Get off the floor Mr. Harman.
February 18, 2013 6:50 AM   Subscribe

How historically accurate is the portrayal of the interaction between the worker/labor class and the sales/middle class in the British sitcom 'Are You Being Served?"

So, I like the show but I can't help but wonder at some of the assumptions/portrayals that the writers seem to bring up throughout the show.

Yes, I know it's a sitcom and I know how sitcoms tend to exaggerate things but I wasn't old enough (read:born) to understand how they did things during the timeframe when it was produced, nor have I ever had the chance to experience British culture outside of a casual friend or two so things like transport strikes or socialized paid maternity leave (both things that are mentioned within the first few shows) aren't in my wheelhouse either.
But those are subsidiary to the main question, mostly the interactions between Mr.Mash / Mr.Harman and the other characters are what interest me.

I'm re-rewatching the series now and haven't gotten that far yet but even within the first few episodes it's been mentioned that the middle management/white collar staff make less money than Mr.Mash who is, admittedly a long tenured, blue collar worker. This isn't something that's totally foreign to me having worked in industrial settings where union employees can, and often do, bring home large paychecks but I just wonder if lower/middle-echelon white collar workers in that place/time really were making the pittance of wages they make themselves out to make.

Ditto for the speaking tendencies and ultra-proper, to an American like me anyway, manner of addressing each other. Like Mr.Mash and other blue collar workers not being allowed on the floor after the store is open, different bathroom/dining privileges, and the constant uncomfortable overstatement of this worker or the other "being free, at the moment". Again, I know a bit of this has to be sitcom pandering and gag loyalty mixed in with a good bit of camp acting.

I guess there's a bit of me that doesn't think the secretary/female ass-slapping could be anywhere near as bad as it's portrayed either but I don't want the male/female aspect to be too much of a distraction from the social focus of the question.

Where is this palpable and distinct tension between the two groups of people coming from? Is it based solely upon their... roles? jobs? backgrounds? income? union membership? a combination thereof?

Thanks.
posted by RolandOfEld to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's been a fairly long time since I've regularly seen Are You Being Served, but to me it's always seemed like the sales staff are barely, if at all, above the level of the maintenance staff, and that most of the ridiculousness comes from these obviously working class folks putting on middle/upper class airs. The maintenance characters serve as much as anything as a reminder that no matter how snootily they behave, the sales staff is always going to be closer in status to them than they are to their customers.

The maintenance people are open and brazen about their status and working hard to get the best of it, while the sales people are aspiring to demonstrate a more leisurely, higher status life and sacrificing financially to do that by not working as hard or getting paid as much, while still not actually being higher status.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:45 AM on February 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


Well, remember that the sitcom was made in the 60s/70s - now a very long time ago, temporar-ily and culturally - so some of that will reflect social attitudes of the time - whether real or as acceptable comedy tropes.
posted by mippy at 7:45 AM on February 18, 2013


I was raised watching that show! My parents are British, left in the seventies (at the start of the series) and came to Canada. I have been in the UK quite a bit the past little while. SO, my personal reflections as discussed with my parents a few minutes ago:

Class is still hugely important in the UK and at the time were even more so. Nuances of accent are beyond my comprehension but there was definitely a difference in treatment of others I observed based on accent just recently. Personal anecdotes indicate it was much worse in the past. Formality is still incredibly stiff to me (and as a Canadian we are noticeably more formal than most American situation) - so I see no problem accepting it was more or less accurate in the show. My father thought the show was a bit more informal than in his experience of that time period. He had to refer to all his "betters" as sir and always give them differential treatment (if there was a queue for something, the queue would vanish so the superior could "go to the head of the line" and reform after the superior so the superior would not even realise they had jumped the queue). I found my recent experience also had a level of formality I personally thought was ridiculous although not quite as bad as the show.

It was true in his experience that blue collar workers such as himself earned more than his immediate superiors, usually through copious overtime/shift premiums that were not available to the superiors who were expected to work long and hard hours to earn promotions to levels where the big bucks were (...the more things change, this is somewhat true in my unionised organisation today). Because of the union membership everyone knew what everyone else was really making, which affected what they thought of people living outside their means. (this is something I find nowadays people try to "keep up with the Jones', not knowing the Jones' are making less money than them and funding their life through credit...)

My parents found roles were very rigid and there was certainly an element of "crab in the bucket" going on and with people putting on airs (my aunt has a near-cockney accent when social with family but her is almost unrecognisable when talking to her in a work or formal situation - her accent, and mannerisms completely change; this is an unconscious coping mechanism as a holdover from years ago). My mum reports the sexual harassment was pervasive and not at all amusing as it is shown in the show. Both of them knew gay men who really were that camp and were accepted for the most part, even though them being actually gay was never outright acknowledged.

