Since the advent of the fly-on-the-wall ‘docusoaps’ the well-trodden path of TV cop or doctor in The Bill or Casualty has been opened up to include a wide variety of jobs, both on top-rated TV dramas and documentaries. From airline workers and debt collectors to hairdressers and teachers, our increasingly reality-driven age has transformed what were once fairly humdrum jobs into high-profile careers.
Until relatively recently, TV programme makers relied on the police force, private detectives, health workers and the fire services to provide the bulk of their workplace-based drama.
But now funeral directors and forensic scientists say it has had a marked impact on static or dwindling recruitment figures, although environmental health officers and security guards are in two minds as to whether it has helped or hindered their quest for new talent from schools and universities.
Local government workers and PAs say that they would like the chance to counter the often negative way they are portrayed, while engineers and secretaries are queuing up for the chance to raise the profile of their professions, whatever the attendant risks.
The glamour of grime
The BBC’s Life of Grime documentary series, which began by shadowing local authority rat-catchers and food safety enforcement officers in the UK, has now spawned spin-off programmes in New York and put the behind-the-scenes, often prosaic work of environmental health officers firmly on the TV map.
One of the officers who has appeared regularly in the long-running show – he is usually seen inspecting unsavoury food shops in pursuit of ‘meat crime’ convictions – is the larger-than-life Yunes Teinaz, principal environmental health officer (EHO) at the London Borough of Hackney.
Teinaz says he invariably receives a warm welcome from members of the public who have seen the show and believes the programme has helped his campaign for clean food premises in the borough.
“I think the series has highlighted the often hidden work that we do and has shown how interesting a career in environmental health can be,” he says.
“It has demonstrated that we do far more than rat-catching and rubbish removal and we can help people in their everyday lives across a wide range of issues. The programme-makers I met during the course of the filming have been very fair and professional in their treatment of our profession and cannot be faulted. The series has made me even more proud to be an EHO.”
A rather different view is expressed by Tony Lewis, principal education officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which was not approached for help by the programme’s producers.
“Around the time the show was on weekly, we suffered a significant downturn in terms of the numbers of students coming forward to do an MSc in environmental health at one of our accredited universities,” says Lewis.
“While the reasons for the downturn – from well over 100 applications per university to around 60 – were complex and varied, and affected the entire local government sector, it is our view that the unnecessary concentration on rat-catching and even morgues actively deterred many people from pursuing a career in environmental health.”
Lewis says the decline in numbers has now been reversed, but attributes the turnaround to a redesigned website and an updated degree curriculum, rather than to the skills of TV producers. “Many officers on the ground have praised the series,” he says. “But as a 10,500-strong institute, we do not feel it did us justice.”
A dying breed
If EHOs are divided about the benefits of their work being glamorised on TV, there are no such qualms in the funeral business, which has also appeared on the small screen.
Dominic Maguire, spokesman for the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), says: “The American soap opera Six Feet Under attracted a lot of attention for our industry, but the recent William and Mary series – in which the main character runs his own funeral business – had surprisingly little impact.”
It was a fly-on-the-wall docusoap, Don’t Drop the Coffin, which showed the highs and lows of life inside a genuine South London funeral parlour and demonstrated the real power of TV, according to the NAFD.
“The warts-and-all portrayal of a funeral director’s job attracted a lot of younger entrants to the 30,000 strong profession. It earned some well-received publicity for a job that few people know much about and one that certainly needs young blood to keep it alive. It may sound strange, but the series really brought out what you might call the ‘glamorous’ side of the job,” says Maguire.
There was a drawback, however. “Many of the youngsters who came into the business as a result of the documentary – and it is not easy to quantify exactly how many people we are talking about – thought it was a very attractive life, chiefly consisting of dressing up in snazzy clothes and riding up and down in horse-drawn hearses all day.
“When they found out that the job regularly involved getting up in the middle of the night and clearing up after the dead bodies as well as the horses, some of them quit the profession almost immediately,” says Maguire.
Security guards, meanwhile, are invariably portrayed as “shaven-headed thugs” in TV-land, says Kay Wright of the British Security Industry Association. She believes that the industry, whose 125,000 to 150,000 contract security personnel now outnumber UK police officers, would benefit from a more “balanced” image on television.
“In the past, we have tended to fight shy of co-operating with TV producers for fear of being misrepresented. But our view today is that we need to begin a dialogue with the television companies in order to challenge outdated stereotypes,” says Wright.
Equally unhappy about the fictional portrayal of its people is the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government (EO). Liz Copeland, careers promotion officer at EO, says that local authority workers are invariably portrayed as “petty bureaucrats”.
“Deirdre Barlow, on Coronation Street, worked at the Weatherfield Town Hall for a while and she was very much portrayed as a nit-picking pen-pusher, while on EastEnders, we’ve had a whole succession of market inspectors who have tried their hardest to make things difficult for the traders.
“I and many of my colleagues would love the chance for the diverse range of local government careers to be shown via the small screen and I wouldn’t mind if it was a docudrama or even a top soap.
“At the end of the day, the inclusion of a really good character in a soap opera, who has a meaningful and interesting job in a local authority, would probably be of more lasting benefit to our profession than a fly-on the-wall documentary,” says Copeland.
In the skills-starved science, engineering and technology sector there has been much excitement regarding the impact of actress Amanda Burton’s portrayal of a female forensic scientist, Sam Ryan, in the BBC’s hit drama Silent Witness.
The number of female entrants to university forensic science courses soared from 749 in 2002 to 1,098 in 2004 – a trend that many science, engineering and technology professionals attribute in large part to the success of the TV series.
Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, says: “Although women make up just 8% of the engineering workforce at present, and are still under-represented in science, Silent Witness has shown how powerful a medium TV can be in challenging out-of-date clichs about science, engineering and technology being a ‘geeky’, man’s world.
“We believe that more science-based dramas featuring strong female characters would be a real inspiration to the many female A-level students and undergraduates who love science and engineering, but don’t feel they can build a career in it.”
Scientists may want their dry, academic image to receive a glamourous makeover, but for secretaries and PAs, the object of the exercise is to challenge the media’s fluffy, ‘airhead’ image of the profession.
Julia Philippson, general administrator at the Institute of Qualified Professional Secretaries, says: “Although we tend to be saddled with the dizzy image of someone like ‘Bubbles’ in the series Absolutely Fabulous, in today’s office, the university-educated PA or secretary takes an increasingly vital and executive role.”