Following on from my series of posts on The Young Ones and history, PhD student at University of Melbourne, Lauren Piko, has written this guest post on popular culture in the John Major years, focusing on the portrayal of work and unemployment in 1990s sitcom Men Behaving Badly. I hadn’t paid much attention to the show when it aired here on the ABC, but Lauren’s analysis is fabulous. Hopefully she can provide more of the same in the future! As usual, I do accept guest posts on this blog from time to time, but they do have to be on-topic. So now for the main event…
Work and unemployment in Men Behaving Badly
Men Behaving Badly screened on British TV from the years 1992 to 1999, and positions itself as a sitcom exploring ‘lad culture’, gender roles, and the differences and similarities between men and women. Yet less obviously, alongside this explicit gender focus, Men Behaving Badly illustrates changing trends in cultural representations of work and unemployment during the 1990s. In particular, the characters of Tony and Deborah in series 3 through to 6 go through experiences of unemployment which indicate some tendency towards the phenomenon being normalised. On the one hand, Tony’s experience of carefree unemployment represents a shift towards the greater acceptability of unemployment as an economic reality. Yet on the other Deb’s experience is much darker, and the show doesn’t flinch from describing her depression and soul-searching after losing her job. Moreover, Gary’s steady job is presented as unfulfilling, further complicating the picture and suggesting that ‘jobs for life’ are not necessarily an ideal outcome.
The ideal of full employment was generally accepted by both Labour and Conservative governments as a political goal during the early postwar years. The rising unemployment figures in the 1970s were reported on with apocalyptic intensity as numbers reached one million. As this figure rose dramatically, there grew some level of acceptance even amongst the Labour Party that unemployment was, or even should be, a permanent feature of the economic landscape. This view was consolidated under the Thatcher government, where relatively high unemployment was redefined as an economic necessity and as evidence of the government’s fearlessness in taking tough measures against inflation. (See Evan’s post here)
Series 3 of Men Behaving Badly was broadcast in 1994, while the British economy was still experiencing the effects of the 1987 financial crash. While the British economy was officially out of recession by 1993, this growth was shaky and unemployment levels were at nearly 3 million. In this series, Men Behaving Badly first started to deal with the unstable job market.
Tony’s working life is fairly itinerant, describing himself as having had 72 jobs in the last 15 years (S5E6). He is repeatedly unemployed throughout series 3 to 6. This begins when his record stand at the covered market literally ‘collapses’ (S3E2):
Deborah: What happened to your record business?
Tony: It just collapsed, you know.
Deborah: It’s the recession, isn’t it.
Tony: No, I mean I came back one lunchtime and half the stall had collapsed and smashed most of the records.
He appears essentially happy with his unemployed life, watching children’s tv and eating cereal during the day, and describing his lifestyle as ‘brilliant’. He gets a job as a barman at their local pub the Crown in Series 3 Episode 4:
…only to lose it when the bar is unexpectedly closed down (S5E3). Tony is re-employed at the new Crown in the following episode. These jobs are represented as underemployment, in which he continues to financially rely on Gary for rent and expenses. He takes a long break from work in order to backpack around Europe with no mention of how he funds this or what effect this long holiday has on his employment. There is no mention of his receiving any kind of government benefits or support at any time, and considering the morally condemnatory framework placed around drawing on National Insurance during the Thatcher years, it is perhaps unsurprising that the show’s creators sought to avoid what had become explicitly political territory. The implication is that he is fully supported financially by Gary, with Gary suggesting that his work with Tony qualifies him for charitable status (S5E6 – jump to 6 minutes in):
Gary: Well Tony’s my charity, isn’t he, he never pays me any rent. I’m running a one-man shelter group here, I could get a grant from the council for my work with Tony.
Deborah’ experience of unemployment is arguably much more realistic and presents a darker counterpoint to Tony’s story. Deborah is made redundant from her job as a restaurant manager at the same time as Tony loses his job, (S3E2) and considers selling her flat to make ends meet. She describes her life as ‘empty’ and she becomes increasingly depressed at her life being on hold while ‘most of her friends are settling down and moving away.’ When she shares her frustrations and feelings of pointlessness with Tony, also unemployed at this time, their responses indicate how different their experiences are:
DEBORAH: I haven’t worked for ages, I don’t do anything all day, if it wasn’t for worrying about bedsores I probably wouldn’t get out of bed at all.
TONY: Me too. Brilliant.
She gets another job quickly but is made redundant again between series 4 and 5. She becomes depressed again, closing herself in her flat in the dark ruminating over her unpaid bills (S5E1). Deborah resolves this not by getting another job in the restaurant industry, but by choosing to go back to university to study psychology – effectively taking the opportunity to spark a career change. This decision to embark on further study was increasingly common over the 1990s for those with financial means to do so. It also reflects Deborah embracing an adaptive stance in an environment where the idea of a steady job for life, or even career path for life, is no longer something that she expects.
The world of steady employment, most frequently seen through Gary’s job in a security firm, is not necessarily seen as ideal, secure, or happy. Gary’s job is not a source of pleasure to him, yet he has given most of his life to it, starting as an office junior straight out of school, and working up to the position of regional manager. George and Anthea, Gary’s employees who have been with the company for decades, are pleasant but self-consciously dull characters who are resigned to their lot in life. When Gary is discovered to have saved £33,000 over the course of his working life, while his hoarding is criticised by the other characters who attempt to get their share, Dorothy recognises too that this has been Gary’s reward for “spending 15 years in a job you hate”. Unlike Deborah, Gary does not consider career change despite being bored at work; while not trapped in this job, it is presented chiefly as a tool for Gary to pursue his main interest of getting drunk after work.
Yet ultimately the show is centred around a celebration of the leisured life Gary can lead because of his job. Gary’s, and indeed Tony’s leisure depends on Gary’s labour. Gary’s endurance of tedious, unfulfilling work is the foundation on which the series rests, facilitating the very ‘lad culture’ which appears to reject the notion of responsible work. In the post-industrial Britain of Men Behaving Badly, increased leisure is built into the economic structure, not only through the celebration of consumption, but also through the redefinition of unemployment as both necessary and potentially positive. While on one level Men Behaving Badly celebrates this relationship of work to leisure, the darker realism of Deborah’s experiences of unemployment challenge the idea that Gary’s lifelong job, and general lifestyle, is perpetually secure or sustainable. As such the economic concerns explored in Men Behaving Badly are more complex than might immediately appear when exploring the gendered reading the show elicits on the surface. Its depictions of work, leisure, and unemployment are ambiguous at times, with its supposed celebrations of ‘lad culture’ undercut by a sense of living on borrowed time. Men Behaving Badly is ultimately an uneasy celebration of post-Thatcher Britain, one which relates to its economic setting with trepidation as well as acceptance.