Daytime TV: The personal touch

Gary Day is impressed by Barbara's sales technique but depressed by a less-than-funny satire

June 18, 2009

The world is full of marvels. And one of them is that it is possible to be happy working in a supermarket. You don't believe me? Then meet Barbara. Sainsbury's has put a smile on her face. And it's just possible she may put one on the store's (I'm Running Sainsbury's, Channel 4, Tuesday 9 June 9pm). Barbara is a store greeter. Hang on, she's just been promoted. She's a store host now. No, wait a moment, she's been promoted again and we haven't even had a commercial break yet. This woman is a phenomenon. She is rising through the ranks so fast, the job title for her new position hasn't been invented yet.

Just as well, looking at the other appellations on offer. What the hell is a "store greeter"? Is it someone who says, "Hello, Asda" and "Good morning, Tesco"? No, apparently it's someone who welcomes you to your local supermarket and hands you a basket. A basket? Why not a trolley? Or is it that they, too, can't wrench those contraptions apart? And what is a "store host"? A person who organises a party for shops? Do they introduce Debenhams to Marks & Spencer and hope they have a nice conversation about the retail prices index? Such labels are the linguistic equivalent of helium.

But back to Barbara. "A very good morning to all our Sainsbury's customers," she beamed over the tannoy. It must have been her ability to mangle the language that first impressed her employers. That, and her genius for selling. Worryingly, the two seem to go together. Barbara once won a Diamond Leader Award at WeightWatchers for her outstanding sales figures. "You can't get much higher than that," she stated, matter of factly.

Tim, her new manager, looked as if he could do with losing at least half his body weight, but Barbara's energies are now directed elsewhere: to help Sainsbury's survive the recession and stay one step ahead of its competitors. She, and others like her, are being encouraged to do the work of the board of directors for the pay of a shelf stacker. Oh, sorry, I got that wrong. Sainsbury's is eager to develop the creative potential of its employees so that they feel happy and fulfilled within the company.

Barbara's idea is to approach customers directly with details of in-store bargains. Most of us apparently "sleep-shop" - that is, we simply buy the items on our list and ignore the cornucopia of crap piled high around us. Sainsbury's spends hundreds of thousands of pounds on in-store advertising, but the average customer reads about seven words as they drift comatose around the aisles. All that's about to change. Barbara is now peddling hot cross buns instead of diet plans, but she's equally successful. "Can I tempt you?" she asks a lone shopper. "Have a feel of these. Freshly baked today. They are just the thing to go with your cup of tea later. And you get three for two." The shopper is as transfixed as if he'd been stopped by the Ancient Mariner.

Head Office likes Barbara's idea. But when she asks what she gets out of it, it is silent. By the end of the programme she is reduced to being grateful that the board is going to trial her technique in 20 stores. "I can't believe that a big company like Sainsbury's is going to run with my little idea," she tells us. If it's to succeed, the training programme for staff will need to be inspirational. Francesca's "Hello, I haven't seen you at this store before" wouldn't sell a chocolate bar to Dawn French.

John O'Farrell is one of the funniest writers in Britain, although you wouldn't think so from ITV's dismal adaptation of May Contain Nuts (ITV, Thursday 11 June 9pm). One of our sharpest satirists has been made to look like a mediocre sitcom writer. Alice Chaplin is so desperate to get her daughter into the prestigious Chelsea College that she sits the exam for her. There's a lot of Lolita-like titillation as Shirley Henderson, who plays Alice, dresses up to look like a schoolgirl, but very few laughs.

Shirley changes size during the course of the drama. In the park she barely comes up to her husband's knee while at home she reaches his chest. This phenomenon goes unnoticed by David, her not-so-doting spouse, who is too busy taking over his son's Second World War homework project. To call him drippy would be to insult a leaky tap. Only Elizabeth Berrington as the monstrous Ffion, "that's two f's, thank you", manages to break out of the suffocating middle-class cuddliness that extinguishes the novel's satiric flame.

I have a feeling that Barbara would find it quite difficult to interest Ffion in Sainsbury's Tu range.

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