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We're Free? What Are You Being Served Tells Us About Brexit
Alexei Monroe , January 31st, 2020 11:01

As the EU waves goodbye on Brexit Day, Alexei Monroe looks at two declining institution full of sexist attitudes and obsessed with better days that never really were and joins the dots between England and Grace Brothers' Department Store of 70s sitcom Are You Being Served

As the UK slips its European moorings and embarks on a voyage with a destination in an idealised past, uncanny parallels and portents seep in to the far-from-seaworthy hold of the ship of state. For those unable to believe in the sunlit uplands of a new, global Britain, the enterprise is tragic, ominous, but also deeply absurd: a tragi-comedy waiting to happen.

For many who have always been alienated by the Daily Mail vision of English exceptionalism, one of the few sources of patriotic pride has often been comedy and our famed ability to laugh our way through thick and thin. This was always partly illusory of course, as anyone intimately familiar with the gamier examples of 1970s comedy is all too aware. Although generally understood as a parody of racist and other dated attitudes, Fawlty Towers is now looked on fondly by people nostalgic for a time when you could express such views on prime time TV. John Cleese's tragi-comic descent into a permanently angry and virulently anti-Scottish little Englander suggests that his creation wasn't purely parodic. Of course, it's all too easy to take on much-loved 70s artefacts from a 21st Century perspective but perhaps the ease of doing this should make us wary. The comedy and culture of our own decade might one day seem as inherently embarrassing if not reactionary as the 70s now appear to many (including those of us who remember them more ambivalently). Yet the detritus of previous decades can provide clues not just for the historian, but for those trying to understand the aggressive and vengeful return of the partly-imaginary past that animates Brexit. Much as it might be easier and more gratifying to be able to consign entire decades and comedic folk memories to the dustbin of history, a puritanical (if partly understandable) approach simply intensifies the total cultural warfare that we're living through.

Much as it might be a cause of regret for some, those who grew up with such comedies still love them, and the fact that they are condemned is experienced as part of what is perceived as part of a generalised assault on the British past (a long-running narrative of the right-wing tabloids).

Perhaps then, a more considered response to the "problems" that 70s relics such as Are You Being Served? bring up may be to use them to explore the present - absurd situations demand absurd responses. It's hard for those with no memories of the time to relate to an era in which (power cuts allowing) there were three TV channels to choose from. Video recorders would not appear till the end of the decade and TV audiences were vastly higher than now. Equally, it was far harder to escape the influence of TV than it is now. This led to a deep, intimate familiarity with popular comedies, with many people reciting their favourite lines in a way that is less prevalent now. 1970s TV comedy was homely: a welcome distraction from the air of permanent crisis that haunted the country.

The Grace Brothers department store that provided the setting for Are You Being Served was a much-loved refuge that is extremely revealing about then and now. Apart from the cosy familiarity of what (whether we like it or not) is remembered by many as a more innocent time, what makes it relevant today, and what specific elements might appeal to those who believe that their entire way of life is under attack by the European foe and its perfidious domestic allies?

The series presents a picture of class, industrial and sexual relations that is certainly toxic. While the humour sweetens the pill, it pulls no punches in its depiction of archaic or vainglorious management, self-loathing (and sometimes loathsome) workers.

There's a line in the pilot when the camp caricature Mr. Humphries says part sincerely/part ironically to his mock-Churchillian supervisor, "Nothing’s what it used to be, is it Mr. Granger?" The aged Granger is constantly mocked for his resistance to any and every trace of innovation in the failing store, but there's a definite "cake and eat it" subtext to the show that's also visible in much pro-Brexit sentiment. The warmth with which the show mocks these attitudes suggests a definite nostalgia and affection for the class structures, which for some will only have intensified with the passage of time.

Some - I suspect many - of the people of my generation and older who grew up with the show will have voted Brexit out of nostalgia for familiarity and stability. It was a time when "we" could laugh at our superiors while still enjoying the stability of "knowing our place." When they're not grovelling to management, the shop floor workers are mocking them or trying to score trivial, bittersweet victories. While the workers may sometimes gain the upper hand, the class structure, working conditions and day-to-day experience always remain fundamentally unchanged. Grace Brothers provides a model of alienating stability that many still hanker for, now and then. In this light, it doesn't seem fanciful to imagine Brexit-supporting expats in Spain re-watching the series nostalgically. One online reviewer praises it precisely because it's "Cheeky irreverant and pollitically [sic] incorrect."

