One pet peeve of mine is needing to have a complex and nuanced opinion about something, so I am particularly annoyed at Channel 4 this week, who made me do just that. Nobody wants me to do this, Channel 4! Nobody wants me to explore the liminal space between “good” and “bad”. And yet, with A Very British Job Agency, I am going to have to! You’re going to ruin a lot of people’s Saturdays with this!
Anyway, A Very British Job Agency (Monday 25 April, 11.05pm, Channel 4). You get it: a three-parter about a British job agency, with larger-than-life characters doing a very normal job in a slightly too enthusiastic way. The running theme of AVBJA is that the employment landscape is in tatters post-Covid and recruitment agencies – labelled the “fourth emergency service” by the narration, a label I can only assume was entirely self-applied – are the only ones brave and talented enough to solve it. If, like me, you started your career by trying to get employment agencies to help you, you will already be laughing.
First, let’s start with the good: the two main characters, new-ish couple Sarah (long nails, cool mum, really big set of keys) and Rich (big vape rig, BMW he can’t elegantly get out of) are a likable duo whose sex lives I know too much about and whose hearts are in the right places. Sarah comes up against the constant frustrations of young people, new out of school and newer to work, letting her down when she arranges easy first-day lay-ups for them. Rich spends his life phoning factories to see how many of the workers he sent for an induction shift actually turned up. I get it: they want to help people! They are sad that life is leeching out of the local high street! This is a good thing, broadly!
But then the bad: when trying to diagnose the UK’s employment issues, we only ever get to hear from embittered would-be employers, who are allowed to do a quick, “The problem with this country is no one wants to get off their arse and work!” to camera without being challenged. A factory boss can’t believe no one wants to do a 1am shift at a place you can barely get to without your own car. The boss of a travelling festival doesn’t know why young people don’t want to schlep to a field to do one five-hour bar shift for no tips. The family who run a campsite want fully trained chefs to work temporarily all summer for minimum wage. What’s the problem with this country and work? Is it that nobody wants to get off their arse and work? Is that really all it is?
This series becomes frustrating when a lot of opinions about young people and work are parroted over and over again – “They all want to be TikTok famous!” “Cut off their benefits! Hit ’em where it hurts!” – which overwhelms any attempt to paint a more nuanced picture of the employment landscape as it exists right now. We see a sweet 17-year-old do her first waitressing shift at a too-posh cafe and lose confidence in real time. We see another kid whose will-do attitude gets two thumbs up from Sarah when he first waltzes in, but whose anxiety gets the best of him on his first day. We see a 67-year-old cheerfully working 16-hour days across five jobs because “divorce is expensive”, which is heartbreakingly unfair and depressing.
These go some way to showing what trying to get a job is like in the UK right now: how young people’s confidence and experienced workers in the hospitality industry have been wrecked by two years of stop-start lockdown; how it’s infinitely harder to get employment when you have any sort of history of not being employed; how employers want you to throw yourself against the rocks of shiftwork for the absolute least amount of money they can get away with. But why aren’t people in work? Repeat it like a panto audience: because nobody wants to get off their arse!
The problem isn’t this series, exactly, but the fact that it shows a deeply infuriating social problem without any solution at all, then lets British people give their opinions about it, which are literally always wrong. Maybe it isn’t that nuanced, actually: it’s a good-enough TV show that makes me hate every single employer in this country. There. I’ve figured it out. Happy Saturday.