At that time, pretty much the only way for social mobility was through marriage (which was unlikely), jobs were definitely restricted to certain classes and the classes very much kept to themselves in schools, work, shopping and social life.
posted by saucysault at 8:09 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, kinda what jacquilynne said - the characters (as far as I can remember, it has been decades since I last saw any reruns) are all actually broadly lower-middle class, and the distinctions between the white collar shopfloor staff and the maintenance workers were not as distinct as either side believed. Brits have always had a strong sense of class, but the divisions and distinctions are often based on (arguably imagined) shared experiences and communities. Before the 1960s only 1% of the nation identified as middle class (can't remember the citation, I think it was a Gallup poll).

Another angle to understand in this complex self-selecting class divide is that while the show was produced in the 1970s, many of the characters (and, by association, the audience) remember and were part of the post-war years of austerity. Retail probably meant a great deal to their sense of self worth.

I can't answer your question directly wrt Mr Mash (hopefully other fans of the show will jump in). I also don't know if maintenance workers commanded higher wages than the middle managers, but there was certainly growing animosity toward the trade unions who were demanding higher wages from the early 70s. Politically, the nation was divided (there were two general elections in 1974), and by the end of the 1970s Old Labour was effectively ended and Thatcherism began.
posted by dumdidumdum at 8:14 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and another thing regarding the wages of middle-management/blue collar; there was a household economy to factor into it. The blue collar workers had started working full-time at 15 when they left school, usually lived at home a few years before getting a council flat (basically rent-controlled housing) and really only had to pay for necessities and without the need for fancy vacations/huge wardrobes/refurnishing their house every five years. It was not that unusual for women to work after marriage until they got pregnant. The middle management types had usually gone to university (for free!) and then started working in their twenties, at which point it was expected they "keep up appearances", get married to a a wife that stayed at home and live in a respectable neighbourhood (usually subsidised by their families - although for some reason I more often hear about the wife's family chipping in to keep her at the level she was accustomed to as kind of a dowry). Failing to keep up appearances impacted the man's career trajectory but the realisty of setting up a proper house usually exceeded the available salary.
posted by saucysault at 8:27 AM on February 18, 2013


Amazing answers so far. Thanks!

it's always seemed like the sales staff are barely, if at all, above the level of the maintenance staff, and that most of the ridiculousness comes from these obviously working class folks putting on middle/upper class airs. The maintenance characters serve as much as anything as a reminder that no matter how snootily they behave, the sales staff is always going to be closer in status to them than they are to their customers.

Spot on.

My father thought the show was a bit more informal than in his experience of that time period. He had to refer to all his "betters" as sir and always give them differential treatment (if there was a queue for something, the queue would vanish so the superior could "go to the head of the line" and reform after the superior so the superior would not even realise they had jumped the queue).

Wow, this is exactly what I was hunting for with regards to the question. That's amazing to me, but not unbelievable, especially in light of the show itself.

my aunt has a near-cockney accent when social with family but her is almost unrecognisable when talking to her in a work or formal situation - her accent, and mannerisms completely change; this is an unconscious coping mechanism as a holdover from years ago

This is directly addressed at various points in the show as well, with the cockney accent being labeled as low class and Ms.Brahms using her vacation time to take elocution classes to rectify it. I can relate to this as well, as Mrs.Eld says my southern accent spikes when I'm on the phone with other members of my family, even to the point where she sometimes can't follow what I'm saying.

My mum reports the sexual harassment was pervasive and not at all amusing as it is shown in the show.

I can't help but wonder/ask how this presented itself, feel free to ignore or not press her if it's touchy. I don't watch Mad Men so using that as a reference isn't going to help much.

Both of them knew gay men who really were that camp and were accepted for the most part, even though them being actually gay was never outright acknowledged.

Part of me sees this as sad and the other part sees it as very forward for the time, at least with respect to my upbringing/locale. For what it's worth Mr.Humphries (John Inman) character seems to have done alot for gay culture/perception/acceptance, at least it was interesting reading the wiki page on things. One of the things that made the show unique/great to me as an American kid, and I'm not even gay.

Retail probably meant a great deal to their sense of self worth.

