Socialist Worker

The British at Work: an infuriating mix

The BBC’s attempt to record people’s working lives since the Second World War has very mixed results, argues Ken Olende

Issue No. 2242

The new BBC series The British at Work is infuriating.

It contains fascinating interviews, informative statistics and invaluable archive footage. But all this is marred by presenter Kirsty Young’s determined attempts to push a conservative interpretation of what we see.

The first of four episodes looks at the period from the end of the Second World War to the early 1960s.

Young blithely states that today “the chances are that you, like me, spent the day doing a job you enjoy”. Whereas in the 1940s, she informs us, “work was an absolute necessity”.

The ridiculous idea that everyone now is happy in their job and works in the industry of their choice is typical of her attitude. Only a millionaire TV presenter could believe this.

Her aim is to show that everything is better now—that we are better off without a “paternalistic” state nationalising industries, or “truculent” unions, or “jobs for life”.

In the programme’s world, these have been replaced with “flexibility” and “real freedom”.

Young begins by saying that the series will show a transition from when work was what we did to when it became who we are.


But while she shows that working class people such as miners may have had little choice about what job to take in the 1940s, none of the people she interviews suggest that being a miner or a secretary didn’t define who you were.

She is absolutely right that things have changed beyond recognition since the 1940s, but her explanations for why are trite. And the extensive use of clips from TV and cinema comedies and dramas of the time blurs reality with myth and prejudice.

During the period covered by this episode pay increased by 200 percent, the five-day week became standard and paid holidays became common.

These things did not simply fall like manna from heaven—they were fought for and won.

In the interviews people remember how workers had been kept down in the 1930s and weren’t prepared to be squashed any more.

“And quite right too,” as one interviewee puts it.

Young seems bemused when she interviews a miner who says the miners felt “freer and happier” in a nationalised industry.

She asks if trade unions went “too far”—and the show immediately replies “yes”, through clips from anti-union comedy and drama films, including I’m Alright Jack and The Angry Silence.

The mixing of film clips with real footage encourages the confusing view that Young presents.

Young says workers “turned on each other”. She explains how, in militant workplaces, workers who had not supported strikes could be cold-shouldered.

She chides a shop steward from Fords Dagenham for this, asking how long someone would be ignored.

“Usually until he left the factory,” comes the reply. The steward clearly and unrepentantly explains how democratic votes for strikes were undermined by people who refused to support them.

In the single most unpleasant smear of the programme, Young shifts from calling his attitude “bloody minded” to saying that unions could also be “narrow minded”.

She is referring to racism. The programme cuts to an interview with a West Indian man who worked as a bus conductor in the 1950s.

He reminisces about how he physically fought off racist attacks, sometimes from workmates. The programme implies that the people most likely to be racist in a workplace were trade unionists. But he doesn’t suggest that trade unions were involved in or condoned such attacks.

Even though there were isolated anti-immigrant actions by unions, trade unionists were less likely than bosses or other workers to be racist.


Things don’t look like they’ll improve with next week’s look at the 1960s—a time when “behaving badly became a national occupation”, the teaser says.

Despite the agenda, though, the interviews are strong throughout.

Even though the show tries to impose its conservative point of view, with no indication of class struggle or why workers would join unions, the voices of real people often break through.

What they say gives a more real narrative of what was going on at the time, even as the programme-makers try to ignore them.

There is good material on how the liberation women felt in the workplace was set against the restricted roles they were offered and harassment.

There is also lots of film of ordinary people at work of a sort that is rarely shown on television.

So watch the programme for the interviews and the footage—but the patronising commentary carries a sizable health warning.

The British at Work starts Thursday 10 March, 9pm, BBC2

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Sat 12 Mar 2011, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2242
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