I’ve been watching things set in offices in the 70s.
The Organization (1972) starts with a sequence taking us in to the big places of innovative modern Britain.
The theme music starts languidly, as a giant brutalist facade veers in front of us.
Then the jazz really takes off, as we are shown a sequence of our heroes in their characteristic poses: swirling importantly in a leather chair; bumbling and dropping the files; cackling satirically. I’ve edited them all together in this mosaic, they appear left to right and of course the 2 females are the last ones in the order.
and then one final look at the concrete edifice it mostly occurs in.
7 episodes take place in the Head Office of the Greatrick Organization. It grew from simple beginnings after the war and diversified into a behemoth that has factories all over the country, including Hartlepool and Pontypridd. It is not stated explicitly, but we can assume HO is in London. We never see The Chairman, but we understand he has been around from the start and still keeps a close eye on everything, especially the workings of the PR Department, which is where our heroes are employed. Every episode has a title pairing 2 character names, the second of which is then the first in the next pair, and so on around A&B, B&C… until we get from “Mr Pershore and Ken Grist” back to “Mr Pulman and Mr Pershore”.
There is no studio audience but the action is mostly within the bounds of sitcom: characters are comically clumsy or tongue-tied, they grimace and gurn, they banter inanely out of their boredom. But running through this is also a thread taken up in Yes, Minister ten years later: the calmer moments of deadly wit when they just dissect the truth of how their world functions, without straining for laughs which a restless crowd of spectators wouldn’t provide anyway.
All these people are frightfully clever and educated, and bemused at how their careers ended up; they can sprinkle quotations from Shakespeare and Carlyle and plenty of other School Prize sources remembered across 40 years. For the older men there’s also the unspoken presence of past experience of the military life. Mr Pulman (played by Donald Sinden) alludes to the details of how Courts Martial operate, and he might well have presided at one; Rodney Spurling (played by Bernard Hepton) has a moment in which he refers to The War as the start of his lifelong anxieties. The females of course can’t match that background and will always be outsiders at the top table, but at least they can look down on the younger men such as new recruit Mr Pershore (Peter Egan), who doesn’t fit with the alpha or beta males any better than they do.
Everybody in this world knows the world is changing, with new ideas and new methods coming in. Pulman himself is an outsider brought in to make the PR department more suitable for a big player instead of the old fashioned amateurism that pervaded beforehand, represented by sad old bore Ken Grist. In this new world management and communications have been professionalised. The monologue that Peter Frame (Anton Rodgers) drifts off in to, when describing the PR Department as the most important part of any modern corporation, may have been intended as a satire of pretentious nonsense in 1972 but it could be delivered as an entirely straight-faced dissertation on Brand Identity or whatever 50 years later on YouTube.
A whole new wave of “consultants” are ready to transform work in the coming decades. There are the weird recruitment advisors who help Richard Pershore get in to the right mindset to get through his Greatrick job interview, and there’s also the fearsome “Consultant Psychologist” Dr Ducker, author of tomes about organisational theory. Ducker is hired to hang around and observe how everyone works – and they assume he’s also going to recommend redundancies. Everyone knows they’re really dispensible and their jobs are fatuous nonsense, and that the world is catching up on this and putting high-paid executives on the scrap heap.
Richard Pershore is here because he’s already had his youthful stint of trying to be a bohemian rebel and work in a bar abroad. He’s come back to bury himself in what he knows will be a living death on the corporate escalator. Of course he tries to change the direction he’s set on. Of course he doesn’t succeed, that’s not a spoiler. This would be a different show if sincere idealism was recognised or rewarded.
Also in the early 70s John Braine’s hero Joe Lampton was continuing his campaign to beat down the doors of the establishment for the cause of mildly angry Northern men. Man At The Top (1973) had a TV version that Braine worked on, but he’s only credited for creating the character who appears in this film version. That’s just as well since this takes us far away from the ambitions of the original Room At The Top, still stuck in the provinces. This is a big technicolor version of the global corporate world as it was in the 70s. Joe gets called up to serve in it when the pharmaceuticals giant Chemex needs a new CEO, and of course he takes up the chance to get away from the building industry and in to a sleek London office with fancy phones and intercoms on his desk.
