Last Night's TV: Cutting edge: Phone Rage, Channel 4
Skins, Channel 4
They've plenty to get hung up about
Friday 07 March 2008
Karl Marx thought that the overriding fact of history was the struggle between the classes, but then he'd never tried to sort out a grotesquely improbable electricity bill over the phone. The driving conflict of our own times is the undeclared war between the people who work in call centres and the rest of us, trying to get through to them. One day, it will ignite into an armed conflagration that will consume the world. If you would like to read a more sober prognostication, press the star button twice, now.
Phone Rage was a surprisingly gentle survey of call-centre culture from both ends of the phone. We are all, it seemed to say, victims here, callers and called alike; the frustration you feel at being bounced from extension to extension and forced to repeat your customer identification number and mother's maiden name is mirrored by the agonies the hapless staff suffer when you finally start to vent your emotions. Gemma at one of the electricity companies had a sign on her desk reading "Help!". The idea is that when she can't handle a customer's query or the emotions are getting a bit heightened, she can wave the sign at a supervisor who will come over and sort things out, but it looked more existential than that.
Her company used to be the most complained about electricity company in the country, until it realised that its Indian call centre was generating more complaints than it solved. The call centre was closed down and relocated to Essex and complaints went down 90 per cent. Not everybody has learnt from this experience. The film also followed trainees at a call centre in South Africa, learning about the British way of life, and how to penetrate British accents. A young woman explained about Geordies: "They like to drink lots of beer, make jokes." So the training is pretty effective. She and her colleagues were instructed to "dress corporate", to put them in the right frame of mind, except on British bank holidays, when they were allowed to dress casual. I think this is what they call neo-colonialism.
At First Direct in Leeds, on the other hand, it's always a holiday. First Direct has decided that happy staff make for a happy customer, and so the staff are encouraged to chuck rubber balls around the office, wrestle in inflatable sumo suits, and compete for Creme Eggs by including the phrase "That's tremendous" in their calls. This is an example of "above-the-line" language, along with phrases such as "I'd like to", "I'd love to", "Fantastic" and "Certainly", that's as opposed to language that's merely "on the line" ("I can", "I will") and "below the line" ("I can't", "I have to", and, presumably, "Why don't you just sod off and leave me alone, you whingeing bastard?"). This is, surely, a diagram of the perfect hell, where the principal torment is having to look cheerful about the other ones; and if there was one sequence in the film that struck a chill into me, it was when Paddy O'Connor, a First Direct "team leader", explained that his staff never sell anything to customers, only help them. For instance, if a customer is having trouble paying bills: "Well, if that was your mate, you'd be as nosy as hell to try and help them". Yes, many's the conversation I've had with mates of mine that has begun with them worrying about making ends meet, and ended with me extracting a detailed picture of their income and outgoings before lending them a large sum of money at a very competitive rate. And, of course, what sort of a mate would you be if you couldn't tell them truths they need to hear, truths such as "If you had kept up your payments, I would not now have to be sending the bailiffs round to seize your furniture"? What's important is that you stay mates.
The mates on Skins are very good at telling one another unpleasant truths, and possibly not very good at telling one another pleasant ones, which I imagine is one of the reasons its fans are so devoted to it. If you haven't come across it before, Skins is a slightly bizarre and silly soap about teens coming to terms with sex and drugs and what they're going to do with their lives, set among an unconvincingly eclectic bunch of mates in Bristol. It's Dawson's Creek with a sense of irony or, if you prefer, a sixth-form-college version of This Life; or Hollyoaks, if Hollyoaks had any idea just how ridiculous it looks.
The plot lines and gags tend towards the overblown or the hackneyed: the main plot line in this series has involved Tony, the cool, manipulative one, adjusting to life after a road accident has left him with mild brain damage, an issue the writers seem unable to treat with any degree of consistency or seriousness; but last night, that was competing with the struggles of Michelle, Tony's ex, to cope with her new stepsister, less a character than a compilation of spoilt-bitch clichés. But it's slick and fast-moving and doesn't take any moral standpoints apart from "You stick with your mates". At my age, it makes me feel like a voyeur, but I can see why the young people like it.
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