TELEVISION / The department of employment: The latest series on ITV is set in the exciting world of customs and excise. James Rampton compiles a brief history of work-based drama, while (overleaf) Robert Butler meets one of its icons
Sunday 10 April 1994
In pursuit of that holy grail, executives and writers have apparently scoured the noticeboard at the local job centre. As a result, in the coming months we are about to clock on for series about removal men (Carlton's Moving Story), dustbinmen (Common as Muck from the BBC), lifeboatmen (BBC Wales's The Lifeboat), oil riggers (the BBC's Roughnecks), nannies (an as yet untitled drama from the BBC) and, starting tonight, customs-and-excise men (The Knock from LWT) - yes, really.
Is there any job they wouldn't make a drama out of, then? 'I'd never do my job - a TV exec would be death,' laughs Nick Elliott, managing director at LWT Programmes Ltd. Powell takes up the theme: 'The old list of 'don'ts' still applies - the media and showbiz. Drop the Dead Donkey was the exception.'
The escapist, American shoulder-pads series are a thing of the past, and the key is to find a job that strikes a chord with Joe and Josephine Public. 'The ones that never work are jobs beyond the ken of ordinary people in ordinary towns,' Elliott asserts, 'where they just don't have fashion designers or ad agencies. The series that work feature a job every town has - doctors, lawyers, policemen. The important thing is accessibility to a broad audience. For instance, headhunting is impossible to do successfully - it's a job that's just not in a world that ordinary people know. You pay the price for looking too thoroughly through the Yellow Pages for new jobs. The Life and Times of a Mortuary Attendant? I don't think so.'
Commissioning editors prefer to stick with the devils they know. 'No self-respecting scheduler is without a series about policemen or doctors,' Powell avers. 'These are the building-blocks of popular drama and exist in every country - quite right too.'
It is the stark black-and-whiteness of these jobs that appeals. Michael Wearing, head of series and serials at the BBC, points out that 'Life and death always help; you can't live without life and death. All the police and hospital dramas have that in the mix.' Elliott stresses that 'Doctors and policemen are the good guys. In those dramas, there's a good and a bad. There isn't that moral dilemma or warmth in headhunting or accountancy.'
The danger is that writers endlessly re-heat a successful recipe. Wearing receives about 100 drama proposals a week - many of which are Casualty Revisited or The Bill 2. 'You have to try to come at it with an attitude that the audience perceives as fresh,' Powell declares. 'That's why Cracker was so brilliant. I love Dr Finlay, too. As long as there's a range, it's nice to have those old friends around.'
Ultimately, though, perhaps it doesn't matter what the jobs are, so long as the characters are attractive; never mind the profession, feel the characterisation. 'The job's not the critical thing,' Powell says. 'It's merely people's lives in a working environment. People can see their own lives in those characters. Lovejoy was about antiques, but it wasn't about antiques - it was about a great rogueish character.' Coming soon - Lovejoy: the Oil Rig Years?
A full list of the jobs on which TV series have been based would occupy the entire Review. But here is a fair selection, which deliberately excludes policemen, firemen, doctors and nurses.
ACCOUNTANT: LWT's Nick Elliott asserts that 'A successful popular drama about accountants - or, for that matter, estate agents or insurance brokers - would be difficult.' A look at the ledger of TV history confirms that the closest we ever came was The Squirrels (ITV, 1974-76), set in the accounts department of a TV-rental firm.
ADMAN: Elliott says he often turns down proposals for series about admen. On the evidence of the sitcom Watch this Space (BBC, 1980) - starring Christopher Biggins, Liza Goddard and one Gillian Taylforth - he is right to do so. Campaign (BBC, 1988), with the RSC's Penny Downie delicious in the leading role of the harassed hotshot, at least brought satire to the account.
AGONY AUNT: Maureen Lipman solved everyone's problems except - surprise] - her own in LWT's Agony (1979-81). A good idea, and a great theme, couldn't stop her column hitting the spike.
ANTIQUES DEALER: Arthur Daley spawned a generation of loveable spivs - such as Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981 onwards) and Lovejoy (BBC, 1986 onwards), which Carlton's Jonathan Powell describes as 'Minder meets The Antiques Roadshow'. Never the Twain (ITV, 1981-91), a portrayal of the straighter end of the antiques trade, teamed the substantial talents (and girths) of Donald Sinden and Windsor Davies to decidedly non-humorous effect.
ASTROLOGIST: Crystal-ball gazers could have predicted the relative failure of dramatisations of their trade. In Zodiac (ITV, 1974), Anouska Hempel was an astrologist helping police with their enquiries. Moon and Son (BBC, 1992), with Millicent Martin, was similarly doomed.
AUCTIONEER: Elliott says he would never bid for a series set in an auction house. Under the Hammer (ITV, 1994) bore him out. Despite a script by John Mortimer and a cast headed by Richard Wilson, it was not a very desirable lot.
BARMAN: All the soaps feature a barman, but none rivals Sam (Ted Danson), star of Cheers (C4, 1983-93, and still repeating). Was there ever a workplace romance to equal that of Sam and Diane? Yes - that of Sam and Rebecca, which had an extra frisson because she was his boss.
BANK MANAGER: Boring in real life, boring on telly, if Joint Account (BBC, 1989-90) with Hannah Gordon is anything to go by.
BRICKIE: Cowboys (ITV, 1980) with Roy Kinnear and On the House (ITV, 1970-71) with John Junkin may be long-forgotten, but memories of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (ITV, 1983-86) live on. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais's tale of itinerant Geordie builders (the actors had to undergo two weeks' training in bricklaying) was one of the most successful work-based dramas ever.
BUS DRIVER / CONDUCTOR / INSPECTOR: The Reg Varney vehicle On the Buses (LWT, 1970-75) proved that you can wait years for a good series about buses to come along - and still it doesn't appear. However, if you wait a very long time, it may become a cult.
BUSKER: One of the more ludicrous jobs ever to be dramatised, in Kindly Leave the Kerb (ITV, 1971). All together now: 'How many years must a show run for / Before you call it a hit?'
CABBIE: Taxi (BBC, 1980-82), an American import with Danny De Vito, drove at a comic pace never likely to be matched by the more recent Full Stretch (ITV, 1993) and Rides (BBC, 1992-93).
CHAUFFEUR: Predictable class-clash comedy propelled Home James (ITV, 1987-90), in which Jim Davidson made little pretence of acting.
CIVIL SERVANT: The only play to feature the profession in the title - The Naked Civil Servant (ITV, 1975) - was, of course, not about the job at all. The brilliantly named If It Moves, File It (BBC, 1970) and the brilliantly written Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister (BBC, 1980-85, see under 'MP') were. Sir Humphrey has become a byword for civil-service slipperiness.
CLERGYMAN: Virtually all telly-clergy have been played by Derek Nimmo - cf, All Gas and Gaiters (BBC, 1966-70) and Oh Brother (BBC, 1968-70). Kenneth More (Father Brown, ITV, 1974) and Tom Bosley (Father Dowling Investigates, ITV, 1991 onwards) have manifested a devotion to holy sleuthing, while Richard Briers (All in Good Faith, ITV, 1985-86), Arthur Lowe (Bless Me Father, ITV, 1978-81), and Leslie Phillips and Donald Sinden (Our Man at St Mark's, ITV, 1963- 66) have also donned a dog-collar with varying degrees of conviction. Perhaps the most implausible of all was Richard Chamberlain as the smouldering Cardinal in The Thorn Birds (BBC, 1984).
DENTIST: Perhaps because of the bad image created by the feature films Marathon Man and Little Shop of Horrors, dentists have never had the same TV appeal as doctors. Although written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, Roots (ITV, 1981) was only funny to those under the influence of laughing-gas.
DJ: DJs have never been much fun on TV. Remember The Kit Curran Radio Show (ITV, 1984) with Denis Lawson? Exactly.
DOMESTIC STAFF: It's not only American audiences that lap up pictures of the British class system framed in the traditional stately home. George and the Dragon (ITV, 1966-68), Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1970-75), The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-77), Jeeves and Wooster (ITV, 1990-93), and You Rang M'Lord (BBC, 1990-93) have all fought the most genteel of class wars. The forthcoming House of Windsor (ITV) - a Royal below-stairs offering - should please frock-coat fetishists.
DRESSMAKER: Never mind the scripts, feel the costumes - viz, The Rag Trade (BBC, 1961-63; ITV, 1977-78) and House of Eliot (BBC, 1991-94).
