Last Night's TV: The British at Work/BBC2<br/>Comic Relief: Famous, Rich, and in the Slums/BBC1

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The Independent Culture

First of all, what is work?" wrote Bertrand Russell in In Praise of Idleness. "Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first is unpleasant and ill-paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid."

Our social history since 1945, as the first part of The British at Work sympathetically showed, is largely composed of a growth in the latter category and a decline in the former one. During the war, a proud national slogan boasted "We can take it", sending a message not just to Hitler but to all of Britain's empire that stoicism was an essential trait of this country. After the war was won, a clever new one was adopted: "We can make it" (the subtitle of this show). And so, in the conversion of a single consonant, a bold message of national renewal was proudly put out to the dominions. Heavily indebted and grieving for our lost boys, Britain would be rebuilt by hard work and industry. Unpleasant and ill-paid, for sure; but in the national interest.

That time is gone, and the project completed. For several decades after the Industrial Revolution, Britain's economy was reliant on manufacturing. We made things, and we made them well. This is no longer the case – at least no longer to the same degree – largely because in other parts of the world, they now make those same things more efficiently. And so an implicit theme of Kirsty Young's gripping tour of old industry was being borrowed from the sub-headline of another series currently on our screens, Niall Ferguson's Civilization: Is the West History? (answer: yes, broadly), itself based on a magisterial book.

I was recently reprimanded by a senior executive on our Sunday sister paper for writing too much about nostalgia in my contributions to this page, and so must be careful. Perhaps I can get away with putting it like this. The chief merits of this show were: first, Kirsty Young is a brilliant interviewer, and adopted her most materteral Desert Islands Discs voice to great effect with former miners, bus men and the like; and second, and to the producer's ever-lasting credit, even in this first show we actually progressed from mere wistfulness to proper social analysis.

At the outset, Young made the excellent point that work has gone from being what you do to who you are. We work longer hours, are more time-poor than we used to be (though mostly more cash-rich) and nowadays often conceive of employment as a search for fulfilment. Then, with the aid of the magnificent Terry-Thomas, came a survey of trade unions that concluded, rightly, that they were very often run by people who weren't radical at all, and could in fact be very conservative in their allegiance to the status quo.

Despite that, unions engendered solidarity, and another perceptive observation was made about how – especially in a manufacturing culture – workplaces were communities. The necessary alienation of the poor envisaged by Marx and Engels had, Young didn't quite say, been countered by the emergence of the union movement – and that, too, has been attenuated by globalisation.

Young patrolled the industries of yesteryear with a winning curiosity. She takes to television much as John Paul II took to beatification, and elicited from her interviewees a strong sense of what working lives used to be like. There was a good mix of male and female views – which many social histories on television fail to achieve – and the introduction of an autobiographical element, in reference to earlier Youngs on Scottish shipyards, seemed sensible rather than grating. Above all, the fact that she offered some proper insight into how Britain has changed, and the role played in that change by the labour market, elevated this show from mere nostalgia into something cleverer and more profound. That came across best in her interviews with champions of yesterday's economy.

It was the champions of tomorrow's economy that redeemed the second part of Comic Relief: Famous, Rich and in the Slums. At the show's outset, I was suddenly reminded of my hatred for the slogan of the Stop the War Coalition, "Not in my name". They're so vain, they think this war is about them. Similarly, the fact that Lenny Henry, Reggie Yates, Samantha Womack and Angela Rippon are famous and rich is the least interesting thing about their experience in developing Africa, especially to the wonderful young souls they confronted.

And yet, as with most Comic Relief documentaries of this kind, the sheer humanity of each character is ultimately irresistible. In Kibera, a Kenyan slum, Henry got the best out of 16-year-old Bernard, whose father was murdered and whose mother died of Aids-related illness. He dreams of being well educated, and is prepared to do a lot of "unpleasant and ill-paid" work to make it happen. Henry was moved to tears by his traumas, much as his fellow celebrities were by those of their companions.

Finally, each of our ambassadors called on their reserves of fame and wealth to help, in a small but substantive way, those in need. Comic Relief is now accompanied by an annual jamboree of cynicism, because it is fashionable to deride Western do-gooders as patronising. Shows like this can help the resistance to that idle nonsense.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/amolrajan

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