This is an extended conference paper by Lauren Pikó and myself, originally presented at the Eric Richards British and Australian History conference earlier this year. It is part of an on-going research project that we are working on looking at representations of political and socio-economic change in modern Britain through television comedies. Our previous work on The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly can be read here.
“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.” – Alan Partridge
While many have discussed the North/South divide in England that has widened since the days of Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, many have overlooked the divide between London and the regional south-east, where the divide between Greater London and its surrounding counties has become increasingly blurred in a geographic sense, but a stark contrast has emerged socio-economically. Cities as far away as Norwich in East Anglia have become commuter towns to London, while conversely, much of the non-customer service work that used to be conducted for the city has been moved out to its outliers, such as Slough and Staines. In these commuter towns and outlying places in the Greater London region, the workplace (and the working class) has become irrevocably changed by the shift away from industry and manufacturing to service industries and white-collar office work. London, to those on its fringes, is not a place of opportunity, but an expensive and anonymous place to be avoided.
This post looks at how this regional divide plays out in three British sitcoms made in the Blair years, which normalised and encoded the economic transformations of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership. These are I’m Alan Partridge (set in Norwich), Da Ali G Show (set in Staines) and The Office (set in Slough). Through their liminal fringe south-eastern settings, and their tortured main male characters, these programmes negotiate the tensions and borders between ‘Middle England’ and the glamorous, but ultimately unfamiliar metropolis.
Liminal spaces in the Blairite metropolis
The explicit divide-and-rule policies of the Thatcher governments pitted the post-industrial service-based economies overwhelmingly located in the south-east of England against heavy industries, manufacturing, and those associated with communities in the North of England, by exploiting deindustrialising macroeconomic trends and weaponising them against communities and regions who were politically hostile to the new political order. While this phenomenon has been well explored by historians, it is significant to note that it was understood as an explicit and overt policy at the time; the very concept of “the enemy within” during the Miners’ Strike exemplifies Thatcherite attempts to Other and present northern working-class communities as not only outside of national norms, but as being in opposition to it.
The willingness of the Thatcher governments to accelerate and weaponise wider global macroeconomic trends against communities it judged as hostile helped establish a new economic geography of Britain, which was also mapped onto a moral political rhetoric. The fullest expression of this rhetoric would be developed under the Major government, through the concept of “Middle England”. While this was far from being a historically new term, its usage during the mid-1990s came to reflect a historically specific set of economic and class allegiances associated with suburban petit-bourgeois individualism, a hostility to working-class cultures and to state “intervention”. Middle Englanders were associated with the geography of south-eastern England’s post-industrial economies that had been encouraged by Conservative deregulation of urban planning protections. From the extensive service and logistics industries populating the new geographies of out of town “industrial estates”, the transformation of motorway sidings through the expansion of “services”, “big-box” distributing centres and fringe leisure complexes, the primary and visible economic functions of British landscapes changed drastically during the 1980s and through the 1990s.
At the same time as these communities and regions were being actively redefined as outside of the national norm, the Thatcher governments actively cultivated the idea of a south-eastern English aspirational middle class aesthetic, lifestyle and individualistic value set as a universal norm and as an ideal moral and economic type of its voting base. Through political rhetoric and the constant media generation of associated ideotypes such as Essex Man, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man, and White Van Man, the conceptualisation of the typical or privileged voter as white, male, lower-middle-class, and south-eastern English were codified through cycles of political and media repetition. This process established a mythological norm which privileged a specific image of embattled bourgeois whiteness and presented it as intrinsically linked to the new forms of productivity generated by the south-eastern English landscape.
This would become all the more profoundly normalised as the Blair government, elected in 1997, deliberately refrained from attempting to remedy these drastic changes to maintain their idea of political legitimacy. For all its rhetoric of change, its appeals to authority relied primarily on making only superficial aesthetic changes to the existing economic order; the divisions left by the Thatcher governments could only have been addressed through the kind of interventionism and regulation which postwar Labour governments had used to shape and control market influence, and these were no longer seen to be politically palatable to a “New” Labour. While they were elected on a hopeful campaign promising change from 18 years of Conservative rule, one of the Blair governments’ primary political contributions was to reinforce the neoliberalisation of the British state. While high-profile support for Blair amongst musicians, comedians, and writers peaked during 1996 and 1997 at the time of the election, once New Labour began to be seen as business as usual, this mood mellowed.
British television comedy in the 1990s
The history of British television comedy defies easy compartmentalization and the rise and fall of different comedy trend are difficult to categorize. On a broad level, the mid-to-late 1990s can be somewhat characterized as the start of a shift away from the ‘laddish’ comedy culture of the early-to-mid-1990s, typified by Baddiel & Skinner and Men Behaving Badly. Tim Edwards has described this as the ‘New Lad’ phenomenon, which spanned television, film, magazines and novels, pointing to the following examples:
The BBC situation comedy, Men Behaving Badly, gam shows such as They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels… in very different ways play upon and invoke the theme of the New Lad. Loud and sexist humour often tied in with rudeness and bad behaviour, if not extreme violence, characterize all of these representations of masculinity that, for the most part, appear to have direct appeal to a young, aggressive and sel-consciously working class male audience or its admirers.
