we'll stop by John's home and say hello...who knows?...maybe he'll want to go down the Pub for a Gin!

Dodgy, Asst. #12

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