This is mentioned a few times, they seem to take a good bit of pride in their trade/craft, and all the while they're screwing the customer because the goods are made in Hong Kong / China. The more things change....
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:29 AM on February 18, 2013


I can't help but wonder/ask how this presented itself, feel free to ignore or not press her if it's touchy

Well, not just her, but I have spoken with a few women in their sixties from Britain that relate similar stories. Some that slept with their bosses during that time period and then were completely ignored by the men (who they thought were suitors) and got a reputation that meant they had to quit their jobs. The harassment was was not just crude jokes, cat-calls etc, but also that women, as people, just didn't matter. If a woman was annoyed that work she had just completed was undone by her bosses' thoughtlessness and she tried to have a conversation about it (such as what a man would have with his male boss) the boss more than likely would just completely dismiss her/make a comment about it being that time of the month/turn to any other men that were around "see what I have to put up with". Woman demanding basic respect were definitely seen as uppity and often lost their jobs. Being fired for being pregnant was normal (married! and pregnant, I am not even talking about children out of wedlock). The jobs themselves were not well-paid either even if the tasks were complex. My mum was a secretary and she often would do her boss's job (because he was out or down the pub while she worked through her lunch) with no recognition from him or anyone that she was anything more than a typist. This is over multiple jobs, btw, not an isolated incident.

I don't remember anything specific in the show about the goods being from Hong Kong/China but my understanding was that Hong Kong at least was at that time considered a premium place to get things from. A source of high quality, well made items, especially housewares, bedding and clothing. The conceit of China as source of cheap plastic crap is a recent phenomenon in my lifetime. Is that what you are referring to?
posted by saucysault at 8:51 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


For what it's worth, that "secretary/female ass-slapping" you mentioned? Absolutely true to the 1970s, unfortunately. Gawd, it's amazing what we used to accept as 'normal'......
posted by easily confused at 8:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't remember anything specific in the show about the goods being from Hong Kong/China but my understanding was that Hong Kong at least was at that time considered a premium place to get things from. A source of high quality, well made items, especially housewares, bedding and clothing. The conceit of China as source of cheap plastic crap is a recent phenomenon in my lifetime. Is that what you are referring to?

I wondered about that, and maybe it's just a trope of the show to show Grace Brothers the store as high prices for crap goods, but the staff do throw the word "muck" around when referring to the quality of the goods.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:02 AM on February 18, 2013


Absolutely agree with Jacquilynne and Saucysault, and also to say that the language differential mentioned has the added wrinkle that the "posh" accents they affect are easily recognisable as working class trying to be posh, rather than really posh.
posted by Joh at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can you refer me to an episode calling their goods "muck"? I haven't heard it used in that way before; more like throwing muck at someone (slinging mud/gossip), mucky-mucks (superiors/upper class), food (like cafeteria-type food) or sometimes eating the food, mucked-up meaning messed up/mistake made, muck-in as work, mucking-around as in playing around/useless work, or talking about something being common as muck (mud) but not with the connotation of "common"or low class, just ubiquitous.
posted by saucysault at 11:44 AM on February 18, 2013


I'll have to look when I get home. I'm sure I have heard it used as you mention, "These are as common as muck" in reference to something the ladies counter was selling. It had to be Ms.Slocumb's character speaking as well. She seems to be one of the more prudish roles and be very likely to look down her nose at things/people.

I'll try to find examples of them referencing their goods but I'm already on Season 6 and I'll not revisit things too deeply or I'll lose my mind.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:51 AM on February 18, 2013


British person here, though AYBS is my parent's generation rather than mine. Also chiming in to say that this is aspiration middle-class, not actual achieved comfortable middle-class. And with that aspiration rather than comfort comes making a lot more effort (and a lot more faux-pas) than being comfortably middle-class. Mrs Slocombe's accent is an absolute classic of someone putting on airs and graces they don't actually have.

When one hospital I've worked at was built in the mid 70s many people were very freaked out by the staff canteen. Why? There was just the one, big canteen, not separate ones for different staff. The idea of doctors eating in the same canteen as the porters was completely shocking. It only lasted a few months before they came up with some segregation to make everyone happy again.

I disagree with saucysalt's statement that social mobility was only possible through marriage. This was the age of free university education, and it was through the 60s and 70s that a large section of my family leap-frogged from pretty poor working class to comfortable middle class. All of whom are very clear that they would not have been able to do so in the current UK system.

And eeeh, common as muck can very definitely mean that something is lower class. All in the intonation really as to whether you just mean prevalent or class-related. Such as "common as muck, she is".
posted by Coobeastie at 12:47 PM on February 18, 2013


The answers to this question should give you some idea about the form that sexism took in the 1960s. Someone I know was told in the 1960s that she couldn't possibly keep her job when she got married "because marriage is a full time job".

