John Inman, star of TV sitcom Are You Being Served?, died in hospital early on Thursday, his manager said.

The actor, 71, died in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, at 4am after being ill for some time, Phil Dale said.

Mr Dale said: “John, through his character Mr Humphries of Are You Being Served? was known and loved throughout the world. He was one of the best and finest pantomime dames working to capacity audiences throughout Britain.

“John was known for his comedy plays and farces which were enjoyed from London’s West End throughout the country and as far as Australia, Canada and the USA.”

The star’s long-term partner, Ron Lynch, is said to be ‘devastated’ at his death.

The actor suffered from hepatitis A and had been taken into hospital for tests after problems with his liver. It was revealed that he had the disease after it forced him to cancel the opening of a pantomime in London on December 9, 2004.

Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver caused through eating contaminated food, which the star believed was how he came to have the virus.

It was initially hoped he would be able to return to the pantomime, in which he was due to play Wanda the Cook in Dick Whittington, before Christmas 2004, but he never worked again.

John played camp salesman Mr Humphries in the BBC department store comedy for a decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and was known for his character’s catchphrase “I’m free”.

His co-star Wendy Richard, who recently quit her role as Pauline Fowler in EastEnders, wept as she paid tribute to her friend.

“John was one of the wittiest and most inventive actors I have ever worked with. He was a brilliant pantomime dame and an all-round brilliant actor,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Wendy said she and her partner John Burns had visited John regularly during his illness, adding: “He had been poorly for some time.”

Of their time working on Are You Being Served?, she said: “There was never any unpleasantness. We were a really good team.”

Watch a classic clip from Are You Being Served?