The British At Work

I’ve been enjoying Kirsty Young’s BBC2 documentary series — The British At Work — a complementary series to a similar social history last year on the family. The episode just shown tonight took in the period 1964 to 1980 — the second half of which becomes increasingly distinct in my own memory.

What I particularly enjoyed about the programme was the music. I often loathe extraneous music piled on to TV soundtracks — more or less any sport documentary attracts it and it seems sometimes that producers like to signal that they’ve got A Big Budget on programmes like Doctor Who or Wonders of the Universe by plastering some bombastic orchestral music over everything at any opportunity.

But The British At Work used a nice selection of contemporary music — some well known (and quite apt lyrically) like Pink Floyd’s Time, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat and Jethro Tull’s Living in the Past and others I would never have identified had there not been a really handy track listing on the programme’s page on the BBC website. (I’m glad I discovered through this that it was Steve Miller who did the ethereal Fly Like An Eagle.)

I’m already looking forward to next week’s episode because it was trailed with the outro from the Associates’ Party Fears Two — one of the oddest tracks of the 80s.

We’ve had an ongoing debate in the MA workshops about quoting lyrics from pop songs in things like chapter introductions and so on. If a writer even quotes a couple of lines from a song then the song’s publishers are entitled to for royalties, which might be OK if the book is going to sell a lot (royalties like this are often flat-rate) but a significant proportion of income for more modest sellers. Titles are safer — they’re not copyrightable — and if a reader recognises a quoted lyric then these may well be brought into mind by a mention of just the song in itself .

The programme was also interesting as it featured Charles Handy, who wrote some fascinating books in the 1990s on the future of work, such as The Age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoat — and I have a signed copy of his autobiography, having gone to an Association of MBAs function featuring him in Oxford. But I wish his prediction of the portfolio career would have become more widespread than it has so far, as it makes an awful lot of sense — and having writing as part of one’s portfolio might be the only practical way for all but the most best-selling writers to make a living (see this very interesting blog entry posted today by Martha Williams: )

15 Replies to “The British At Work”

  1. I work in the public sector, at what you might call a middle management level and it strikes me that British management as a whole has not progressed that far in the years since the seventies. I started a course last year and one of the modules was People and Information Management.

    The concepts taught in that course training and development of workforce skills and incentivising,are still alien concepts to British Managers. The emphasis is still management by fear while any training of the workforce which does take place is only done as box ticking for initiatives such as ‘Investors in People’.

    The initial response from my manager when I told him I wanted to study for a degree was, ‘You could get a post anywhere if you succeeded in passing that’. And the response after showing him some of the material contained in the management module was. ‘Well its just a matter of learning it to pass the exam and then you can forget all about it’.

  2. David,

    I agree with you about the Luddite attitude of many managers. I once asked my manager, when I’d been working about 4 or 5 years, about doing a management course like an MBA and his response was ‘if I’ve got where I am without doing one then they can’t be much use’. I did one anyway about 5 years later but find it’s a very double edged sword to have on the CV. Probably more managers are completely hostile to hiring any ‘smart arse who thinks they can tell me to do my job than are impressed by the qualification (and this was before the MBAs became an easy target for blame for the credit crunch).

    I worked for a long time in a job that involved a lot of contact with European colleagues and there was definitely an arrogance and inverted snobbery about the British attitude to education in management by comparison. Go to Germany and you’ll see that many of their senior managers are Dr Schmidts or even Professor Brauns (as was their ex-foreign minister). And which country is coming out of the recession strongest?

    This is something of a subtext to the novel whose writing this blog is following — my main male character (James) is a clever chap academically (and does management training) who is both sabotaged by his more ignorant colleagues and also realises, through his education, that the City life is not for him.

    If you have a look through the rest of the blog you might find a few posts on similar lines.


  3. Ahhhhh…. I’m so pleased someone identified “Party Fears Two” as it wasn’t listed on the prog info and it has been like an itch I couldn’t scratch for several days now.
    I spent my formative years, professionally, in the mid/late seventies and agree with Mike, the music added much to the programme bringing back the memories of the era. Whoever chose the soundtrack has some talent – it’s easy to throw together a load of pop songs from the decade but the clever bit is picking tunes that sound as though they were written specifically for the show. eg “Year of the Cat” wouldn’t be an obvious choice as a background piece but it fitted perfactly. I’ll let them off with “living in the past” which is way too much of a cliche in this type of documentary.
    I wish the BBC would have the nerve to do more of this type of programme making, even if you don’t like the content you can marvel at the creativity.

  4. Neil,

    ‘Party Fears Two’ was in the trailer for the next episode so I hope that the Associates will be listed next week on the website along with all the other tracks that will hopefully be as well chosen as the last episode’s.

    I’m not sure how they edited ‘Year of the Cat’ but it worked superbly with the programme, as you say, it seemed to be the instrumental part at the end which was used at length.

    I had a similar moment of revelation when I used Shazam to identify a track I’d known but not identified for years and years. It was on Radio 2 as background music — ‘House of the King’ by Focus — that could just as easily been used on ‘The British At Work’.

