Comedy actor John Inman, best known for his role as camp Mr Humphries in TV sit-com Are You Being Served? and as a celebrated pantomime dame, died today at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, at the age of 71. He had been ill for some time with hepatitis A.

Inman, who was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 28 June 1935, moved to Blackpool at the age of 12 with his parents – who ran a hairdressing business - and made his stage debut on Blackpool Pier when he was 13. He joined Crewe Rep at the age of 21, performing in comedies and farces.

In the 1960s, Humphries appeared on the London stage frequently, making his West End debut in Ann Veronica, as well as taking roles in Salad Days, Let’s Get Laid and Mother Goose.

Are You Being Served?, which was set in a pretentious department store, was aired in the 1970s and enjoyed huge success with the public, attracting more than 22 million viewers at its peak and spawning a spin-off series, Grace and Favour. Inman’s catchphrase on the show, “I’m free!” became instantly famous, and his portrayal of a sales assistant was informed by his time as a window-dresser at Austin Reed in Regent Street when he first moved to London in his early twenties. The sit-com ran for ten series before it finished in 1985.

Inman was voted funniest man on television by TV Times readers in 1976, and was named BBC TV's personality of the year the same year. He starred in two other TV sit-coms that were written for him - Odd Man Out and Take A Letter Mr Jones - and BBC comedy Revolver. He was a regular on Celebrity Squares, Blankety Blank and The Good Old Days, and was the subject of a This Is Your Life.

In 1979 he starred as Lord Fancourt Babberley in Charley’s Aunt at the Adelphi, and toured in his own shows, Fancy Free, Pyjama Tops, My Fat Friend and Bedside Manners. He appeared in over 40 pantomimes during his career, often teaming up with the comedian Barry Howard to form one of the country’s leading “Ugly Sisters” acts.

He is survived by his long-term partner, Ron Lynch, with whom he entered into a civil partnership in 2005, after the couple had been together more than 33 years.

- by Caroline Ansdell