Last Night's Television: Inside John Lewis, BBC2
Famous, Rich and Jobless, BBC1

You get a better class of vox pop in John Lewis, judging from the first of Liz Allen's films about Middle Britain's favourite retailer. "In seven days, God made the world and in seven days, John Lewis will make your curtains," said one well-spoken lady, her tone suggesting that the latter act of creation was at least equal to the first. "If John Lewis is short of anything," said another customer feelingly "we've got it in our house." He appeared to feel that his wife had done everything that could reasonably be expected of her to prop up John Lewis's profit figures, but unfortunately not everyone has been shopping with the same zeal in recent months; Inside John Lewis, a three-part series about the department-store chain, was filmed as the recession was biting. It had already taken a great chunk out of John Lewis's ambitious plans for expansion and the question that ran through this first episode was whether it might yet swallow the fabled peculiarities of the John Lewis business model.

The film began on bonus day, when John Lewis partners (they're all partners, from the managing director to the lady who sells you hat pins) find out how large their slice of the annual profits will be, an exciting event conducted, it appears, with a certain amount of sealed-envelope razzmatazz. The staff owe this profit-sharing scheme to John Spedan Lewis, who appeared here on archive film to outline his essential idea in gloriously clipped RP. "If a naturalist who was a bit of a gardener found a seed washed up by the sea," he explained, "he might plant it and tend it just to see if it was alive. The John Lewis Partnership has been an experiment of that sort... not with a seed but with an idea of a better way of running a business." Some of his contemporaries may have suspected that the seed had been washed up from Russia – with its dangerous notions of equitability and common ownership – but Lewis had actually introduced it with the notion that a bit more fairness might forestall Bolshevik revolution.

It's a seed that's currently nurtured by Andy Street, a chirpy little man who comes across like an unusually ebullient youth-club organiser, rather than the managing director of a major company. He is curiously unembarrassed, for a top-flight businessman, by the idea that there might be more to life than the bottom-line profit. His own salary, for example, is capped so that it can never be more than 75 times then his lowest paid workers – a fact that puts him way down the executive-pay leaderboard: "We're not paid as much as colleagues running other organisations," he conceded brightly, "but I put it to you that this is a far more fulfilling job." Come on, you're only selling towels, you thought, but then it dawned on you that if the world's bankers had been driven by similar values we might not be quite as deep in a hole as we are right now. There were John Lewis executives in this film who muttered quietly about the sluggishness of its corporate architecture, but it was hard not to think of them as the kind of barbarians who dismantled Britain's building societies to turn them into offshore casinos.

Like John Lewis itself, Liz Allen's film went against the grain of prevailing values in its industry and was indisputably worthy. Like John Lewis, it was also in absolutely no danger of elevating your heartrate. At one of the very few moments where the presence of a film crew threatened to be revealing – when Mr Street was rehearsing for a press conference and took an unexpected question about redundancies in the solar plexus – the cameras were obligingly turned off at his request. And elsewhere the highlights consisted of things like a man unveiling the clearance sale best buy (a banded pack of bath towels) or a woman excitedly recalling the arrival of the first multi-decker lorry into the new Cardiff branch loading bay. "I felt quite emotional about it," she confessed. Strangely, I didn't, but I was touched by the quixotic and vulnerable idea that fairness and equity should be part of a company's spreadsheet.

In the second half of Famous, Rich and Jobless, the participants were paired up with members of the long-term unemployed and Larry Lamb enjoyed another opportunity to display his talent for unintentional comedy. There was a fine moment when he sat down Mark, a jobless sales manager, and sympathetically informed him that his dignity had gone, his masculinity had been undermined and his morale was in tatters. Mark, who couldn't get a word in edgeways for being told how bad he was feeling, looked as if he wished Larry would stop trying to cheer him up. By the end, every celebrity professed themselves greatly enriched by the experience, with a renewed sense of their own good fortune. What the unemployed got out of was a bit less clear.

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