The position is vacant because his predecessor quit for obscure reasons, which are of course entirely known to Lord Ackerman who hired this replacement and makes sure the information isn’t available to him. Of course Joe will want to know what the problem was now that his predecessor has shot himself in a London park and it’s a top story on the news. Which makes Joe even more interesting for the Fleet Street hounds already sniffing around and trying to work out what’s going on at the top of Chemex.
Realising that the toffs are getting a scheme together and he’s not invited, Joe sets out up the M1 in his Rolls Royce to confront them on their ancestral estate. Meanwhile he picks up 2 teenage girl hitchhikers who want to get back to Leeds, which is on the way and he’s going to stop anyway to see what his old hunting ground is like these days. Staying with the girls in a hotel on the way (and sharing a shower with them), he gets in to an introspective mood gazing at the sunset.
JOYCE: What are you looking at?
JOE: Just looking.
JOYCE: There’s not much to see.
JOE: One day they’ll cut down those trees… clear up that hedge… they’ll build a road right across that meadow… then houses… then shops… there’ll be a fella like me, sitting behind a bloody great desk wondering how much he can make out of a 2 acre site.
[She goes away. JOE continues, to himself]
JOE: Y’know, when I was a kid, there was an old woman living up our street, Mrs Wallis. Old Mrs Wallis… grey hair, tied back in a bun, tits like prize marrows. Always wore dark clothes, black usually. Strict churchgoer. Now I was scared of her though she was always kind. Mind you I didn’t know her well… didn’t know her at all, really. Then one day she died. I watched her funeral pass, I was with some of me mates, we were off to see United, so didn’t hang about too long. Then a few weeks later I realised I missed her. Used to seeing her about the place. Street was never the same without her. Never was, never again. Same with all this. You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you, don’t have the first idea…
A few moments later he confronts the pair about what “your lot” are expecting to achieve in the way of social change in their lifetimes.
JOE: Christ, are you in for a rude awakening… you, all of you… all the soft-skinned, moist-eyed, flaxen-haired brigade. All those feeble wanking revolutionaries and their bell-bottomed denims. And all those art school Jesus Christs with their pot-smoking muddle-headed Gospels about candy floss futures where everybody fucks, nobody fights, and human nature changes overnight. Are you in for a rude awakening.
Of course he delivers the girls back to Joyce’s parents, and her dad is a club comic played by Charlie Williams. They have a manly chat together, in which Joe explains how he had to get out of this small-town world and George could do it as well if he got on to one of those TV shows (the irony of course being that Charlie Williams already was a star on The Comedians at this point).
The real and immediate rude awakening is for Joe himself, however. He’s involved in a business selling products that sometimes have nasty side-effects, including the new one that will be distributed to help victims of malnutrition in Africa. The existence of malnutrition is just one of those facts about the modern world that mature adults pass over without comment; in the view of the rich men at the top of the firm it’s not a problem that their pills also cause sterility… population explosion and all that, old boy. Being well out of his depth, he gets caught in a viciously symbolic foxhunting exercise in which he seems to be the quarry himself. But then he still manages to turn it around and end as a smug git in fancy leisurewear.
The weakest part of the film is Kenneth Haigh’s performance as Lampton. He’s playing like he’s in a sitcom, a rather down-market version of The Organization for a bussed-in audience. There he’s the cheeky Northern sales rep who doesn’t understand all the Tennyson quotations detonating around him but instead keeps failing to woo any of the posh girls with his mix of smut, chippiness, and eye-rolling. Maybe that’s what the TV version was like, but then this would be the strangest TV-to-film adaptation ever. This Lampton needs a hard edge, not sentimentalised drafts of Jarvis Cocker lyrics 20 years early. The man who could have done the job was ready to hand: John Collin, playing the journalist Wisbech right at the start, who would have stood up and spoken back to these creeps the way Lampton is supposed to do, according to his reputation. That’s how Lord Ackerman got to hire him, and he admits he never liked him but he needs his sort to get the job done.
By now it was 1978, and Office Life:
I loved the Bristow cartoons when they appeared in the Birmingham Evening Mail well in to the 80s. One Dimensional Man was a book by one of those bell-bottomed Polytechnic commies who spoiled all the fun things in the 70s.