DUSTBINMAN: Proof positive that if you think hard enough, you can dramatise any job. Jack Rosenthal - something of a specialist in job progs - dumped The Dustbinmen (ITV, 1969-70) on our doorsteps. It wasn't all rubbish. Now the BBC is doing the rounds with Common as Muck this autumn. Wearing reveals that it will be 'about recalcitrant waste-disposal people being rationalised; they're going through the same Birtian trauma as every other institution.'
FOOTBALLER: Dramatised sport tends to have an Eldorado effect on the ratings. 'It hardly ever works,' Elliott asserts. 'Horse-racing, which I love, I wouldn't touch (witness that old nag, Trainer). The exception is The Manageress (C4, 1989- 90), which worked because it was more about a woman in a man's world than sport.' The Gary Lineker-inspired All in the Game (ITV, 1993) was swiftly kicked into touch.
GAMESHOW HOST: Always a good opportunity for actors to go really over the top, meaning everything most sincerely. Consider Donald Churchill in Goodnight and God Bless (ITV, 1983), Rik Mayall in one of the Rik Mayall Presents series (ITV, 1993), and Chris Barrie in the forthcoming White Goods (ITV). Perhaps the most entertaining, though, was the Viz character Roger Mellie (C4, 1993).
HAIRDRESSER: Salon selectives include the likeable Desmonds (C4, 1989 onwards) and the dislikeable Split Ends (ITV, 1989).
HEADHUNTER: Headhunters (BBC, 1994), in which James Fox battled with the morality of executive recruitment and a very feeble script, is a contender for worst workplace drama - an impressive achievement in a competitive market.
HOLIDAY-CAMP WORKER: In addition to Hi- De-Hi (BBC, 1980-88), David Croft has been responsible for some of the best ensemble sitcoms, all with a work setting: Dad's Army (BBC, 1968- 77), It Ain't Half Hot Mum (BBC, 1973-81), You Rang M'Lord (all with Jimmy Perry), and Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1974-84, see Show People, page 31). With Jonathan Lynn, he also wrote 'Allo, 'Allo (1984-91), but we'll let that pass.
HOTELIER: Hotels have housed both the sublime - Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975 & 1979) - and the ridiculous - Room Service (ITV, 1979), Hotel (ITV, 1983) and Westbeach (BBC, 1993).
INVESTMENT MANAGER: The stripy shirts and telephone-number salaries of Capital City (ITV, 1989-90) captured the late-Eighties Zeitgeist, but it was pretty silly.
JOURNALIST: 'Writers are always proposing journalists - we tend to turn them down,' says Powell. Elliott agrees: 'Journalists are the kiss of death. They and politicians and accountants come pretty low in people's esteem.' By common consent, only Lou Grant (BBC, 1977-81) and Drop the Dead Donkey (C4, 1991 onwards) have ever really grabbed the headlines.
LAWYER: TV has sold us more briefs than M & S. Excluding Rumpole of the Bailey (ITV, 1978-93), the best of an over-priced bunch have been American - Perry Mason (BBC, 1957-65) and LA Law (ITV, 1987 onwards).
LAVATORY ATTENDANT: In for a Penny (ITV, 1972) - possible subtitle: The Chain Gang - was never flush with success.
LIFEGUARD: It has been suggested that people only tune in to Baywatch (ITV, 1990 onwards) to see all those young actors and actresses larking about in swimsuits. In fact, of course, we watch to find out about lifesaving.
MILKMAN: Bottle Boys (ITV, 1984) with Robin Askwith is a never-remembered early-Eighties ITV sitcom. Another unreturned empty.
MOTELIER: Noele Gordon in Crossroads (ITV, 1964-88), of course. Twenty thousand actors and actresses passed through her portals in the show's 24-year run. The tacky sets, duff scripts and unreliable acting inspired Victoria Wood's glorious parody, Acorn Antiques.
MP: Yes, Minister (BBC, 1980-85) and The New Statesman (ITV, 1986 onwards) are the best parliamentary programmes - because they treat the job as a complete joke. No Job for a Lady (ITV, 1990-91), with Penelope Keith as a Labour MP, was voted out.
NANNY: Nanny (BBC, 1981-83) with Wendy Craig is to be followed later this year by an as yet unnamed series about 'the nanny mafia', as Wearing calls it. 'There is a range of possibilities as girls from all over the world are sent into this little crucible of middle-class England.' Will the BBC be left holding the baby?
