Thursday 22 February 2018

Last Night’s TV: Undercover Boss

Diarmuid Doyle on what happened when the boss of a risqué lingerie store goes undercover as a worker

Undercover Boss on Channel 4 last night ended with tears of happiness, hugs, supportive words, promotions, free holidays and an orgy of personal fulfilment the likes of which hasn’t been seen since everybody went a bit bonkers in the 1960s. It was all heartwarming stuff, although it could all have gone so badly wrong.

The idea behind the programme is that the boss of an underperforming company returns in disguise to the shopfloor to see where the business is falling down and where it might be put right. Last night, it was the turn of the deputy managing director of the Ann Summers chain of stores to throw on a wig, a pair of glasses, and a bit of slap and slum it with the workers. She was duly terrified. “The thing I’m dreading is dealing with the customers”, she said, an unusual admission from the deputy boss of a retail chain.

Ann Summers has 148 stores, hundreds of staff and more than 7,000 women selling lingerie, sex toys and other goodies at house parties every night. Last year it sold 2.5 million Rampant Rabbits to British women, an astonishing figure when you think about it, but something of a disappointment to the Ann Summers people, apparently.

Its customers, the ones dreaded by Vanessa Gold, say things like. “I’m after a decent Rabbit, that’s not too big”; or “I bought some chocolate willies before Christmas..they were lovely”, or, as with one of the male customers: “I’m after something to surprise the missus”.

Sadly the cameras didn’t stay with him long enough to see the surprise, or his missus’s reaction, or find out if he’s still alive. Instead, they stuck with Vanessa, who was finding the whole thing mentally exhausting and was soon taken from the shop floor and put cleaning the changing rooms. If her father hadn’t founded the company, and her sister didn’t run it, you’d have to wonder whether she would ever have achieved such an elevated position anywhere.

She moved stores, from Blackburn to Exeter, to find out why, under a recently appointed manager, the shop was doing very well. An obvious question arose, one that highlights the artificiality of the whole Undercover Boss concept. Why do you need to disguise yourself to find out why your staff are doing so well? Why not just ask them?

As portrayed last night, Ann Summers came across as quite a dysfunctional company, detached from its staff, scornful of its customers, wary of its product, and even if it did redeem itself slightly at the end by rewarding some of the people who had impressed Vanessa Gold, you could see why it hasn’t been doing so well.

Reagan, a two-hour History channel documentary on the former US president, was a fascinating account of a busy life, even if it did spend a bit too much time on John Hinckley’s attempt to kill him in 1981. It was a timely reminder of how Reagan had successfully pushed the notion that government was a problem and not a solution, an idea whose time appears to have come again with the rise of the Tea Party.

In its own way, the not guilty verdict in the Casey Anthony trial, which kept many of the news channels busy last night, was a consequence of these increasing attacks on the government. Anthony, for those of you who weren’t following the trial, was acquitted of the murder of her two-year-old child despite overwhelming evidence against her.

“Casey Anthony won, the government lost”, one of CNN’s wise-after-the-event contributors proclaimed following the not guilty verdict, articulating a commonly-held view that the jury had taken a turn against prosecutors at an early stage and had little interest in the actual evidence after that.

That’s a dangerous situation for any criminal justice system to be in. When a murder case can be portrayed as some kind of prize fight between an individual and a government, particularly in a place where government is scorned or feared, the chances of a perverse verdict like last night’s increases hugely. Ronald Reagan has a lot to answer for.

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