Every episode provides something to please those hankering for the lost British eden of the 70s. Yet besides their own family and personal memories of watching the series, what are the elements such viewers might be nostalgic for? It was a time when self-serving, authoritarian managers could enjoy a cosy smoke in the executive office. It was also a time when a character such as the work-shy, venal and sex-obsessed Mr. Lucas could talk, Trump-like, about how about his largely-imaginary conquests and ‘pick-up’ techniques: "you just grab 'em and they go mad." In practice, none of the objects of his affections respond positively and some hit back hard, yet he never changes his ways. The female staff are left to fend for themselves, without ‘nanny state’ institutions like H.R. departments offering any support. While Lucas is sometimes presented as rather pathetic, he nevertheless plays a key role as the cheeky chappie, ever ready to puncture the pretensions of management or experts of whatever persuasion. It's already near impossible to imagine the perpetually bolshy Mr. Nash and his caretaker colleagues being as contemptuous of hierarchy as 70s union power sometimes allowed them to be. It's equally hard to imagine an episode of a contemporary BBC comedy being based on the premise of an all-out transport strike.

While this may all seem quite prehistoric, it is less far away from us than we would like to think. If Farageiste nostalgia and contempt for experts and regulation influence post-Brexit employment ‘liberalisation’, what’s already there might become far worse. Even pre-Brexit, it has already become far harder for workers to take employers to tribunals and as the economy worsens, fewer are likely to have the courage to assert what few rights are left. There will be little to stop aspirant Captain Peacocks from berating workers or docking their pay for using too many pencils or some absurd uniform infringement. As Lucas adjusts to the pedantic regulations of his new workplace, in an early episode he remarks "it’s like being in Colditz" - the kind of joke that many German employees are again benefitting from courtesy of the Brexit zeitgeist.

As with so much comedy of the era, the war and European stereotypes often played a supporting or even leading role. When the staff are forced to camp (in every sense) on the shopfloor after being stranded by a transport strike, the setting provokes an orgy of cosy wartime reminiscences and tall stories, taking in a joke about illegal immigration and laughable (but not particularly funny) impersonations of Lord Haw-Haw and Churchill. The less-fondly remembered 1977 film saw the cast decamp to the "Costa Plonka" resort, providing opportunities for more jokes about the Spanish and the Germans.

Most of all though, one of the main themes of the series appears as decline and decay, exactly the sort of narrative of Britain that often animated leave voters. The pilot opens with Mrs. Slocombe and Miss Brahms struggling to get out of the lift because it's stopped short of floor level again. The existing technology in the store frequently breaks down and the new technology generally fails to deliver on expectations and soon vanishes (though not without the vendors having made a decent profit on it). The staff are also required to participate in a constant stream of ill-conceived and humiliating promotional campaigns, often involving donning embarrassing costumes.

Beneath the superficial glamour of retail, most of the products and characters are deeply shabby and second-rate. They love to complain about the food in the shabby canteen and the stingy Christmas bonuses, for which they're expected to be absurdly grateful. Yet although things never improve, everyone stays.

To paraphrase the old wartime line, it's only being so miserable as what keeps them going. Arguably, the series showed depressive characters too conditioned to the inevitability of decline and exploitation to break free of it. By making their alienation lovable and amusing, the show conditioned people to enjoy knowing their place and to constant decline. Decline gradually affected the series itself. Improbable cast changes, the film, an Australian spin-off, and a grimly unfunny 90s sequel and a disastrous 2016 reboot all followed its 70s heyday, albeit without destroying its much-loved status.

There's a striking BREXIT metaphor in a farce depicting decline that becomes ever less funny and more expensive over time. We're about to be served years of real-life farce, declining living conditions and failure that could make the decade of austerity seem like a pantomime. Like its 70s predecessor, the cast of Are You Being Severed? Britain 2020 contains a mixture of sleazy, laughable, incompetent and archaic characters whose absurdities lend them a bizarre charm that's hard to shake off. The dated, bungling cheeriness of David Davis as one of the caretakers, Farage as the perpetual joker selling the store owner his own coat, Johnson as the over-promoted manager trying to smooth things over with empty cliches such as "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" that sound like an ill-fated Grace Brothers promotional campaign. Perhaps most nightmarishly, Anne Widdecombe as Mrs. Slocombe possessed by a vengeful spirit (revealingly, one online commenter rhapsodises at length about "Mrs Slocombe's reassuringly patriotic [union jack] bloomers"). Finally, the militantly dense Miss Brahms has real-life parallels in cabinet intellectual heavyweights Liz Truss AND Andrea Leadsome.

This cast certainly have their fans, who love them precisely because of their faults and sadly it does seem likely to be a long-running farce. If you want a vision of the near-future, imagine the hollow laughter of newly-redundant Brexit supporters watching 70s comedy repeats while every social, labour and environmental protection they've ever known is dismantled. Still, mustn't grumble. You’ve all done very well.