NUNS: Body and Soul (ITV, 1993) was just the latest in a long line of novice ratings-grabbers.
PEST CONTROLLER: Mr Digby, Darling (ITV, 1969-71) was a sitcom set in the Rid-O-Rat pesticide company. It was soon put down.
PR: Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1993 onwards) contradicted Jonathan Powell's rule about showbiz and the media. And it was funny - for one series, at least.
REMOVAL MAN: Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper played the removal men from hell in It's Your Move (ITV, 1981). Now Jack Rosenthal has created Moving Story for Carlton. 'As you might say, all human life is here,' Powell claims. 'As with Casualty, they meet all different types in the course of their work . . . They philosophise and observe the rich tapestry of human nature.' Personally, I wouldn't let removal men anywhere near my rich tapestry.
RAG'N'BONE MAN: Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1964-73). Need I say more? Yes: Sandford and Son, its American spin-off.
SALVATION ARMY CAPTAIN: Dick Sharples' Hallelujah (ITV, 1983-84) starred the inevitable Thora Hird and her best Alan Bennett vowels.
SECURITY GUARD: Nightingales (C4, 1992 onwards) with Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall, and Plaza Patrol (ITV, 1991) with Cannon and Ball, tended to mirror the job a little too accurately: long stretches where nothing happened.
SHOP ASSISTANT / KEEPER: Shops provide a backdrop for a cornucopia of characters (look at their importance in soaps - so wickedly sent up in Acorn Antiques, and its spin-off, The Mall). Many of the series, however, operated under the philosophy of 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap': Are You Being Served? (see Show People, opposite), Harpers West One (ITV, 1961-63), Open All Hours (BBC, 1978-91), Tripper's Day (ITV, 1984).
SHIPPING WORKER: Shipping series have often foundered: cf, Howards' Way (BBC, 1985-90), and, most notably, Triangle (BBC, 1981) - ratings-wise, it was of the Bermuda variety. Wearing recalls it as one of the worst job dramas: 'I don't know if running a ferry qualifies as a bizarre occupation, but the result was certainly bizarre.' One scene sticks in the mind: Kate O'Mara lying on deck trying to get a tan in the teeth of a gale.
SOLDIER: A surprising number of classics have marched out of the parade-ground - from The Phil Silvers Show (BBC, 1955-58) and The Army Game (ITV, 1957-62), to Dad's Army (BBC, 1968- 77), M*A*S*H (BBC, 1972-84) and It Ain't Half Hot, Mum (BBC, 1973-81).
TEACHER: 'A lot of schoolteacher dramas come in every summer holiday,' confides Jonathan Powell. 'We have a special rejection letter for them.' With a couple of exceptions - Please Sir] with John Alderton (ITV, 1968-71) from the state sector, To Serve Them All My Days with John Duttine (BBC, 1980-81) among public schools - the best have tended to be aimed at children. Top of the class: Grange Hill (BBC, 1978 onwards).
THEATRICAL AGENT: Frank Stubbs Promotes (ITV, 1993), The Ten Percenters (ITV, from 18 Apr) and Very Big, Very Soon (ITV, 1991) all have the look of Minder by the back door.
TRAVEL AGENT: Viewers are demanding a one- way ticket for Men of the World (BBC, 1994).
TRUCKER: From Gerald Glaister, who brought you Howards' Way and Trainer (BBC, 1991-93), came The Brothers (BBC, 1972-73), a series on road haulage, again featuring the luckless Kate O'Mara. And Bob Hoskins played an illiterate lorry-driver in On the Move (BBC, 1976).
UNDERTAKER: You've gotta laugh, haven't you? Thora Hird starred in In Loving Memory (ITV, 1969, 1979-86), a series that proved that in the midst of death, there are few laughs. A grave undertaking, and about as funny as a funeral.
VET: The perfect job for a TV drama - a bit of doctoring, and 'aaahh-factor' animals - as in All Creatures Great and Small (BBC, 1971, 1979-90).
AND FINALLY . . . May I propose a TV drama about a calling that has never been done before: poaching. Feel free to steal the idea.
With acknowledgments to 'Television's Greatest Hits' by Paul Gambaccini and Rod Taylor (published by Network Books, pounds 14.99).
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