The ‘laddish’ comedy trend had originally been partly in reaction to the ‘political correctness’ of the alternative comedies of the 1980s, such as The Young Ones and The Comedy Strip Presents. Many sitcoms in the 1990s took the flatmate/sharehouse premise and extended it, often with the protagonists no longer being students (like in the Young Ones), but now older, in some form of employment and in some form of relationship. Furthermore, these were comedies were dominated by men, often in their late 20s or early 30s, putting off the pressures of ‘adulthood’. This can be seen in Men Behaving Badly and Game On (and later in shows like Coupling, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and even Peep Show). The locations that these shows are set in are the traditional house or flat, as well as the pub/bar and sometimes the workplace). Most, except for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, were set in London. In many ways, these shows reflect a transition in the way in which the British family and household were changing in the 1990s, as people were increasingly likely to buy a house and start a family later in life.
The shows that we are looking at transgress these traditional settings, moving away from the home and the communal area of the pub to the workplace and the liminal spaces on the edges of the metropolis. The programmes under examination here all formally depart from classic sitcom formulae and from the domestic setting of many popular comedies from prior to 1997. All are located in liminal south-Eastern English cities and within these, in “non-place” post-industrial settings (motorway sidings; industrial estates; suburbia/housing estates). They all share a critical and subversive relationship to television comedy genres, and all use a form of humour which deliberately provokes the edges of social norms through their main male characters. In this post, we examine the relationship between the liminal landscapes and liminal values these programmes navigate, and use them to trace the social, economic and geographic normalisation of neoliberalism during the early Blair government.
I’m Alan Partridge
The first series of I’m Alan Partridge aired from November 1997. A successor to the sketch show The Day Today and to the talk show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, the programme continued to document Steve Coogan’s character of a failed Norwich-based television and radio presenter in a new context. While using a laugh track, I’m Alan Partridge adopts a fly-on-the-wall style which at times approaches documentary style. The series opens with Alan living in one of the typical liminal spaces of the post-Thatcherite deregulated south-eastern English landscape; Linton Travel Tavern, a carefully fictionalised Travelodge located on the motorway services halfway between London and Norwich. Alan’s life is in a similar transitional space, as he fails to negotiate a new BBC contract, his optimistically titled autobiography Bouncing Back fails, and he is forced to liquidate his production company.
The gap between Alan’s aspirations and failures is mirrored in part through his occupation of what Marc Augé termed the “non-places” of late capitalism; motorway sidings, service stations, carparks, ring roads. Partridge’s comfort with these settings even as he seeks to escape them is central to the humour of the programme, with his conservative enjoyment of mass produced foods, music, and even clothing which are so mainstream as to be passé. Like Alan’s preferences for consumption, and the settings of the programme, the plots satirise ideas and aesthetics which presume the audience is both familiar with and therefore contemptuous of, with Alan’s failure to realise his own faux pas making him the target of jokes. Phillip Wickham has written that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘broadcast in the year of raised hopes as New Labour came to power in 1997, suggests a world where… the individual has become dislocated from society and where codes of personal morality, solidarity and self-belief are rendered meaningless’.
The second series of I’m Alan Partridge, broadcast in 2002, shifted its setting to Alan’s caravan and under-construction Barratt-style home, further exploited Underpinning these stories of Alan’s striving for status are flashes of narratives of repression, whether of his innermost sexual desires or reflections on past breakdowns. Even while he constantly seeks to escape his surroundings, his antipathy to London as the site of his professional failures, and indeed any other city, region or country, entraps him with his refusal to transcend the comforts of what he knows.
Da Ali G Show
The first series of Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2000 on Channel 4. In some ways Ali G echoed Coogan’s earlier invocation of Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in its constant attempts to subvert the format of a smoothly functioning talk show by introducing tension (interrupting music segments, simulating mistakes and technical failures). Much of the humour, however, arose from actively exploiting the guile of guests who believed the show would conform to conventional talk show formulae. While creator Sasha Baron-Cohen, like fellow character creators Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, subsequently took these characters into other settings (including America) in subsequent series, the setting of the first series of Da Ali G Show is frequently referred to as Staines, the staid Middlesex commuter town on subsumed into the exurbia of London’s Western fringes.
