Proper Gander

Cabarets in the lunch hour

Sitting down to watch The British At Work (BBC2), you soon realise that this documentary series has been beamed in from a parallel universe. The first hint that it doesn’t relate to our world comes in presenter Kirsty Young’s preamble. She says “chances are that most of you…will firmly believe that you, like me, have spent the day doing a job you enjoy. … And I’m pretty sure you feel that you’re part of a workforce where everyone’s treated with respect”. In Young’s world, anyone can stride confidently around London, empowered and fulfilled.

But working life wasn’t always like this, even in the perfect society where Young lives. The first episode covers employment trends between 1945 and 1964, when this other universe was black-and-white, all working men wore cloth caps and all the women had their bottoms pinched. The programme tells us how sexism and racism were problems caused by the ignorance of these workers alone. And it was their backward and pessimistic outlooks which led to laziness and inefficiency. The unions only made things worse by focusing solely on pedantically following every rule about demarcation to the letter. Before these workers were saved by health and safety legislation, they actually worked in places harmful to their wellbeing. However, the occasional workplace death could be excused because the bosses looked after their staff, with yearly outings to the seaside and cabarets in the lunch hour.

So, although this parallel universe has some superficial similarities, its history isn’t quite the same as ours. And some concepts and words have a different meaning there to what we would recognise. In Young’s world, ‘the working class’ just means manual labourers, preferably with a funny accent and fusty clothes. ‘The bosses’ is a more vague term, meaning both capitalists (who always wore top hats) and the workers in bowler hats we would call managers. The society described by Young doesn’t seem to have a capitalist class at all now, since top hats went out of fashion.

The BBC should be applauded for having the technology to send its film crews to this other universe. Maybe they are there most of the time, as programmes like South Riding and Silk also seem to be set in places with different rules about how workplaces function. If only they would film more in the real world.


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