Making a drama out of a job…

Watch Yourself Work on TV

Television may offer escape and a chance to stare at beautiful people doing amazing things, but the really big audiences come to programmes about situations we can relate to.  People like us.

As Danny Baker has said,

When Only Fools and Horses arrived on TV, most people I knew thought it was a documentary.

We might like to know about the ‘exotic among us’, such as Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, but being familiar really helps.  Things that are too different automatically attract a smaller audience, which is a bugger for foreign news, sports that we don’t do (skiing…), foreign language films and the like.   Which does rather beg the question as to why there aren’t more workplace based dramas and comedies.  Why are so many set around the police and hospitals?  Or a combination of the two – CSI.  And it’s been pointed out that House, ostensibly a medical drama, is really an update of Sherlock Holmes.  But the police and nurses aren’t the only people solving mysteries or making the world better.

When I worked at ITV, I tried to commission research to explore the new work-places.  Who are the everyday professional heroes we’d like to hang out with?  What jobs are people doing that are fictionalisable?  We’ve done the traditional ones – fire-fighting, teachers, the army, factories, every conceivable branch of law-enforcement, airlines…

I suggested a drama in an Estate Agents, and was told that it had been tried once.  Sure enough ‘Sold‘ (I’d missed that one…), had started with more than 4 million viewers and finished with half as many. It may have been poorly executed, but the suspicion was that it had failed because, ‘people don’t like estate agents’.  Conventional wisdom has it that we don’t watch dramas set among lawyers or people in advertising or fashion because we don’t like (or look like) those sort of people.

Americans seem to be more comfortable with dramas set in rarified workplaces such as legal offices (LA Law, Allie McBeal), fashion houses (Ugly Betty), among unfeasibly attractive lifeguards (Baywatch) even the Oval Office (The West Wing).  But most of us work in offices, so this has worked with comedies set around a stationary company (The Office), an IT department (The IT Crowd), or the headquarters of an FMCG company (Reggie Perrin).  One member of my very family has written comedies set in a vet (Beast), a solicitors (Is It legal), a hardware shop (Hardware) and within the secondary market in theatrical resale (ticket tout..Frank Stubbs Promotes).  (Incidentally, another beloved sibling has written a whole book about running a cafe which is just aching to be turned into a TV comedy drama). But perhaps offices are a little too dull for dramas – older readers may remember The Brothers, about a family running (if memory serves) a haulage company.

So what are the new jobs that might involve problem solving (like detectives), people we like and admire (such as doctors and nurses), a central location to place the drama around, a scenario which isn’t depressing, and something we can recognise.

In fact, more to the point, what ARE the new jobs, full-stop? (not that I’m looking)  Market Research?  Job Centres?  The Charity sector? Middle-management in internet firms?

The popularity of The Apprentice has perhaps made us more open to business, sales-people, management, and the dramatic potential in product strategy.  The famous dramas about sales-people seem to be American, and period (Glengarry Glen Ross, Tin Men)

In fact doesn’t it show a worrying chippiness in the country that we won’t watch professionals at work, and struggle with retail unless they are set in the past.  Having finally discovered Getting On, which is a beautifully observed comedy about nurses  and doctors that could have been set among any group of people in a sympathetic environment, I do wonder whether it’s time to update the workplace a little.

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