Andrew Billen - Workers from hell

Television - A portrait of real-life office torpor rings many bells, writes Andrew Billen

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Stitched up, dumbed down - that was David Brent's immortal summary of how the fictional docu-soap that The Office purported to be had traduced him. If they had as little sense of humour as Brent, Ann and John Armstrong of U-Fit, "Coventry's third-biggest double-glazing company", would no doubt be complaining in simi-lar terms about their representation on The Armstrongs (Wednesdays, 10pm). Instead they are reported to be pleased to see the whole exercise as a kind of 12-week advertisement. This is just as well for, were they to complain, what could they say? That Bill Nighy's narrational voice sounded a little ironic?

Since they have put aside their qualms, we can sit down and enjoy what is, much more than Extras, the true successor to The Office. The programme starts in the style of Hart to Hart, with a voice-over telling us that when John met Ann it was "instant attraction". Ann is no Jennifer Hart, however - nor, come to that, a Dave Brent. Brent prided himself on his GSOH, while Ann boasts of her relentless, finger-wagging negativity, particularly towards her own staff. When she sees a U-Fit worker smoking in the yard, she delightedly announces this to be an act of gross misconduct punishable by sacking (in comparison the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who insists merely on spot fines, is a softie). Ploughing through a manual on positive thinking provided, I would guess, by the big-hearted producer/director Fergus O'Brien, Ann warns that the real test will be when she comes to work in "the mother of all moods".

In comparison John - who, unlike his animated wife, is always filmed sitting down - does not say much. Happily, what he does say is almost always daft, as when a U-Fit barrage balloon is launched and he announces: "We are now masters of the air." His judgement is usually equally amiss. Reasoning that "all the waifs and strays from all walks of life end up in double glazing", he agrees, for example, to take on as his super-salesman a floppy-haired and crumple-shirted loser called Michael. Michael's problem is his delusion that he is a winner, which he technically is, but only in the rarefied field of international Othello championships. Boasting that the board game has pretty much "defined" his life, Michael smiles on the real world as if it were an amusing but petty distraction from his true purpose.

Trying to make inroads into this heady fantasy is a Zimbabwean motivational expert named Basil, whom John has taken on to inspire the staff - after knocking his fee down from £15,000 to £3,000. Basil enjoys asking semi-rhetorical questions such as "How does the mind work?" and Michael enjoys answering with maximum obfuscation.

The remainder of the sales staff, who spend on average only 30 minutes of their 40-hour week actually on the phone selling, look on sleepily - perhaps dreaming of their next fag break or exploration of the site that Ann, in her Big Sisterly way, has monitored them visiting.

The Armstrongs intends to present the couple as the bosses from hell, but the impression it leaves is of a workforce from that place or, at least, the 21st-century Britain known to anyone who has ever called a customer services department. As Ann Armstrong says: "We've tried the carrot. We've tried the stick. We've tried chocolate bars. We've tried everything."

The programme runs against the current ethos of the BBC, which tries in shows such as Dragons' Den to get with Gordon's programme, enterprise-wise. Yet its portrait of office torpor rings more bells than, say, The Apprentice (Wednesdays, 9pm), which returned for a second season an hour before The Armstrongs. The first instalment was filled with the usual razor-clawed young fanatics determined for reasons best left unexplored to model themselves on Sir Alan Sugar.

As usual, the fun lay in spotting which potential apprentice was most likely to succeed in causing everyone else to hate him or her. My candidates so far include the semi-hysterical HR manager Jo, the tautologous saleswoman Ruth ("The reason I am going to win is because I am a winner") and "I am streetwise, I am dynamic" Syed - but I think my vote will go to Syed, because he has already said "work hard, play hard".

Sir Alan's 14 would-be apprentices were set the task of buying and selling vegetables - a job they took to with a self-immolating fanaticism. Particularly worrying was the girls' decision to elicit rotten mangoes from the honest traders of New Spitalfields Market in exchange for light sexual favours. Sir Alan rightly ordered a steward's inquiry, prompting much trembly-lipped outrage from Jo ("Don't denigrate what we did") and gulpy self-righteousness from the lads ("We set about this as a business task").

If the poor dupes had been able to watch Tim in the Firing Line (19 Febru-ary, BBC2), about the winner of the last series and his nightmare year relaunching a failed Amstrad anti-wrinkle machine, none of them would be so worried about losing. And there is, after all, a cushy job going for any of them at U-Fit.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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