Flatpack Empire is more than an Ikea documentary – it’s joyous TV

I'm hooked on the happy Ikea staff in the BBC2 show, says Alison Graham

Programme Name: Flatpack Empire - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: Staff at the opening of IKEA Sheffield.  - (C) Raw TV Ltd - Photographer: Clara Thomas

BBC, TL

When I’ve finally been run out of town by angry Silent Witness fans clutching burning torches (for the last time, pathologists don’t investigate crimes!), I’d like to work in a shop. I started my working life with Saturday/holiday jobs in a newsagent’s and a chemist’s and I loved it.

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Being surrounded by things that people came in to buy appealed to so many parts of my personality, my love of “stuff” and my delight in keeping shelves tidy. Never accompany me into a bookshop; I straighten piles with barely a thought.

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And, of course, chatting to people, something I’m much better at now than I was as a callow girl. I think Ikea might be for me. Its siren call is sweet and mellow and yellow.

In this week’s episode of Flatpack Empire, a woman responsible for training demands that would-be workers are “passionate about soft furnishings”. I am, I am! Choose me! There is rarely a time in my life when I don’t need to buy a cushion.

Ikea, whose founder Ingvar Kamprad died recently, has let cameras into its inner workings for the first time, and it’s brilliantly revealing. When this kind of documentary series is done well, as Flatpack Empire is (and Inside John Lewis and Inside Claridge’s were, too), they provide endless accidental pleasures.

Like the looks on the faces of Chinese workers at a factory that mass-produces ceramics for Ikea when they’re presented with a new idea to attract younger customers.

A young designer thinks young people don’t want something that’s been mass-produced; they want something that’s as quirky and individual as they are. I’m paraphrasing here, but this is roughly in line with the narcissism of the young.

So the solution is to take a vase and punch it. Or pinch it, or put handprints on it. The factory bosses are baffled. The production line workers are baffled. Why would anyone want a punched vase? It’s a magnificently uncomfortable scene. And as for the finished product… well, you must decide…

Ikea is one of those gigantic companies that sees itself as being quite cosy and family-like, despite the vast, worldwide workforce. There are those corporate-inspirational marshmallow-sweet calls to arms around the walls of its offices.

My favourite is: “It’s impossible? Great! Let’s do it!” My preferred version would be: “It’s impossible! Great! Let’s all go home and lie down!”

I wonder if Ikea will rue the day that it invited cameras backstage and gave so much access. There are some pricelessly precious scenes of the interviewing process as Ikea recruits 500 staff members (out of 3,000 applicants) for its new store in Sheffield.

I loved Luke who, when asked if he’d be OK arriving for work at 5am, insisted that he would be. “I can ask my mum to drop me off.” But we learn this entire experience is a big learning curve for Luke: “I didn’t know Ikea existed. I thought it were Lidl at first.”

He gets a job on “replenishment” (shelf-stacking) after Maria, the woman who interviews him, cries in front of her colleagues at his great promise. “He’ll be my manager one day!” she trills between her tears.

Once on the shop floor, Luke doesn’t know what a lemon squeezer is.

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Flatpack Empire airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesdays