Grace Dent on TV: The Call Centre, BBC3

Don’t ring us: welcome to the bellowing boss who’s hilarious  as long as the joke’s not on him

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The Independent Culture

“Over a million people work in call centres, they are the factories of our times,” chirps the narrator on BBC3’s depressing eye-feast The Call Centre. All parents, teachers and cabinet ministers should be forced to watch five or six hours of The Call Centre, while pondering deeply about the job prospects of Britain’s youth. Nev Wilshire – watch him, he’s wacky – is in charge of 700 mostly under-25-year-olds. Their daily job is make up to 200 cold calls a day that no-one of right mind wants to receive. A bit like “chuggers” in the street, or the ass-hats who knock on your door demanding you change broadband supplier, Nev’s employees add to the modern-day obstacle course of the everyday person who just wants to be left alone. Nev’s employees are those rows of young people who click the screen to make a computer put a call in. But only your grandmother and your technophobic or tight-ass friends call your land-line these days, so you know it’s Nev’s team the moment it rings.

The call tends to arrive when you’re enjoying some precious moments away from doing your own job. Perhaps making dinner, or watching some TV or lying in a particularly comfortable position under a sleeping child, cat or lover. Nev’s employees’ intention – and that of their ilk – is either to clog up your answer-machines with missed calls, or to draw you into a polite yet pointless conversation in a bid to make themselves money under the guise of doing you a favour.

“Are you Mrs Jones? No, she doesn’t live there? Well don’t worry this great offer applies to you too! Have you been mis-sold PPI?” The scenario is loaded to make both you and the call-centre worker feel both angry and powerless. In Swansea, Nev’s call centre will be one of the few options for a daily wage. In your home, your only option of avoiding these calls is to give up owning a land-line.

But this isn’t a show about the cold reality of British job prospects, it’s a show about fun-time Nev’s wacky, modern managerial skills. Nev is the leader of a dressed-down, Wii playing, trouser-dropping squadron whom he revs up in a morning with enforced karaoke to V Festival anthems like “Mr Brightside” by The Killers.

“I have sacked people for not singing,” Nev says proudly. I don’t find him funny. School leavers find him funny as he runs the workplace exactly as they possibly wished school-life could be. But this isn’t school, it’s forever, and Nev has a finger-print scanner to audit what time they arrive. Closing a deal is like approaching a beautiful blonde at a bar, he tells his new recruits. Nev has a menacing habit of picking up objects and chucking them at people’s heads due to his hatred of yawning, which he clearly finds disrespectful as everyone should at all times be alert to Nev’s wonder. It’s all great banter. Nev is a wholly typical Emperor of Banter. He’s funny on his own terms. He’s funny as long as the joke isn’t on him. He’s funny when he’s holding all the cards.

During his enforced karaoke singsong some jobseekers jump up and down to display false enthusiasm. A few older ladies – close to retirement age – who possibly just dearly need a job to make ends meet- stare sadly at Brandon Flowers’s lyrics on the overhead projector. I’m a big fan of the weekly footage of George Osborne, on the 10 o’clock news, in a day-glo tabard, standing on building sites telling us about Britain’s growth, but now I want to see him in Nev’s call centre, honking through “Club Foot” by Kasabian and then gearing up for a day of legalised telephone harassment sitting next to Squiggle, who vommed in the car park on the way as she’s hung-over, but never mind as it’s all “stellar bants”. Then six months of shifts for all the cabinet’s school-leaving children. We are, after all, all in this together.

As The Call Centre is a structured reality-style show, the crew have been busy finding juicy stories. Take for example Kayleigh, 25, dumped by her boyfriend who was cheating on her, and who is now edging into malaise and depression. Nev is fed back this info and gives several highly personal soundbites to camera about Kayleigh’s marriage-worthy qualities. Then he parades her around the office floor shouting: “ARE YOU SINGLE? I have a desperate female here. You got a date for Kayleigh? She got dumped.” It’s the kind of display which would darken a therapist’s couch for a decade. Then we move onto Nev’s speed-dating night at a pub where he stands beside tables loudly bellowing his assessments on couplings.

I sit through episode one of The Call Centre in sad bewilderment. At first I feel terrified that vulnerable school-leavers may think Nev’s boorish behaviour is normal and acceptable. This emotion gives way to feeling depressed that Nev is normal and it’s me and my outdated belief in vague professionalism and the cerebral nourishment of job satisfaction that are the fault. Then I ponder how I would react to anyone senior to me throwing a stapler at my head in a work environment. None of the outcomes are printable. So I turn The Call Centre off and ignore it. I feel guilty that I have the option. Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you.