TV review: Paul O'Grady's Working Britain

He’s best known as the feisty drag queen Lily Savage, before gravitating to TV chat show favourite, a friend of dogs and an enemy of the Conservatives against whom he launched a diatribe over cuts to welfare on a live TV programme.

Room on top – Paul O’Grady follows his aunt as a clippie
Room on top – Paul O’Grady follows his aunt as a clippie

Paul O’Grady’s abrasive style and thick accent make him one of those comedians you either love or hate, or even love to hate, but there’s no doubting his talent.

Despite living in the leafy south of England, the Scouser from Birkenhead still sees himself as proud working class despite his wealthy status and he is determined to go back to his roots and explore the history of his tribe in the UK.

For O’Grady, these were the people who made Britain great, from the dark days of the Industrial Revolution to the hairnets and rubber gloves of the factory line.

But he asks the question what happened when these jobs were no more? Travelling from his childhood town of Birkenhead to Clyde in Glasgow, he discovers the factories and mines that were at the heart of industry and the effects of their disappearance as a result of the de-industrialisation of the UK throughout the eighties and nineties.

He returns to Liverpool and talks to people with memories of one of the more enlightened mass employers of the post war era, Lever Brothers. This firm was one of a dying breed which could see that looking after its staff ultimately paid off with better profits for them.

They even built a village with cheap housing for workers, not unlike Cadbury’s in Birmingham.

He spent a short time getting a feel of the jobs his family undertook, with stints blacking a fire grate as a servant – his mother was service – a bus conductor, like his aunt who was a ‘clippie’, crawling down a mineshaft and finally had a stint in a call centre, the kind of environment that now employs the modern day working class. All quite entertaining and informative

There was footage of the Jarrow Crusade during the 1930s depression where more than 200 men marched from the Northeast to London to highlight the plight of the jobless after the local shipyard closed and newsreels of how the working class became the driving force behind the war effort against Hitler’s Nazis in the factories and fields.

It then randomly switched to a meeting with black workers, supported by local MP Tony Benn back in the 1960s who launched a boycott against a bus company in Bristol which operated a colour bar and refused to employ black people.

The programme demonstrated O’Grady’s easy charm with people, his wit and sharp humour. Some of the anger about the decimation of heavy industries comes through and he was unable to resist a pop at Margaret Thatcher and her battle with the miners.

But was also disjointed and lacked structure and it’s difficult to see exactly what point he is trying to make.

The most telling point came towards the end of his stint in the call centre where he chatted to a group of young workers. Did they feel working class, he asked them. Most said they felt they lived in a classless society.

While moderately entertaining, it is to be hoped the second programme delves deeper into what being working class was really all about.

Bill McCarthy

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Comments for: "TV review: Paul O'Grady's Working Britain"


I never see the Midlands covered in these programmes, that would take a whole series with the amount of closure's around the birmingham and the black country

Boris Johnson

"While moderately entertaining, it is to be hoped the second programme delves deeper into what being working class WAS really all about."

Bill, I think that your use of the past tense implies that you missed O'Grady's core point, which is what of the working class now, where for a generation we've been told that we no longer exist as a social grouping. However, of course, the working class haven't gone away, whether we're lucky enough to have a job or not. Sadly though, it now seems the working class majority is relatively powerless to defend its own collective interests.

This week though, my bins were emptied, I was served with my shopping at the supermarket, and I went to work at my low-paid job on a bus with its very own driver. No matter how tightly the rich and self-serving politicians squeeze their eyes shut, we haven't gone anywhere. What has been depleted is our spirit and sense of positive identity. That, I think, was the main point of Paul O'Grady's presentation.

So far it has been both interesting and refreshing, and I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

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