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Palare, Parlary, Palarie, Palari
RegionUnited Kingdom and Ireland
Native speakers
English-based slang
Language codes
ISO 639-3pld
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Polari (from Italian parlare 'to talk') is a form of slang or cant used in Britain and Ireland by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins,[2] but it can be traced back to at least the 19th century and possibly as far as the 16th century.[3] There is a long-standing connection with Punch and Judy street puppet performers, who traditionally used Polari to converse.[4]


Alternate spellings include Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie and Palari.


Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian[5] or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), Romani, rhyming slang, sailor slang and thieves' cant. Later it expanded to contain words from the Yiddish language and from 1960s drug subculture slang. It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words, including: bona (good[6]), ajax (nearby), eek (face), cod (bad, in the sense of tacky or vile), naff (bad, in the sense of drab or dull, though borrowed into mainstream British English with the sense of the aforementioned cod), lattie (room, house, flat, i.e. room to let), nanti (not, no), omi (man), palone (woman), riah (hair), zhoosh or tjuz (smarten up, stylise), TBH ("to be had", sexually accessible), trade (sex) and vada (see), and over 500 other lesser-known words.[7] According to a Channel 4 television documentary,[8] there was once (in London) an "East End" version which stressed Cockney rhyming slang and a "West End" version which stressed theatrical and Classical influences. There was some interchange between the two.


From the 19th century on, Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romani.[9] As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers.[10]

William Shakespeare used the term bona (good, attractive) in Henry IV, Part 2, part of the expression bona roba (a lady wearing an attractive outfit).[11] However, "there's little written evidence of Polari before the 1890s", according to Peter Gilliver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary's entry for rozzer (policeman), for example, includes this quote from an 1893 book (P. H. Emerson's Signor Lippo – Burnt Cork Artiste):[12] "If the rozzers was to see him in bona clobber they'd take him for a gun." (If the police were to see him dressed in this fine manner, they would know that he is a thief.)[11]

The almost identical Parlyaree has been spoken in fairgrounds since at least the 17th century[13] and continues to be used by show travellers in England and Scotland. As theatrical booths, circus acts and menageries were once a common part of European fairs, it is likely that the roots of Polari/Parlyaree lie in the period before both theatre and circus became independent of the fairgrounds. The Parlyaree spoken on fairgrounds tends to borrow much more from Romani, as well as other languages and argots spoken by travelling people, such as thieves' cant and backslang.

Henry Mayhew gave a verbatim account of Polari as part of an interview with a Punch and Judy showman in the 1850s. The discussion he recorded references the arrival of Punch in England, crediting these early shows to a performer from Italy called Porcini (John Payne Collier's account calls him Porchini, a literal rendering of the Italian pronunciation).[14] Mayhew provides the following:

Punch Talk

"Bona Parle" means language; name of patter. "Yeute munjare" – no food. "Yeute lente" – no bed. "Yeute bivare" – no drink. I've "yeute munjare", and "yeute bivare", and, what's worse, "yeute lente". This is better than the costers' talk, because that ain't no slang and all, and this is a broken Italian, and much higher than the costers' lingo. We know what o'clock it is, besides.[4]

There are additional accounts of particular words that relate to puppet performance: "'Slumarys' – figures, frame, scenes, properties. 'Slum' – call, or unknown tongue"[4] ("unknown" is a reference to the "swazzle", a voice modifier used by Punch performers, the structure of which was a longstanding trade secret).


Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s. The popularity of Julian and Sandy, played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams (introduced in the radio programme Round the Horne, in the 1960s) ensured that some of this secret language became public knowledge.[15] The need for a secret subculture code declined with the partial decriminalisation of adult homosexual acts in England and Wales under the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

Entry into mainstream slang[edit]

Bona Togs, a shop named in Polari

A number of words from Polari have entered mainstream slang. The list below includes words in general use with the meanings listed: acdc, barney, blag, butch, camp, khazi, cottaging, hoofer, mince, ogle, scarper, slap, strides, tod, [rough] trade.

