“One thing Napoleon had, right, was passion and belief. He believed his army was the best ever.”
The makers of The Call Centre (Tuesdays BBC3; iPlayer) must have bent down and kissed the damp Swansea concrete when they found Nev Wilshire, the 53-year-old CEO of the city’s third-largest call centre. Looming, invasive, giggly, Brentian in his treatment of his office as a performance space and gleefully ignorant of every human resources law in the book, Nev is obs-doc gold. But there proved to be more to Nev than met the eye, and more to this show than simply finding a golden berk and filming it.
More than a million people now work in call centres, the voiceover cheerily told us. They’re the factories of our times. And more than half of Nev’s 700 “agents” were under 25. What these buzzy stats mean is this: of the luckier ones among Britain’s youth who can beat off the other 406 applicants and get a job, a large slice end up on the outskirts of town, sitting in rows in giant rooms that smell of plastic, doing the only thing worse than receiving a cold sales call: making 200 of them in a row, every day.
Watching Nev in awful action, what you had to ask yourself was whether his brand of compulsory fun and super-sized embarrassment was worse than silent drudgery and a constant churn of bored staff. Nev might claim to have sacked people in the past for not joining in with his ritual where new employees must stand and sing – “Mr Brightside, The Killers, C sharp!” – but once you’re in, you are part of the family.
Hayley had worked in different call centres for seven years since leaving school at 16. She looked like she would struggle to memorise the dates of medieval kings and queens for an I-Level. She’d been struggling on the phones, in fact. Rather than automatically let her go as those other places presumably had, Nev retrained her as the office tea lady, apparently on the grounds that her oddball energy made her a good sort to have around, so something had to be found.
Nev was seen as a second father by Hayley. Possibly the father-daughter dynamic was more of a one-way street between Nev and admin assistant Kayleigh: episode one was dominated by a company-wide speed dating night, organised by Nev purely so Kayleigh could get over being cheated on and dumped. Parading her up and down the corridors, shouting “Any single blokes here? I got a desperate female” hadn’t worked, see.
At the speed dating night, the programme-makers’ skill for capturing characters and drama came through. (Yes, yes, it’s probably engineered, not captured. I don’t care.) Kayleigh got on beautifully with junior salesman Springer, a handsome but diffident bloke who was 23 with no serious relationships under his belt. But then the bell went and she sat down with Dwaine.
Dwaine was known as the company lothario. His colleague Twe described in slightly too enthusiastic detail Dwaine’s dancefloor moves, and the champagne hamper he kept in his house, ready for another romantic trip to the beach. Twe said Dwaine was a sales pro who knew how to close a deal. Now Twe looked on enviously as Kayleigh had three minutes alone with Dwaine. What smooth deal-closer was he laying down? Cut to Kayleigh’s table, where Dwaine was in fact droning on about household bills: “You’ve got water, gas, electricity…”
The next morning (Hayley was outside sluicing her sick off the car park: “That’s alright innit. Looks like bird shit, dunnit”), Nev overruled the speed-dating results that put Dwaine and Kayleigh together. Dwaine reported on his chat with the boss. “He said in no uncertain terms, you mess her around, I’m going to throw you down the stairs.”
Instead, Nev called Springer and Kayleigh in and ordered them to bake together on Monday morning, during working hours. A cake was duly brought into the office, to wolf-whistles, and everyone on Springer’s team piled in.
Much too much? Yeah, maybe. More admirable than nothing at all, than leaving young people to rot in a soulless job? Yeah, I’d say so. The clincher was the scene in Nev’s car, when he told the camera about how his previous business had gone under, causing him to lose his wife, his kids, and a stone in a week. Now he’d rebuilt his empire. You could suddenly imagine him finally, reluctantly arriving home from the office late at night, then staring at the switched-off TV in silence, praying for 9am tomorrow to come round more quickly, imagining another little smasher coming into his office with a problem.
Popular factual telly can do great things with its clout and money. It can solve crimes, stop corporate misbehaviour, reunite families and even help love happen. In the case of the almost heroically pointless David Walliams – Snapshot in Time (Thursday; ITV Player), it can also spend vast amounts of cash and time on giving a celebrity a nice but useless present.
Walliams had a cherished photograph of himself on stage in a Reigate Grammar School play, aged 11, leading a drag chorus in All the King’s Men. Could the programme-makers reunite the rest of the cast and re-create the picture?
This was low-jeopardy stuff. Walliams explained how the laughter of the audience and pride of his family had made him crave fame. Perhaps next time the star will recall how discovering a love of creativity for its own sake had set them on a path to making great art, and the stakes will be higher.
Regardless, the programme went to hilarious lengths to pull this project off, hoping to drum up tension along the way. “After leaving Reigate,” said Jack Davenport on the voiceover, “Carl studied mining engineering at an American university. He’s now in a senior position at one of the world’s top mineral companies. But will he fly across the globe to put on the make-up and a dress again?”
Carl did inexplicably haul himself over but we never got to know him or the small handful of blokes who turned up having not spoken to Walliams in three decades, as the programme fumbled a possible narrative about how childhood passions rarely survive the transition to adulthood. Everything was logistics: low points included Walliams ringing the doorbell of an east London flat that one of the guys might have lived in years ago (no answer), and Nicholas in Seattle, seen via Skype, photographing himself in a costume Walliams had FedExed over.
A lifesize cutout of Nicholas took his place in the line-up for the new photo, and struck up as much of a rapport with Walliams as anyone else. But – snap! They got their pic. They’d done it. Why they’d done it remained elusive.