Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sociology and British Sitcoms: Remembering Are You Being Served?

I first watched that PBS staple, the BBC sitcom, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's Are You Being Served? (1972-1985) what feels like a lifetime or two ago.

If you've never seen it, it is about the salespersons in the clothing department of an old-fashioned British department store.

Reading the Wikipedia article about it recently I noted that much of the commentary on the show's content (all too predictably) concentrated on the sexual humor. However, as the article also acknowledges,
The main humorous base of the series was a merciless parody of the British class system. This permeated almost every interaction and was especially evident in the conversations between the maintenance men and the ostensibly higher-class store personnel.
And indeed, what stands out most about the show in my recollection is the sociological insight it showed in this parody--in such things as the workers' conception of their jobs, their perception of their standing within their firm and within society more generally, and the ways in which they related to people of other classes above and below theirs within the British social hierarchy (like "the maintenance men").

Years later, reading works like Daniel Bell's The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society or C. Wright Mills' White Collar, I found myself thinking that I'd already learned much of what they had to teach--in reruns of that TV show. The pretensions and prejudices, the illusions and delusions, the fantasies and realities that Bell, Mills and others wrote about (the boundaries of that vexed term "middle class," the differing attitudes toward organized labor, etc.) were all amply dramatized there. Simply watching Mr. Mash bicker with Captain (Corporal?) Peacock was the equivalent of a master's class in these matters.

How many situation comedies can you say that about today?

Review: The Sociological Imagination, by C. Wright Mills
Book Reviews (Political and Social Science)
Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills
Sociology and James Bond

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