The Polari word naff, meaning inferior or tacky, has an uncertain etymology. Michael Quinion states that it is probably from the sixteenth-century Italian word gnaffa, meaning "a despicable person".[16] There are a number of false etymologies, many based on acronyms—"Not Available For Fucking", "Normal As Fuck", etc.—though these are backronyms. The phrase "naff off" was used euphemistically in place of "fuck off" along with the intensifier "naffing" in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (1959).[17] Usage of "naff" increased in the 1970s when the television sitcom Porridge employed it as an alternative to expletives which were not considered broadcastable at the time.[16] Princess Anne allegedly famously told a reporter, "Why don't you just naff off" at the Badminton horse trials in April 1982,[18] but it has since been claimed that this was a bowdlerised version of what she actually said.[19]

"Zhoosh" (/ˈʒʊʃ/, /ˈʒʃ/ or /ˈʒʊʒ/[20]), meaning to smarten up, style or improve something, became commonplace in the mid-2000s, having been used in the 2003 United States TV series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear.[citation needed] "Jush", an alternate spelling of the word, was popularised by drag queen Jasmine Masters after her appearance on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2015.[21][22]

In popular culture[edit]

  • James Thomson added a glossary of words he thought "obsolete" in his 1825 work The Seasons and Castle of Indolence.[clarification needed] He chose to write "Castle of Indolence" "In the manner of Edmund Spenser". Two words he by then thought needed explaining were: "Eke", meaning "also", pronounced like Polari's "Eek", (face); and "Gear or Geer", meaning "furniture, equipage, dress". This last usage being maintained to this day in slang, and being then-contemporary, too, by 1960s Polari-users, avoiding Thomson's stated complete obsolescence.
  • Polari ('Polare') was popularised in the 1960s on the popular BBC radio show Round the Horne starring Kenneth Horne. Camp Polari-speaking characters Julian and Sandy were played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams.[23]
  • In the Doctor Who serial Carnival of Monsters from 1973, Vorg, a showman, believing the Doctor to also be a showman, attempts to converse with him in Polari. The Doctor states that he does not understand him.[24]
  • In 1987, character Ralph Filthy, a theatrical agent played by Nigel Planer in the BBC TV series Filthy Rich & Catflap, regularly used Polari.
  • In 1990, Morrissey released the single "Piccadilly Palare" containing a number of lyrics in Polari and exploring a subculture in which Polari was used. "Piccadilly Palare" is also the first song appearing on Morrissey's compilation album Bona Drag, whose title is itself taken from Polari.
  • In 1990, in Issue #35 of Grant Morrison's run of Doom Patrol, the character Danny the Street is introduced; they speak English that is heavily flavored with Polari, with "bona to vada" ("good to see [you]") being their favourite way of greeting friends.
  • In the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, two characters speak Polari while in a London nightclub. This scene contains subtitles for viewers not familiar with the language.
  • In 2002, two books on Polari were published, Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men and Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang, both by Paul Baker.
  • In 2015, filmmakers Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston made Putting on the Dish, a short film entirely in Polari.[25]
  • The 2016 David Bowie album Blackstar contains a song, "Girl Loves Me", which utilises Polari.[26]
  • In 2017, a service at Westcott House, Cambridge (a Church of England theological college) was conducted in Polari; the service was held by trainee priests to commemorate LGBT History Month; following media attention, Chris Chivers, the Principal, expressed his regret.[27][28][29][30]
  • In the 2017 EP Ricky, gay singer Sakima used Polari.[31]
  • In 2019, the first-ever opera in Polari, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (based on the book of the same title), premiered at Espacio Turina in Seville, Spain. The libretto was entirely written in Polari by librettist and playwright Fabrizio Funari (b. 1991) while the music was composed by Germán Alonso (b. 1984) with cantaor Niño de Elche (b. 1985) in the main role. The opera was produced and performed by instrumental ensemble Proyecto OCNOS, formed by Pedro Rojas-Ogáyar and Gustavo A. Domínguez Ojalvo, with the support of ICAS Sevilla, Fundación BBVA and The Librettist.[32]
  • The same year, the English-language localisation of the Japanese video game Dragon Quest Builders 2 included a character called Jules, who spoke in Polari with non-standard capitalisation.[33][34]
  • Also in 2019, Reaktion Books published Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language, by Paul Baker.[35][36]
  • In the 2020 film Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse, a young Roald Dahl, running away from home, meets a man (played by Bill Bailey) who speaks in Polari.



Number Definition Italian numbers
medza half mezza
una, oney one uno
dooey two due
tray three tre
quarter four quattro
chinker five cinque
say six sei
say oney, setter seven sette
say dooey, otter eight otto
say tray, nobber nine nove
daiture ten dieci
long dedger, lepta eleven undici
kenza twelve dodici
chenter[35] one hundred cento

Some words or phrases that may derive from Polari (this is an incomplete list):

Word Definition
acdc, bibi bisexual[37]: 49 
ajax nearby (shortened form of "adjacent to")[37]: 49 
alamo! they're attractive! (via acronym "LMO" meaning "Lick Me Out!)[37]: 52, 59 
arva to have sex (from Italian chiavare, to screw)[38]
aunt nell listen![37]: 52 
aunt nells ears[37]: 45 
aunt nelly fakes earrings[37]: 59, 60 
barney a fight[37]: 164 
bat, batts, bates shoes[37]: 164 
bevvy drink (diminutive of "beverage")[6]
bitch effeminate or passive gay man
bijou small/little (from French, jewel)[37]: 57 
bitaine whore (French putain)
blag pick up[37]: 46 
bold homosexual[38]
bona good[37]: 26, 32, 85 
bona nochy goodnight (from Italian – buona notte)[37]: 52 
butch masculine; masculine lesbian[37]: 167 
buvare a drink; something drinkable (from Italian – bere or old-fashioned Italian – bevere or Lingua Franca bevire)[37]: 167 
cackle talk/gossip[37]: 168 
camp effeminate (possibly from Italian campare "exaggerate, make stand out") (possibly from the phrase 'camp follower' those itinerants who followed behind the men in uniform/highly decorative dress)
capello, capella, capelli, kapella hat (from Italian – cappello)[37]: 168 
carsey, karsey, khazi toilet[37]: 168 
cartes penis (from Italian – cazzo)[37]: 97 
cats trousers[37]: 168 
charper to search or to look (from Italian acchiappare, to catch)[37]: 168 
charpering omi policeman
charver sexual intercourse[37]: 46 
chicken young man
clevie vagina[39]
clobber clothes[37]: 138, 139, 169 
cod bad[37]: 169 
corybungus backside, posterior[39]
cottage a public lavatory used for sexual encounters (public lavatories in British parks and elsewhere were often built in the style of a Tudor cottage)[1]
cottaging seeking or obtaining sexual encounters in public lavatories
cove taxi[37]: 61 
dhobi / dhobie / dohbie wash (from Hindi, dohb)[37]: 171 
Dilly boy a male prostitute, from Piccadilly boy
Dilly, the Piccadilly, a place where trolling went on
dinari money (Latin denarii was the 'd' of the pre decimal penny)[40]
dish buttocks[37]: 45 
dolly pretty, nice, pleasant, (from Irish dóighiúil/Scottish Gaelic dòigheil, handsome, pronounced 'doil')
dona woman (perhaps from Italian donna or Lingua Franca dona)[37]: 26 
ecaf face (backslang)[37]: 58, 210 
eek/eke[35] face (abbreviation of ecaf)[37]: 58, 210 
ends hair[6]
esong, sedon nose (backslang)[37]: 31 
fambles hands[39]
fantabulosa fabulous/wonderful
farting crackers trousers[39]
feele / feely / filly child/young (from the Italian figlio, for son)
feele omi / feely omi young man
flowery lodgings, accommodations[39]
fogus tobacco
fortuni gorgeous, beautiful[39]
fruit gay man
funt pound £ (Yiddish)
fungus old man/beard[39]
gelt money (Yiddish)
handbag money
hoofer dancer
HP (homy palone) effeminate gay man
irish wig (from rhyming slang, "Irish jig")
jarry food, also mangarie (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
jubes breasts
kaffies trousers
khazi toilet, also spelt carsey
lacoddy body
lallies / lylies legs, sometimes also knees (as in "get down on yer lallies")
lallie tappers feet
latty / lattie room, house or flat
lau lay or place upon[41]
lavs words[42] (Gaelic: labhairt to speak)
lills hands
lilly police (Lilly Law)
lyles legs (prob. from "Lisle stockings")
lucoddy body
luppers fingers (from Yiddish lapa – paw)
mangarie food, also jarry (from Italian mangiare or Lingua Franca mangiaria)
manky worthless, dirty (from Italian mancare – "to be lacking")[43]
martinis hands
measures money
medzer half (from Italian mezzo)
medzered divided[44]
meese plain, ugly (from Yiddish mieskeit, in turn from Hebrew מָאוּס repulsive, loathsome, despicable, abominable)
meshigener nutty, crazy, mental (from Yiddish 'meshugge', in turn from Hebrew מְשֻׁגָּע crazy)
meshigener carsey church[42]
metzas money (from Italian mezzi, "means, wherewithal")
mince walk affectedly
mollying involved in the act of sex[45]
mogue deceive
munge darkness
naff awful, dull, hetero
nana evil
nanti not, no, none (from Italian, niente)
national handbag dole, welfare, government financial assistance
nishta nothing[6]
ogle look admiringly
ogles eyes
oglefakes glasses
omi man (from Romance)
omi-palone effeminate man, or homosexual
onk nose (cf "conk")
orbs eyes
orderly daughters police
oven mouth (nanti pots in the oven = no teeth in the mouth)
palare / polari pipe telephone ("talk pipe")
palliass back
park, parker give
plate feet (Cockney rhyming slang "plates of meat"); to fellate
palone woman (Italian paglione – "straw mattress"; cf. old Cant hay-bag – "woman"); also spelled "polony" in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock
palone-omi lesbian
pots teeth
quongs testicles
reef touch
remould sex change
rozzer policeman[11]
riah / riha hair (backslang)
riah zhoosher hairdresser
rough trade a working class or blue collar sex partner or potential sex partner; a tough, thuggish or potentially violent sex partner
scarper to run off (from Italian scappare, to escape or run away or from rhyming slang Scapa Flow, to go)
scharda shame (from German schade, "a shame" or "a pity")
schlumph drink
schmutter apparel[46]
schooner bottle
scotch leg (scotch egg=leg)
screech mouth, speak
screeve write[46] (from Irish scríobh/Scottish Gaelic sgrìobh, Scots scrieve to write)
sharpy policeman (from – charpering omi)
sharpy polone policewoman
shush steal (from client)
shush bag hold-all
shyker / shyckle wig (mutation of the Yiddish sheitel)
slap makeup
so homosexual (e.g. "Is he 'so'?")
stimps legs
stimpcovers stockings, hosiery
strides trousers
strillers piano
switch wig
TBH (to be had) prospective sexual conquest
thews thighs
tober road (a Shelta word, Irish bóthar); temporary site for a circus, carnival
todd (Sloan) or tod alone
tootsie trade sex between two passive homosexuals (as in: 'I don't do tootsie trade')
trade sex, sex-partner, potential sex-partner
troll to walk about (esp. looking for trade)
vada / varder to see (from Italian dialect vardare = guardare – look at)

vardered – vardering

vera (lynn) gin
vogue cigarette (from Lingua Franca fogus – "fire, smoke")
vogueress female smoker
wallop dance[47]
willets breasts
yeute no, none
yews (from French "yeux") eyes
zhoosh style hair, tart up, mince
(cf. Romani zhouzho – "clean, neat")

zhoosh our riah – style our hair

zhooshy showy

Usage examples[edit]

Omies and palones of the jury, vada well at the eek of the poor ome who stands before you, his lallies trembling. – taken from "Bona Law", one of the Julian and Sandy sketches from Round The Horne, written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman

Translation: "Men and women of the jury, look well at the face of the poor man who stands before you, his legs trembling."

So bona to vada...oh you! Your lovely eek and your lovely riah. – taken from "Piccadilly Palare", a song by Morrissey

Translation: "So good to see...oh you! Your lovely face and your lovely hair."

As feely ommes...we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth. – taken from Parallel Lives, the memoirs of renowned gay journalist Peter Burton

Translation: "As young men...we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth."

In the Are You Being Served? episode "The Old Order Changes", Captain Peacock asks Mr Humphries to get "some strides for the omi with the naff riah" (i.e. trousers for the fellow with the unstylish hair).[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Polari at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Quinion, Michael (1996). "How bona to vada your eek!". WorldWideWords. Archived from the original on 7 September 2019. Retrieved 20 February 2006.
  3. ^ Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition
  4. ^ a b c Mayhew, Henry (1968). London Labour and the London Poor, 1861. Vol. 3. New York: Dover Press. p. 47.
  5. ^ "British Spies: Licensed to be Gay." Time. 19 August 2008. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d "The secret language of polari - Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool museums". Liverpoolmuseums.org.uk. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  7. ^ Baker, Paul (2002) Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. London: Continuum ISBN 0-8264-5961-7
  8. ^ David McKenna, A Storm in a Teacup, Channel 4 Television, 1993.
  9. ^ Jivani, Alkarim (January 1997). It's not unusual : a history of lesbian and gay Britain in the twentieth century. Bloomington. ISBN 0253333482. OCLC 37115577.
  10. ^ "Gay men in the Merchant Marine". Liverpool Maritime Museum. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  11. ^ a b c Beverley D'Silva (10 December 2000). "Mind your language". The Observer. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Historical Origins of English Words and Phrases". Live Journal. 24 October 2008. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  13. ^ Partridge, Eric (1937) Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  14. ^ Punch and Judy. John Payne Collier; with Illustrations by George Cruikshank. London: Thomas Hailes Lacey, 1859.
  15. ^ Richardson, Colin (17 January 2005). "Colin Richardson: Polari, the gay slang, is being revived". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  16. ^ a b Quinion, Michael. "Naff". World Wide Words. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
  17. ^ Waterhouse, Keith (1959). Billy Liar. Michael Joseph. pp. 35, 46. ISBN 0-7181-1155-9. p35 "Naff off, Stamp, for Christ sake!" p46 "Well which one of them's got the naffing engagement ring?"
  18. ^ The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Dalzell and Victor (eds.) Routledge, 2006, Vol. II p. 1349.
  19. ^ Llewelyn, Abbie (8 September 2019). "Princess never said 'naff off' -- 'We made it up'". Daily Express. London. Retrieved 28 January 2022.
  20. ^ "Definition for zhoosh – Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Oxforddictionaries.com. Archived from the original on 11 September 2017. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  21. ^ "Jasmine Masters the meaning of jush". YouTube. Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  22. ^ Schiller, Rebecca (4 June 2018). "'Drag Race' Queen Jasmine Masters Explains What 'Jush' Means: Watch". Billboard.com. Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  23. ^ Stevens, Christopher (2010). Born Brilliant: The Life Of Kenneth Williams. John Murray. p. 206. ISBN 978-1-84854-195-5.
  24. ^ Baker 2003, p. 161.
  25. ^ J. Bryan Lowder (28 July 2015). "Polari, the gay dialect, can be heard in this great short film "Putting on the Dish". Slate. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  26. ^ Eastmond, Dean. "Remembering Polari, the Forgotten Language of Britain's Gay Community". Vice. Vice Media.
  27. ^ "Church 'regret' as trainees hold service in gay slang". BBC News. 4 February 2017. Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  28. ^ Sherwood, Harriet (3 February 2017). "C of E college apologises for students' attempt to 'queer evening prayer'". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077.
  29. ^ Flood, Rebecca (4 February 2017). "Church expresses 'huge regret' after Cambridge LGBT commemoration service held in gay slang language". The Independent. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  30. ^ Robb, Simon (4 February 2017). "Priests delivered a service in gay slang and the church weren't happy". Metro. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  31. ^ Crowley, Patrick (9 October 2017). "Sakima's Dirty Pop: Meet Music's New Queer Voice". Billboard. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  32. ^ Sevilla, Diario de (26 May 2019). "Pornografía bruitista". Diario de Sevilla (in European Spanish). Retrieved 26 June 2019.
  33. ^ Square Enix (20 December 2018). Dragon Quest Builders 2 (Nintendo Switch). Square Enix.
  34. ^ Hawkes, Edward. "The Coded Gay Jargon in Dragon Quest Builders 2".
  35. ^ a b c Baker, Paul (2019). Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language. London: Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781789142945.
  36. ^ "Fabulosa! by Paul Baker from Reaktion Books". www.reaktionbooks.co.uk. Retrieved 5 August 2020.
  37. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad Baker 2003.
  38. ^ a b "What is Polari All About?". Polari Magazine. 13 August 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2018.
  39. ^ a b c d e f g Grose, Francis (2012). 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. tebbo. ISBN 978-1-4861-4841-7
  40. ^ C. H. V. Sutherland, English Coinage 600-1900 (1973, ISBN 0-7134-0731-X), p. 10
  41. ^ "A Polari Christmas". Polari Magazine. 12 December 2009. Retrieved 30 July 2018.
  42. ^ a b "The Polari Bible". .josephrichardson.tv. Retrieved 30 July 2018.
  43. ^ "Manky". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  44. ^ "Let There Be Sparkle". Polari Magazine. 10 December 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2018.
  45. ^ D'Silva, Beverley (10 December 2000). "The way we live now: Mind your language". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  46. ^ a b "Polari Bible". josephrichardson.tv/home.html. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  47. ^ "World Wide Words: How bona to vada your eek!". World Wide Words. Archived from the original on 7 September 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  48. ^ "The Old Order Changes". Are You Being Served?. 18 March 1977.


External links[edit]