Last Night's Television: The Day the Immigrants Left, BBC1
Thursday 25 February 2010
"It's like I'm a foreigner in me own country," complained Terry at the beginning of The Day the Immigrants Left. In truth, Terry wasn't nearly enough like a foreigner. He didn't have a job, for one thing, unlike most of the real foreigners in the area. And the programme he was taking part in was about to demonstrate that he was going to have to get a lot more foreign if he wanted to get and keep one. The pitch was simple. Several Wisbech employers had been persuaded to give some of their immigrant workforce a few days off and to replace them with unemployed locals. Is it that they can't get the jobs because overseas workers are undercutting them? Or is it that they just don't do the jobs as well?
Actually turning up is quite an important element in this experiment and one that not all the participants seem to have grasped. On the first day at a local potato-packing plant, Terry and Paul pitched up half-an-hour late for their 5am induction, and seemed mildly resentful to be picked up on their timekeeping. They had done better than Lewis, though, still living with his mum at the age of 26 and apparently devoting most of his energies to improving his skateboarding and X-Box skills. Lewis had sent a text at midnight the night before. "Hey. It's Lewis. I really can't do tomorrow. I've only just got in and I'm feeling really ill." Paul, meanwhile, was moaning about having to work alongside an Eastern European colleague called Yuri. "Oh well, that's bugging me already, innit," he said, as if it was some dastardly plot to make him underperform. "I'll call him Bill."
Things weren't going a lot better on Victor's farm where three novices were being given a crash course in asparagus picking – not a complicated skill. It isn't easy money this – only 38 pence per kilo picked and a lot of bending and stooping. Even so, one Polish worker had cleared £176 in a single day by cutting half a ton. Sam, slouching down the rows and kicking sulkily at the soil, looked as if he would be lucky to fill a punnet by the end of the morning. Back in the potato-packing factory, an hour's work had to be redone because Paul and Terry had got the count wrong. "We're getting the finger pointed at us because we're the new boys," whined Paul. "We all have bad days, don't we? We all have days when we can't count." On this day, it was clear, Paul didn't know how many beans make five.
The English candidates were all excellent on the theory of a work ethic, less sound on the practice. "I like working under pressure," insisted Sam, an unemployed chef who, along with his girlfriend, Nicola, and two others, were taken on by Ali, proprietor of Wisbech's most popular Indian restaurant. Sadly, neither Sam nor Nicola made it, phoning in with food poisoning on their first day. Dave didn't turn up either because his girlfriend was ill and Ashley chucked in the towel out about halfway through his first lunch service, pausing only to tuck into the free curry that Ali graciously offered him by way of severance. On the farm, all three British workers were so light on their weights that Victor had to top up their earnings to meet the minimum wage – a sloth subsidy he understandably wasn't very keen to continue paying. It wasn't all bad. Dean, a carpenter, got past ruffled feathers at having his work criticised by a Lithuanian supervisor and earned himself some extra work. And both Paul and Terry eventually turned things round at the packing plant. But there was little on show here to justify Evan Davis's strangely charitable conclusion. "We should never let the new arrivals tempt us into writing off the people we've got." Hear that, immigrants? Stop tempting employers with your reliability, competence and productivity. The workshy and the feckless deserve a chance too.
Those of us who thrill to a black title card with the words "Six Months Later" or "Six Months Earlier" on it can rejoice. Damages is back, batting viewers like a shuttlecock between two opposed time-schemes until we don't know which way is up. With canny opportunism, the producers have seized on the carcass of the Bernie Madoff affair for a season three storyline about a Ponzi-scheme fraudster called Louis Tobin. Patty is conspiring on behalf of his infuriated victims and Ellen is working in the office of the DA who's trying to build the criminal case. And already the plot has hooks into us in about seven different places. Who was the driver of the car that sideswiped Patty in the opening moments? How come Ellen's $3,000 Chanel handbag, a gift from Patty, has ended up bloodstained in a hobo's shopping cart? And who's to blame for the fact that Tom Shayes – Patty's long-suffering colleague – is last seen in a police body bag? All this and Lily Tomlin. It's almost too much.
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