Proper Gander: Smoking Woodbines In The Outside Lav

Class politics are all over the TV schedules like a rash, from news updates on the economic downturn to Downton Abbey. But like an embarrassing rash, the concept of ‘class’ is usually kept covered up by programme-makers. Would Paul O’Grady’s Working Britain (BBC1) be a much-needed exception? Probably not, considering that the title was changed from ‘Paul O’Grady’s Working Class’ by executives nervous about using the c-word. The show gives us a history of the British working class, told through the jobs held by presenter Paul O’Grady’s Birkenhead family. He adds that his onetime alter-ego Lily Savage was working class because ‘she’s had an outside lav’.

Unfortunately, it’s too much to ask for the programme to give an economic definition of class. Instead, the 20th century working class is described patronisingly and stereotypically as being proud, hard-working, woodbine-smoking racists who went to work for the camaraderie. The show often refers to ‘working class pride’, but without any economic analysis the question of why someone should feel proud to be exploited isn’t raised.

There’s some insight in the discussions of the Jarrow march, 1963 Bristol bus boycott and 1984 miners’ strike, rightly shown as examples of people taking action against the powers-that-be. But mostly, this is social history as a pick-n-mix of roles to act out. So, we see O’Grady playing at being a domestic servant and a clippie, and then going down a coal mine. As many of the trades mentioned have dwindled, he then visits a Glasgow call centre as a modern-day equivalent. After being shown the brightly bland office, he speaks to some of its employees about class. As the show has described the working class in the context of tin baths and mangles, it’s not surprising that these call centre staff don’t regard themselves as working class. For them, class is in the eye of the beholder – you’re not working class if you don’t define yourself as such, which is a bit like saying the Earth is flat if you believe it is. In lieu of class consciousness, there are some vague misconceptions about everyone being treated equally these days.

The show’s final disappointment comes after the end credits, when we learn that this is an Open University production. Two academics involved in research withdrew their names from the credits, understandably unhappy with the result. As a useful primer for students, this programme definitely lacks class.

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