The return of the ‘Call Centre’

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

Firstly, interests to declare: Lord, I am from that ugly, lovely town that is Swansea. Secondly, I worked, albeit over 10 years ago, in a call centre. This I feel places me in an ideal position to comment upon and assess BBC3’s latest attempt to hold the working classes up to a distorted mirror.  I want to write about the return of the docu soap set in the Save Britain Money call centre, Swansea.

Based around the larger than life uber boss, Nev Wilshire, the Call Centre aired as a five episode series in the summer of 2013. The show’s energy came principally from the David Brent like Nev, but also under the visual microscope were the lives and aspirations of his workforce – the majority of whom were under 26 and jaw-droppingly candid.

Series one was coarse, exhilarating, frequently touching and often hilarious. Indeed, episode 4 illustrated all of the above points with regularity. It began with Nev venturing into the women’s toilets to investigate a case of defecation in a receptacle other than a toilet. Yes, somebody had had a number 2 in a bin. This, only mildly mark you, disconcerted Nev who reasonably enough pointed out that, ‘we haven’t got a company policy on shitting in the bins. It’s something we’ll have to rectum – fy.’

It was the logistics of the act, though, which puzzled sales agent Chelsea, 21. She pointed out that the bin which held the offending object was a long thin one, intended for the disposal of Tampax. ‘How the hell’, she mused, ‘they got their arse cheek on there to shit through there I don’t know’.

So this is the office environment as evidenced in the Call Centre. Week after week we saw Nev roam his kingdom dispensing his particular brand of wisdom, cajoling and bollocking, matchmaking and arm wrestling, but above all seeking to create an atmosphere where people were relaxed and happy enough to ‘cold call’ all day.  Happy people sell is the mantra he goes by – and, by God, if people aren’t happy, he tries to make sure they get happy.  Episode 2 saw him organise a piss up in a brewery, to rapturous approval.

What do make of Nev, then? Completely unreconstructed his management style appeared to be modelled on Gene Hunt from ‘Life on Mars’ crossed with Cilla Black circa Blind Date. The evident sexism, border line bullying and general inappropriate behaviour ranging from enforced singing to the abuse of office furniture, would lead one to think that his methods could not possibly succeed and even if they did, he would be loathed by his underlings. Not a bit of it. He was clearly adored by his staff – male and female – and beneath the bluster there were numerous incidents of kindness and compassion. A clearly intelligent man, Nev acted (and you did sense so much acting going on) as a father figure to a particularly cheeky group of young monkeys.

And what impression of young people did we get from the programme? Well, obsession with looks and sex in general was always to the fore. Who’d have thought it? The audience, I’ll bet anyway, looked on aghast, with self-righteous horror as one unnamed agent said, ‘I wanted to be small with big boobs….what girl doesn’t? It’s just something everyone wants I suppose’. Actually, she may have had a point there, as 19 year old Corey, the (male) body builder illustrated whilst in the gym. He was adamant that his girlfriend, Chloe, 21, had smaller breasts than he did. Of this fact he was clearly very proud.

So there was much to ridicule, much to titillate the superior twitterati as they salivated over their iPhones eager to pounce on the latest, cringe worthy truisms uttered by an inveterate group of people for whom the sexual revolution is a nightclub in Ibiza.

This is of course what the programme makers wanted. We have a curious attitude in this country to documentary style programmes. We expect them to tell us the truth. We imagine an honesty of purpose and tend to forget that the material is organised in such a way as to lead us to form certain perceptions and attitudes. From episode 4 of the Call Centre we could be forgiven for thinking that the entire workforce smoked like beagles whilst preening themselves in front of a giant imaginary mirror.

But subtext is important. Modern day telesales is an unforgiving environment where every movement of the agent is tracked, where targets must be met, where the often vitriolic abuse meted out by an outraged public can take its toll very quickly indeed. This working atmosphere is relentless and the need to rack up sale after sale leads many of the workers to end their shifts drenched in sweat with the pressures of it all.

At least the film makers acknowledged the precariousness of the job. We saw agents leave their desks one minute, and head for the lifts the next. No time to pack, no time to say goodbye. In the words of the genuinely charming tea lady, Hayley, ‘I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to them and that is sad. I did lose a few mates…..mates that I looked forward to seeing on a Monday morning.’

That for me was the key to the series – there was, amongst the staggering sexism, heavy air of forced banter and a real fear of losing one’s job, a sense of community evident. The collective experience and camaraderie seemed to sustain them. They really were all in the same boat. And these were young people working (let’s not forget that fact: they were doing just that – working) in a job most of us simply could not do. Why they said things to the camera that would make a docker wince requires further analysis of course. But that’s for another time. Maybe after the second series has finished.

As shorter version of this article appears here: Wales Online