Keep Calm and Watch British TV: Tired of having to bite your tongue to stay employed?


Tired of having to bite your tongue to stay employed?

One of my favorite books is a collection of daily joke “half-firmations,” that includes this saying: “I no longer need to punish, deceive, or compromise myself. Unless, of course, I want to stay employed.”*

Haven’t we all been there? Living in the glorious and free United States, and therefore without access to anything as basic and as helpful as the National Health Service, how many of us are working soul-killing jobs not only for the riches and fame, but also for the access to health insurance? You know what I’m talking about.

For those days when you’ve had to bite your metaphorical tongue so hard it seemed you could taste actual blood, just to stay employed, you may need to unwind with programs that showcase people doing their jobs—with admirable chutzpah and a take-no-prisoners attitude—no matter what madness is going on around them. You’ve heard of mental health days, right? Take one, then:

Keep calm and watch…

Happy Valley. However bad your day has been, I promise you that Catherine Cawood’s day has been worse. Previously a DI (Detective Inspector), Cawood has stepped back in responsibility to work as the equivalent of one of our beat cops, still walking the streets and dealing with your average Yorkshire problems like drug-selling and child neglect. Largely she can understand the problems of her suspects because she deals with a lot of them at home: her daughter, after being raped, gave birth to a son and then killed herself; her sister, trying to recover from her heroin addiction, lives with her; her husband has left her because he can’t deal with the fact that she’s raising their grandson (the product of her daughter’s rape).

Oh, and there’s this: her many superiors are constantly telling Cawood she has to step back from her job; her intuition is wrong; she’s too much of a loose cannon. Which is ironic, considering most of her superiors have their own secrets that they are busy covering up whilst simultaneously working very hard to keep her in her place.

There are so many depressing things in this series, and the few moments when it’s not depressing, it’s utterly horrifying. The villain of the piece, Tommy Lee Royce, Catherine’s daughter’s accused rapist, who returns to Cawood’s turf after getting out of prison for drug charges, is the sort of person who shows up only in nightmares. On the other hand, you’ll also be empowered by Cawood’s dedication to her job, her family, and her own sense of honor. (Already seen this show and looking for something else like it? Check out our Happy Valley viewers’ guide.)

Reggie Perrin. First, in the 1970s, there was a classic comedy starring a classic comedian (Leonard Rossiter), titled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (and before that there was a series of dark novels by author David Nobbs). This was noted to be an entirely groundbreaking and somewhat surreal program in which middle manager Reginald Perrin was driven to act increasingly erratic the more he noticed that his job and life were entirely meaningless. I’ve never seen that program, because periodically I have to go work an entirely meaningless day job myself, but I have made time for the 2009-2010 remake Reggie Perrin starring Martin Clunes.

Although he is recognized as a “disposable razor guru,” Perrin is clearly in the grip of a pretty severe midlife crisis, wondering at how he ended up in a job having meetings with marketing types brainstorming new uses for pumice stones, entertaining fantasies about his new co-worker, and generally losing his ability to keep his bitterly caustic internal observations to himself.

Although a lot has changed, even since 2010, and some critics didn’t like this update due to some of its outdated ideas of male ennui and sexual mores, but no less a critic than Caitlin Moran found that she could identify with the “escalating depression and insanity” of Clunes’s Perrin.

All Creatures Great and Small. Wait a second. A heartwarming and animal-rich historical drama on a list of programs about soul-crushing modern jobs? Am I hoping that the sepia and pastel tones and the fun glimpses of tweedy British fashion from days of yore will automatically relax you?

Well, yes, I am.

All Creatures Great and Small is a classic workplace drama, based on the memoirs of infamous vet James Herriot, detailing his experiences working as a country vet in Yorkshire in the 1930s and 40s. It’s got a lot to offer someone who is sick of their workaday problems: Lots of nice fuzzy animals, pastoral scenery, and humor. It’s also got Siegfried Farnon (played by the incomparable Robert Hardy), one of the most challenging and mercurial bosses of all time, who periodically gives Herriot whiplash by first telling him a proper course of treatment or action to follow with his animal patients and their owners, and then doing a complete about-face and selling him out in front of said owners when the treatment doesn’t work (among many other infuriating management-type tricks).

Feeling calmer? Good, now get back to work. Someone has to.

*From the book I Am My Own Best Casual Acquaintance: And Other Daily Half-firmations, by Shanti Goldstein.

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