Inside TV: Why would any want to tune into a fly-on-the-wall workplace documentary?


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The Independent Culture

The upcoming week in TV will be dominated by two big shows. Tomorrow, on ITV, the new series of Britain’s Got Talent begins, giving ordinary people a chance at escaping drudgery and finding fame. Then on Wednesday, Sky Atlantic will start airing the last ever series of Mad Men, a show which made working life seem like a glamorous blur of office affairs and well-dressed employees. Meanwhile, pitched somewhere in between these two, is a TV trend which hasn’t received the fanfare of either: the fly-on-the-wall workplace documentary.

By rights, these shows should have died a death when The Office became a hit in 2001. At that time, BBC shows like Airport, set in Heathrow, and Life of Grime about environmental health workers in north London attracted a cult following with their platitudinous interviews, occasionally shaky camerawork and sarky voiceovers narrations. Ricky Gervais’s mockumentary borrowed some of these stylistic devices, but applied them to an even more ordinary setting, the fictional Slough-based paper company Wernham Hogg, where “life is stationery”.

The idea of setting a docusoap in an unremarkable workplace no longer seems like such a joke. Recent and current documentaries include Watermen: A Dirty Business (about the men and women who work for a water company) Posh Pawn (about high end pawnbroking), Iceland Foods: Life in The Freezer Cabinet and Pound Shop Wars, which both go behind the scenes in the retail industry. For this telesales survivor, most depressing of all is BBC Three’s The Call Centre, set in “the third largest call centre in Swansea”.

Not only are the real people featured in these programmes unabashed by the spectre of David Brent, they often seem to be actively courting comparison. The cringe-making ‘motivational techniques’ of Nev Wilshire, CEO in The Call Centre include nipple-tweaking and enforced sing-alongs to One Direction, but he’s not the only one. “I’m like a David Brent-esque manager” said Louis, outright, in the first episode of Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job this week.

They have reason to make a spectacle of themselves. For breakout stars of workplace reality shows the rewards are big - or at least bigger than the commission in a telesales job. Aeroflot supervisor Jeremy Spake so impressed viewers with his cheerfully camp officiousness in Airport, that the BBC gave him several of his own shows to present. Jane McDonald is now so successful as a recording artist and ‘Loose Woman’ that it’s easy to forget she started off moaning about pay delays on The Cruise.

The real mystery, then, is not why the subjects of these docusoaps would want their professional lives to be depicted. It’s why, after a long day at work, anyone wants to sit down to a TV screen filled with dreary offices, factory floors and shop stock rooms. Isn’t this exactly what we turn on the TV to escape?

People who don’t own TVs

There’s a new BBC quiz show called The Guess List starting tomorrow night and in it, the actor Simon Callow makes a regrettable boast: “I don’t own a TV set” he tells host Rob Brydon. Callow is not the only person to confuse not watching television with some kind of intellectual achievement, and this kind of talk has become unfortunately common. Of course, you and I know that a layered drama like The Wire or The Sopranos does as much to extend the sympathies (to borrow George Eliot’s phrase) as any 19th century novel. Some theatre-goers may disdain TV-watching as a waste of time, but wasn’t it Chekov who said “there is no happiness that is not idleness”? There’s also no explaining TV’s many virtues to willful Luddites, but it is sad when they don’t even know what they’re missing.


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