Telly Review: The British At Work
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.
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.