You can pick up all sorts in the Post Office these days. In my local, they sell pet food, and you can get your phone fixed, alongside buying the more usual envelopes and parcel tape. As we learnt in this sobering documentary, there is a reason: more than two-thirds of branches are losing their government subsidy and to compensate, postmasters must diversify, or bow out.
Watching people's livelihoods on the line did not make for uplifting telly, however the network’s employees tried to dress it up.
The cameras followed executive staff as they advised on the “modernisation” process. The plan: embrace retail or “bugger off”, as Ian, a disgruntled postmaster in Audley, Staffordshire, put it. His branch was surrounded by convenience stores, including a newly-converted newsagents. The competition sealed his fate after 26 years.
Given the extensive access granted, perhaps the Post Office really believed in their own management speak and heavy-handed methods. Methods such as forcing thinly-stretched staff to watch PowerPoint presentations in back rooms at the same time they were supposed to be serving.
The flashed-up postcode of each branch highlighted the disparity between the gleaming, minimal head office (EC1V 9HQ) and the cluttered backrooms in the likes of Cromford, Derbyshire (DE4 3QF).
There was another low in Norton-in-the-Moors Staffordshire. Locals were up in arms about the Post Office moving to the petrol station and aired their grievances at a meeting. The “transformation” team sat at a table on a stage, in front of a curtain of gold streamers discussing out-going postmaster Steve’s decision to leave the network: “Steve doesn’t want to convert,” “I can assure you, it was his choice to leave,” they insisted. You half expected Steve to pop out in a cloud of dry ice, Stars in Their Eyes style: “Tonight Matthew, my post office is going to be…” Alas, he never put in an appearance. The garage it was, then.
Of course, these changes can work. We met Elliott, an entrepreneur who had opened one franchise in his stationery store in East Finchley and was snapping up more. His initially dubious customers were happy, change not the devil they’d feared. But for every Elliot there may be two Carols (Cromford’s postmistress). She wept as she signed exit forms, more worried about keeping the service going for the village than her own future.
I’m not sure I could stomach two more hours of this (it’s a three-parter). But I might buy one of those tins of dog food next time I stop by my branch – and I don’t have a dog.