As a child, I watched the season 10 Are You Being Served? episode “The Hold Up” obsessively, wearing out the tape. Burglars turn up at Grace Brothers during late-night stocktaking and take Miss Brahms hostage. Our trapped troop realise that only the local gangster family, “The Gumby Gang”, will scare them – cue Mollie Sugden’s over-the-top (and lost on me) Mae West moll impression and John Inman devouring the mahogany-lined office set scenery as Mr Humphries attempts “Italian Toni, the Tooting Terror”.
It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I loved the slapstick and the actors’ reactions to what I later discovered were legendary double entendres. I still find it odd that phrases such as “Don’t talk to me, I’m off to Bow Street!” and “They’ll assume it’s your CID ID” haven’t entered into the national consciousness. It took me ages to find out why Bow Street was relevant (all I knew was that it cost £180 in Monopoly), what CID and ID were and what “die all asyoumitsa” meant.
Its improbable naivety and copious dramatic irony make it a contrived set-piece comparable to any Ray Cooney farce or ancient Greek comedy; we don’t need character introduction or development so it’s all dispatched perfectly within 29 minutes. Predictably, in the end the police arrive and think our heroes are the criminals, but this is far more satisfying than a neat resolution.
This episode epitomises the greatest strength of David Croft’s sitcoms for me – a disparate group triumphing in the face (or against a background) of adversity (with hilarious consequences). Here the now old-fashioned department store tradition works quite neatly as an allegory for the class system, but all the characters were sympathetic, united in silliness; the stereotypes might now be distasteful but were meant affectionately.
It’s still brilliant. I’m going to watch it again now.