TV review: The Removal Men: Pickfords

Gary Day finds no sweetness in a series about Pickfords, where any dignity is denied for the camera

July 14, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

The number of television channels continues to grow and they can't all be filled with repeats, even though life largely consists of doing the same things again and again. Still, all credit to executives for trying. And if it's not yet another rerun of Last of the Summer Wine, it's a show about cooking or home improvement. Culture used to be what you do once you've got food and shelter, now it seems as if it's nothing more than endless riffs on those necessities.

As the television screen gets bigger, the view it offers of ourselves and the world gets smaller. We get a close-up, never the complete picture. But this isn't always a bad thing, for the detail often reveals the whole. That's probably the best way to approach The Removal Men: Pickfords (Channel 5, Wednesday 6 July, 8pm), which, at first glance, is either a bold attempt to reinvigorate reality TV or proof of the imaginative bankruptcy of programmers, depending on how you want to spin it.

Narrated by Jane Horrocks, who surely can't need the money, The Removal Men follows several teams from Pickfords as they help families move house, a difficult enough task without having a camera crew to contend with as well. Apparently Britain is a nation "obsessed with moving", which made it sound as if it was a hobby that had got out of control.

That observation was the prelude to a cascade of statistics designed to amaze and astound the ignorant viewer. Every year the removal teams "get through a million crates, enough bubble wrap to cover 150 football pitches and half a million cups of tea". The constant deluge of facts and figures - "a diesel hydraulic crane can lift 50 tonnes" - was symptomatic of our audit culture, where numbers are deemed the equivalent of knowledge and understanding.

But it was the patronising commentary, summed up in the constant repetition of the phrase "Job done!", that was most irksome. It belonged to the tradition that portrays the working class as comic characters. It's still alive in contemporary literature. Philip Hensher's marvellously worked novel The Northern Clemency (2008) is flawed only in its representation of, funnily enough, furniture removers, who could have walked straight out of Dickens.

The treatment of team leader Gary was a taste of things to come. "Twenty years in the removal business has given Gary plenty of time to hone his management style," chirped Jane. To illustrate the point there was shot of Gary shouting: "Oi, mate, you're meant to be wrapping, not 'aving a tea party." What a scream.

But it was Big Dave who came in for the most ridicule. "Dave used to be a trawlerman before answering his true calling at Pickfords." The viewer had an image of Dave on a boat in the middle of the ocean when, suddenly, a voice from Heaven calls out, "Behold, follow me and I will make you put things in boxes", which is exactly what the script was doing to Dave.

Jan and Ron Crawford, whose worldly goods Dave was transporting to the Scilly Isles, spoke of him as a reassuring presence. "He's a legendary figure around here," Ron said. "With Dave around, you feel everything is in control," added Jan. This judgement was immediately called into question by the sight of Dave bumbling around the local depot trying to locate a missing crate that the Crawfords had in storage. Hey ho.

What little dignity there is in the job was stripped away for our amusement. "It's a man's world," said Gary. Yes, one inhabited by modern versions of Laurel and Hardy, the film implied. Two "lads" were shown struggling to manoeuvre a wardrobe downstairs. "We got it up, so it should come down," Diana, the owner, scolded plummily. You half expected to hear Bernard Cribbins singing Right Said Fred (1962), a comic song about a gang of men who, after each unsuccessful attempt to shift an unspecified item of furniture, have a cup of tea before eventually giving up and going home. And there's five more weeks of this.

Channel 4's First Cut is a sign that there is intelligent life in television. It showcases new films by up-and-coming directors. Double Lesson (Friday 15 July, 7.30pm), the first in the series, stars Phil Davis as David De Gale, a schoolteacher awaiting trial for attacking a pupil who relentlessly taunted him about his age, appearance and dying wife. Casting aside his trademark snarl, Davis gives a moving performance of a man who slowly comes to understand that his best efforts will always be defeated by deliberate cruelty. The half-hour film is based on actual incidents and is told in the form of a monologue. If only part of what we hear is true, then it's tempting to believe in evil.

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