Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, BBC 2 - TV review


Are you being served? In these days of automated checkouts mostly likely not, but as we learned in Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter last night, there was a time when even ordinary customers were waited on like royalty by the high street's army of obsequious female shop assistants.

This new three-part documentary is presented by social historian Dr Pamela Cox, last seen in 2012's Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs. That show provided a real-life background to the goings on in Downton Abbey, and this one is an unofficial companion to The Paradise or Mr Selfridge, with plenty to say about the rise of consumerism, employment rights, gender equality and class betrayal. Much of this was encapsulated in one detail; the requirement that 19th-century shop workers stand constantly for 12-hour shifts, sitting be viewed as an insult to the customer. As well as being extremely uncomfortable, this could cause infertility – at least according to the doctors of the time.

No wonder many opted to supplement their income lying down. On a visit to London's fancy Burlington Arcade, home of luxury-goods retailers since 1819, Dr Cox found out more about the use a shop's upstairs rooms were sometimes put to. Current shopkeeper Thomas Pickett's eyebrows bobbed up and down like a yo-yo as they exchanged euphemisms. "'Ladies of the night' is a rather nicer way of putting it. They plied their wares," he said. More such lively interviewees and a less chronological approach might have made Dr Cox's Shopgirls a livelier watch, but it was insightful all the same.