Defrosting our tribal impulses

Selling fridges, but only in the past

*sigh* YES, there IS a Sellfridges in Stoke Newington too

*sigh* YES, there IS a Sellfridges in Stoke Newington too

So anyway, why are there no few dramas set in shops?

Because it makes audience’s go tribal.

Humans like to group themselves into carefully calibrated clusters… if a drama was set in Tesco, or Morrisons, the Waitrose shoppers would feel that it wasn’t really for them.  And vice versa.   And men wouldn’t want to watch either, because OBVIOUSLY they don’t go shopping.  And we don’t get dramas in model agencies or advertising agencies or other professional places whatever, because it would turn people off by revealing their deep-seated envy.

A bit like if someone tried to make a supportive documentary about a football team – fans of every other team would boycott it.  The only documentary about football that would attract a decent crowd would be the one that said a manager was crooked.

(It’s the same reason why no gay football player want to come out.  The first one out could expect around half of their own fans to clasp him to their collective bosom, while the rest of his fans and the entire fan-base of the rest of the league would be cruel).  Pure tribalism.

Or would they?  Perhaps not.  It’s hard to tell these small subtleties of what connects and what drives away.

When one generation thinks about department stores, the image of Grace Brothers from Are You Being Served and Miss Slocombe’s very RUDE cat, comes to mind.  I’m free!  It has a 1970s naffness.

I'm Free!  Yes, but also something of a throwback to a simpler age

I’m Free! Yes, but also something of a throwback to a simpler age

For work-place dramas, we need a neutral setting, so that we aren’t confronted with our own lack of success (people doing better than we are), or the failures of others (the ones doing worse).  The solution?  Set the drama in the past.  We can’t be tribal about that.  Hence, Mr Selfridge, which started recently last week on ITV.  I liked it, but then again, I don’t watch Downton Abbey, so it all seemed delightfully new to me.  Ironically, while it’s a useful anti-tribalism tactic to set dramas in the past, these programme was full of class friction.  And they can get away with it because we know that back then (whenever), someone born ‘downstairs’ stayed there, and the ones born ‘upstairs’ did too.

No fault or credit can be attached to either outcome. And we can watch the programme free from the burden of calibrating our own position in the hierarchy.


  1. Nigel Jacklin says

    I particularly liked the bit when he was looking at one pair of gloves (in the ‘stuffy’ department store) where he said ‘how can I know what I want if I can’t see what I can have.’

    • Yes, that WAS good. thank you Nigel (it’s especially nice to read an actual comment in the middle of 124 pieces of spam…). Do you think this theory of tribalism explains why so many of our dramas are set in the past?

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