The gap between Ali G’s persona and the show’s setting exploits racialised stereotypes of “urban yoof” subcultures associated with inner cities, and the gentrified commuter landscape of the fringes of Greater London. The gap between expectations of what is “allowed” to be said and what Ali G, Borat, or Bruno would in fact say, and the ensuing discomfort of guests and audiences, relies on the perception of being “out of place”, mirroring the programme’s juxtaposition of stereotypes with their setting. Locating Ali G in an implied stronghold of Middle England works to subvert both the supposed homogeneity of the ideotype, and to point to the limits of cultural and political stereotypings of race, class, and youth subcultures. The space between expectation and reality as a source of recognition for the audience, as well as of humour, is mirrored in the programme’s landscape as well as its social relations.
This was especially the case in The Office (airing from 2001), which used mockumentary style to depict the mundanity of working life in the regional office of Wernham Hogg paper company, located in Slough. Existing on the fringes of the London commuter belt, Slough represents an anonymous ‘anywhere’ in Britain outside of London proper, but is also a representation of the ‘local, specific and particular’. As Tara Brabazon has suggested, The Office represents ‘the specificity of a post-Blair, post-union, post-industrial, post-feminist, insular, open-plan office’.
The setting of the comedy in Slough, and its regional tensions with Swindon branch, is inextricably interwoven with the aimlessness and escapist desires of its main characters, who are presented as socially and economically enmeshed with their unfulfilling environment. This underpins both the normative characters Tim and Dawn, whose dissatisfaction is expressed overtly, and through the escapist, compulsive approval seeking of the office manager David Brent, who barely sublimates his dreams of fame and an exceptional life into being a “cool boss”.
Like Partridge, however, Brent’s affection for the landscape of his entrapment reinforces his wider social failings: in an interview scene where Brent reads and ineptly critiques John Betjeman’s poem “Slough”, his defense of the town is represented as over-familiarity with the undesirable or distasteful, much as his racism, ableism, sexism, and general insensitivity is ostensibly mocked for its failure to conform to new social norms. Brent’s escapist desires is offset by his desperation to keep his job, which he is fired from as he stretches his “relaxed” attitude to the point of untenability. With an identity predicated on stretching the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour, Brent’s workplace persona relies on remaining in tension with social and economic expectations, much as his regional office is a tense and precarious link in the wider supply chain of Wernham Hogg.
We propose that the shared humour style of representation in these programmes, and the landscapes they depict, are distinctly related. Cringe humour can be seen in this way as one that plays with uneasy interpellations, and the tensions and liminal spaces of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and unfamiliarity. It relies on the audience recognising particular character types, settings, and situations, but identifying with them at least partly unwillingly, whether through recognising social faux pas, vulnerable emotions, or behaviours that are outside of the established norm. The humour in each of these programmes derives from discomfort, whether that of the audience, the main character/s, or other characters reacting with distaste due to their expectations of a social norm not being met. The gap between uplifting rhetoric and economic realities is presented as the source of displeasure, unfulfilment, and the striving for places and economic roles outside the norm; the characters either want to escape, or are ridiculed for their level of comfort with the new environment. Unlike comic forebears such as Abigail’s Party, whose satires of social mores responded to suburbia and which ended in tragedy, these comedies are workplace-focused with a heavy emphasis on individual pursuits of fame as an exit-strategy. In these comedies, the failed promises of neoliberal economics and the landscapes which it has created are inextricable subjects of ridicule.
Cringing is a form of emplaced dramatic irony, making reference to the uneasy space between familiarity and contempt, knowing and wishing not to know, while locating the audience as a moral arbiter over the characters’ failures to differentiate the behaviours that are dictated and required by this particular setting. In the programmes under discussion here, the use of post-industrial “non places” reinforces and emphasises the literal “edgy-ness” of the type of humour being used; familiar and yet distasteful, both inside and outside of the expectations of the projected audiences. On the one hand these can be contextualised within longer patterns of elite satire of mainstream working conditions, lifestyles and aesthetics which recur throughout modern British culture, however these comedies deliberately targeted settings, lifestyles and expectations in ways which were made possible by their being both relatively historically new and deeply familiar and recognisable. The constant juxtaposition of emotional repression and economic striving, and perpetual entrapment within liminal, unfulfilling spaces not only shapes the humour of these programmes but maps them onto the specific post-industrial landscape of south-eastern England, which are seen as familiar but also as morally desolate sites of discomfort, precarity and unease.
 Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); “The Strange Birth of Middle England,” Political Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2005).
Imogen Tyler, “”Chav Mum Chav Scum”,” Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2008); T. Jensen and I. Tyler, “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense,” Critical Social Policy 35, no. 4 (2015); Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Class and Contemporary British Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Tim Edwards, ‘Sex, Booze and Fags: Masculinity, Style and Men’s Magazines’, Sociological Review, 51/1 (2003).
 Marc Augé, Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1995).
 Phillip Wickham, ‘British Situation Comedy and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2013).
 Joe Moran, On Roads (London: Profile Books, 2009); “‘Subtopias of Good Intentions’: Everyday Landscapes in Postwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 3 (2007).
 Tara Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”: The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1 (2005).
 Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”’.