  5. Ah..your memory of Charles Handy brought back memories of management study Mike!I was a middle manager in social services until I left to set up my own small enterprise in 1995 which is today doing well inspite of the recession. Its always been my belief that sucess comes niche marketting, keeping overheads down,treating people(your clients and own staff) as you would like to be treated, pay them well and give them flexiblity. I think my Company is an early good example of a virtual business . Anyhow what really triggered me in this post was your mention of The Steve Miller Bands ‘ ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ which I remember hearing on the Radio and buying as a teenager. There is so much about the 70’s I have fond memories of(inc the power cut candle lit dinners we were served up by my mum), the smell of parafin heaters, getting central heating installed in our council house! Do you remember (not sure you are old enough) the personal Top 10’s some of the pirate stations played sent in by listeners. When I was about 14/15 Radio North Sea International(or was it Radio Atlantis or Caroline) played mine(and I actually missed it!) – 1973- My number one was Stary Night/Vincent by Don Maclean. Riders on the Storm was up there too, byThe Doors( I am thinking of quoting the lyrics of the first verse of this song at the entrance to my novel) Smoke on the water(Deep Purple) and Sylvia by FOCUS(THE FIRST SINGLE I EVER BOUGHT)…OMG!
    Bren Gosling

  6. Bren,

    The torch for Sylvia by Focus is kept burning fairly frequently by Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 as he uses it for filling-in music sometimes when he hasn’t got enough time for a whole record (with singing) at the end of his show. I like that one too.

    I didn’t get that much into Pirate radio as I may have been slightly too young (Radio One with Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates, Tony Blackburn et. al. was my main memory) and also I was on the other side of the Pennines to the North Sea and so the signal didn’t carry very well.

    There have been a few interesting documentaries recently that have featured the 70s and 80s (as well as dramas like ‘Life on Mars). There was a really good one called ‘Electric Dreams’ that put a family back in the 70s with accurate period appliances and technology. It made me quite nostalgic. I’m not sure if every generation feels that but I wonder if there’s something a bit different about the 70s — it feels like it’s in a more innocent age (pre-Thatcherism and all the media explosion of the 80s onwards — in ‘Electric Dreams’ the children were most puzzled by only having three TV channels and no video).

    I suspect that period will still provide very fertile territory for novelists for a good 10 or 20 years to come — so long as you’re able to back up your memories with some research.


  7. yes…I agree, and not just because of nostagalia, the 1970’s are ripe fodder for a novelist.’Rich wallpaper ‘ if you get my meaning.
    Bren Gosling

  8. Glad the tracklisting details have been appreciated. Apologies for missing out ‘Party Fears Two’ – we were caught out by it featuring in the tease for part three, rather than the body of the programme. Will update the details now. Thanks to Michael for spotting it.


    ‘British at Work’ team

  9. Thanks for the comment Eamonn and the ‘British at Work’ team.

    I’ll be looking forward to tonight’s episode and trying to identify the music –the 80s are probably the era I’m notionally strongest at in this regard. Then I’ll mark myself afterwards by comparing it with the tracklisting on the web site. If I’m organised enough I’ll post up my success (or otherwise) on the blog.

  10. These are the ones I identified from tonight’s episode, before I’d looked at the track listing. I might comment on that in the morning.

    Quiet Life – Japan
    Blue Monday – New Order
    When Am I Going To Make A Living – Sade
    Electricity – OMD
    Ghost Town – Specials
    One in Ten – UB40
    Town Called Malice – Jame
    Wham! Rap – Wham!
    Frankly Mr Shankly – The Smiths
    We Live So Fast – Heaven 17
    Same Old Scene – Roxy Music
    Happy House – Siouxie and the Banshees
    Seconds – Human League
    Penthouse and Pavement – Heaven 17
    Sound of the Crowd – Human League

    I particularly liked the bit of video for Penthouse and Pavement and the use of the two lesser known tracks from Dare. And the juxtaposition of Wham! Rap (got to get those exclamation marks right) and Frankly Mr Shankly said more about the 80s than a Guardian article full of social commentary.

  11. As this now seems to be the official place to discuss the track listings of The British At Work, what is the tune in episode four, between ‘1 Thing’, and ‘Erase / Rewind’? Around the 12 minute mark onwards. 😛

  12. The last episode of “The British at Work” featured the changes in Management Style. Back in 1969 I investigated (among otherthings) the effects of status diferentials between management levels on the accuracy of their comunication in 7 electronic factories. I used a 10 item questionnaire in cartoon format to rate each company’s status culture such as range of toilet facilities, company cars & parking, dining areas etc. Then we had the whole range from some showing traditional British restraint to brash US technology companies just arriving in the UK.
    Although a complex subject in general the more equalitarian companies showed more honest comunication between management pairs superior/subordinate.
    I’d be pleased to discuss my study more.

  13. Hi there,

    I missed the first episode covering Britain after the 2nd world war, does anyone know where I can get hold of it now?


  14. Thanks for visiting the blog and a good question — maybe someone reading this can help?

    I’ve just looked on Amazon and there don’t seem to be any DVD sets in the offing. It’s the sort of programme that does tend to be repeated relatively frequently on the likes of BBC4 so I’d suggest looking carefully at the TV listings. It would almost be worth buying the DVD for the music alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *