Double-glazing over

spiked-TV: The Armstrongs illustrate the depressingly thin line between reality TV and spoof.

Rob Lyons

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Anyone labouring under the illusion that the free market is made up of rational economic men (and women) acting in their self-interest for the collective good obviously hasn’t been watching BBC2 on Wednesday nights.

At 9pm, we get the British version of The Apprentice, with the role of tycoon and business mastermind played by grumpy barrowboy Alan Sugar. He made his money selling cheap consumer electronics to the masses but his various recent ventures have been more naff than novel – naff being a quality he shares with his American counterpart, casino and property magnate Donald Trump, in spades.

The entertainment value of the show seems to be based on watching wannabes with a highly inflated sense of their own importance beg, bitch and grovel their way into his affections and keep their jobs. Personally, I find all the characters involved so unpleasant that I can’t get excited. On the other hand, if instead of pointing his two fingers at them and saying ‘You’re fired!’ Sugar actually did despatch the offending contestant with .22 calibre to the frontal lobe, I’d tune in with enthusiasm. Well, for the last 10 minutes, anyway.

After The Apprentice, we have more down-to-earth examples of hare-brained schemes with The Armstrongs. The Armstrongs, John and Ann, run Coventry’s third-largest double-glazing firm, U-Fit. The show is a fly-on-the-wall look at their various inept attempts to turn the firm from a minor company in a provincial backwater into a giant of the industry producing millions of pounds in profit.

The trouble is that John seems to be a bit of a prat who has grand schemes but lacks the talent to make them happen. Ann is apparently more sensible but in truth she is just as self-serving. She smiles more, and turns every disaster into an opportunity. Still, they know what they want. As John told the Guardian in a typically forthright manner: ‘We’re the Armstrongs and if there’s an opportunity, we’ll get fucking money out of it. That’s what Thatcher’s done to me, the bitch. She’s brainwashed me.’

Last week, three out of four telephone sales staff at U-Fit left on the same day. Not to be downhearted, Ann decided that this was cause for optimism, despite the fact that this left them with one Othello-playing member of staff. And when I say Othello, I don’t mean a fictional Moorish soldier but the board game for smart schoolboys who think that draughts is beneath them. Amazingly, geeky Michael turned out to be quite good. He even took to combing his hair and dressing smartly.

John decided, with his pregnant wife resting at home, that this was the moment to implement a brilliant business strategy by promoting Michael to Sales Manager. Ann thought it would be nice to have dinner with Michael and his wife – who turned out to be a Canadian woman at least 20 years older than him who he’d met on the internet.

Sadly, Michael seemed unwilling to do his job the way his bosses wanted, deciding that he didn’t have time to waste entering every single sales activity into the massively over-priced database package they had purchased. After just two weeks, he was demoted. His attempts to make positive suggestions about the business – like pointing out that the new brochure designed by John was illiterate – simply annoyed his bosses further.

The Armstrongs have much in common with Neil and Christine Hamilton, a doting double-act with delusions about their own importance. The Armstrongs is quite an entertaining show at times, but only to the extent that it shows just how incompetent many small business people really are.

This is what drew my girlfriend’s attention to it, for she had worked in just such an organisation. Yet, she is also convinced that The Armstrongs is a spoof, and she’s not alone. Given the discussion on some websites about the show, somebody must be running a book on whether the whole thing is a con. Some of the scenes are clearly set up, including the Hart-to-Hart parody that opens every show.

The truth is that there is a thin line between spoof and ‘docu-soap’. After all, I’m sure anyone’s life could be made to look goofy and entertaining if you filmed it 24/7, edited it down to a half-hour, and added a wry voiceover from Bill Nighy. This is not reality but ‘reality TV’ – a rather different thing. More fool us for confusing the two.

When you agree to do reality TV, you’re completely in the hands of the producers whose agenda may be at odds with yours. Take poor George Galloway. This remarkable, eloquent and principled man was made to look like a self-serving windbag who’d knife anyone in the back to promote himself by the editors of Celebrity Big Brother. Meanwhile, airhead Chantelle was promoted pretty much from the start as the winner and the non-celebrity has become a celeb in her own right. Oh, the post-modernity of it all!

The Armstrongs has been described as a real-life version of The Office. Its central characters are certainly as cringeworthy as David Brent.

Read on:

Last week on spiked-TV: Shirley Dent on Riot at the Rite.

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