As for accents, it's still the case in the UK that a regional accent is a class marker. It's only perhaps in the last decade that regionally accented people have been presenting on TV, for example. Recently I met a doctor who was proud of her regional accent - she said "Well I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not" - but it's still normal for an upwardly mobile person with a regional accent to quietly acquire more "middle class" English.

My partner (worked in construction) reports that blue collar workers commonly earn more than management, specifically because of overtime.
posted by emilyw at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2013


"Common as muck", frequently said about people, if referring to women's underwear was likely to mean tarty, rather than badly made.
posted by glasseyes at 6:45 PM on February 18, 2013


the characters...are all actually broadly lower-middle class

I would argue its a bit more complicated than this.

Mrs Slocombe, as someone else notes, is clearly putting on an accent and feels the need to masquerade as being middle class when she is more likely to be working class, and this is also apparent in her behaviours - she frequently makes errors that give away her social standing. One interesting point is whether she feels obliged to do so if she is to be given any trust within the organisation but this is not really examined in the show. The OP describes her as prudish bit as regards class she is certainly one of the characters most concerned by threats to her position and is defensive about change which might undermine her position in any way.

Miss Brahms is also likely to be working class but does not attempt to fake being (even lower) middle class. ?Is this because she rejects the need to do so or does not realise that there may be unspoken cues to do so and this will impact on her development and standing within the company?

Mr Humphries is somewhat removed from many of the social pressures. His accent is very much a middle class one, but one could make an argument that he is outside of the social pressures faced by the other characters, which might be regarded as being subordinate to the way his character is written, ie with the campness that is a clear indicator that he is gay as his dominating characteristic or it might be read that his decision to be open about his campness means he is less disposed to a facade regarding class. But as noted, he has clear middle class indicators which menas less need to have a facade.

Mr Peacock is probably lower-middle class, posibly either from a middle-middle (or even upper-middle?) background that has slipped down the pile as a result of lack of success or (and more likely) as someone who aspired to be higher but has met with little success despite having learned and being proficient as regards the appropriate class markers. (The suggestion that he might be faking is backed up by hints that he was a corporal rather than a captain and that he started at the store in the role of a sweeper).

Mr Rumbold is clearly middle class, most likely middle-middle.

Mr Lucas (and his replacement) is more difficult. He is not as obviously working class as Miss Brahms but still could be or could be lower-middle.
posted by biffa at 7:01 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't got a muck reference yet but Season 8 - Ep 4 does have mention of Mr. Rumbold's teabag failing because it was a poor quality one from Hong Kong. Stay tuned for more exciting updates.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:28 PM on February 19, 2013


Heard a reference to "mucking in together" in the Grace & Favour S1Ep5 I think, not that anyone likely cares.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:45 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


saucysault: Can you refer me to an episode calling their goods "muck"? I haven't heard it used in that way before; more like throwing muck at someone (slinging mud/gossip), mucky-mucks (superiors/upper class), food (like cafeteria-type food) or sometimes eating the food, mucked-up meaning messed up/mistake made, muck-in as work, mucking-around as in playing around/useless work, or talking about something being common as muck (mud) but not with the connotation of "common"or low class, just ubiquitous.


I think I found it. There have been other examples but this is the one I was recalling. The episode is Season 3 - Episode 3 "Up Captain Peacock" where Captain Peacock is given the key to the Executive Washroom and rights to eat in the Executive Canteen.

I hear one early reference by Ms. Slokum that she has to "muck in with rest" in regards to working with the others. That fits in with what you've said.

But.....

Later in the show there's a dialogue as follows:

...
Ms.Slokum (to Mr.Mash, the union shop hand who is delivering gloves): "Sensi-touch Rubber gloves?"
Mr. Mash: "Been listening to the (archers? orchestra?) lately have ya?"
*Mr.Mash proceeds to blow up the gloves and make cow milking gestures and phht sounds with his mouth*
Ms.Slokum: "Ew they're as common as muck."
Ms.Brahms: "They should be in the kitchen department!"
Mr.Mash: "Well they are, but they ordered 1000 pairs too many you see. They want to shift them. I've got a sensi touch display model as well. Air tight and water tight."
*He brings out display*
Ms.Slokum: "Well what's it for?"
Mr.Mash: lyrically: "Wash a day hands, that you care for so much, you can sill play the piano with a sensitive touch!"
*He activates the display that has the gloves inflating and gyrating and playing the piano*
Ms.Slokum: "Did you ever see anything so awful in all your life?"
*she calls Captian Peacock over*
Ms.Slokum: "Just look at this monstrosity!"
...

So yea, to me that equates out to the goods being called 'muck' in regard to their being unsuitable for someone of her, perceived only to her, status.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:31 PM on March 13, 2013


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