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Telly Review: The British At Work

Submitted by on March 20, 2011 – 1:03 pm4 Comments

The BBC used historically accurate archive footage of typical meetings between union and management in the 1970s

I looked forward to this when I saw the advert for it. Promising plenty of nostalgic archive footage of ordinary working lives, featuring old-looking young people with funny old-fashioned accents, and even better, exciting footage of industrial disputes, this was a chance to get on the settee after an easy day’s work and stare at my far-east produced telly, flat screening what at times can seem like a broadcast from a different world.

The first two episodes have done this, but unfortunately have gone down the Andrew Marr and Niall Ferguson route of mixing interesting and informative historical flashbacks with lazy and conservative portrayals of working people’s struggles. Presenter Kirsty Young has appeared on our screens in the nick of time, just in case any viewers might be doubting the wholly negative and debilitating influence unions have had on good old British industry.

If only British workers had been allowed to keep their heads down and get on with their work, without the meddling influence of petty shop stewards, and their teams of thugs intimidating workers into downing tools over the wrong sized sugar cubes in the canteen, British industry would have been ok.

Leaps forward in working conditions and workers’ rights are portrayed as naturally occurring, divorced from the labour struggles previously caricatured as ignorant lackeys stamping their feet while demanding more money for less work. Some threads of truth run through the narration, like the fact that manufacturing was moved to what they called ‘global competitors’ after all these expensive hikes in British working conditions.

No mention though so far that these ‘global competitors’ were third world countries with more exploitable resources, including workers, chosen with the private owners’ profit motive in mind. So curses to those unions, forcing profitable exploitation off our shores. Why couldn’t they just keep their heads down and do that extra half hour a week for free, like those truly patriotic workers who, looking back, “are really proud that ordinary people could have a voice”?

We don’t just have to take Kirsty’s word for it of course, there’s plenty of indisputable proof that the unions ruined British industry, garnered from a whole host of political, economic, industrial and working class movement experts including Basil Fawlty, Mrs Slocombe and Mr Humphries from ‘Are You Being Served?’, Reggie Perrin and Kenneth Williams, as well as Stan Butler and Blakey from ‘On The Buses’. The viewers are even invited to “judge for yourselves” the impact of unions by considering some Daily Express headlines about lost days of work. Kirsty also adds one of her uncle’s tales, in which a lazy worker keeps a mattress in the corner.

Scene from a strike at WC Boggs factory in 1971: Note the initimidated British worker behind, being forced on strike by the lazy firebrand shop steward

I like a lot of what the BBC are about. They attempt interesting programmes like this that commercial stations wouldn’t bother with, but in their ham-fisted attempts at neutrality (to give them the benefit of the doubt) they seem to too easily fall into towing the banal neo-liberal line of removing any critical edges to how they portray big business, pretending that it isn’t the profit motive that drives exploitation, while suggesting attempts to resist worker exploitation are nothing more than lazy, selfish, short-sighted tantrums getting in the way of profit making, which is obviously always good for everyone, right?

The British At Work is on BBC2 on Thursdays at 9pm.


  • Fantastic Cunt Sucker says:

    “The BBC…too easily fall into towing the banal neo-liberal line of removing any critical edges to how they portray big business, pretending that it isn’t the profit motive that drives exploitation”

    Hmm, but that’s the way it is, isn’t it? And nothing and no-one will change it, ‘cos if you broke up every conglomerate and corporation today and gave everyone the same house, money, car, etc, tomorrow, within a very short time it would be back to where we are now.

    It’s human nature, not politics. Some people are just more concerned with “getting on” and that invariably includes exploiting people less concerned with it. I’m not necessarily one of the “getting on” wallahs, I’m just making a painful point.

    And yes, shop stewards did go overboard.

    • Rob MacDonald says:

      Excellent review of The British At Work. I agree with every word of it. I also thought the previews looked good but then was disappointed with the actual programme. Bring back Union World on Channel 4!
      Secondly, no disrespect, but whenever I hear the phrase ‘human nature’ then alarm bells start ringing in my head. That’s because those words usually accompany half-baked ‘scientific’ excuses for greed.
      I’m no expert, but surely human nature is vast and covers a spectrum of behaviour? Surely it includes generosity, sacrifice, selflessness, solidarity, respect etc?
      Human nature should make us to stand up for our family, our friends, our class, our community and our environment. So let’s hear no more excuses.
      Gross selfishness and greed has been encouraged by business and its representatives at Westminster for years. That’s politics not human nature. Politics can also provides alternatives to greed. But you won’t hear it from Parliament – and that includes Her Majesty’s Labour Party.
      England is home to one of the most docile populations on earth. Lionhearts… don’t make me laugh. Jarrow, Tolpuddle, the miners, they knew about real bravery – and represented true human nature.

  • Talkative says:

    Yes human nature certainly has some dark sides. Shame we can’t do anything about em.

  • midjmo says:

    “Hmm, but that’s the way it is, isn’t it? And nothing and no-one will change it…”

    And that quote sums up why it is the way it is. Doesn’t it?

    People need to get in a hough more about their circumstances, instead of accepting their lot. That’s not ‘getting on’, that’s principle. But people are discouraged from having those by the likes of the corporations, because they wish to exploit us.

    We need more shop stewards to go overboard.

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