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11 January 2022

BBC drama Rules of the Game shows how toxic culture spreads through workplaces

This waspish and witty series is like The Office meets The Real Housewives of Cheshire, with a hint of Line of Duty thrown in for good measure.

By Rachel Cooke

The BBC’s naughty new series, Rules of the Game, is supposed to have been inspired by the crimes of Harvey Weinstein. But having watched all four episodes, I don’t quite buy this. Ruth Fowler’s zingy, expectation-busting series is surely rooted in a far graver reality, one that was too often lost in the over-excited reporting of #MeToo’s most high-profile case. It’s not just that – duh! – sexual harassment is hardly the preserve of Hollywood. The less glamorous the environment, the more likely such behaviour is to be embedded in its culture. Most victims often have only two options: either to get the hell out, or to be, as they mostly are in Rules of the Game, complicit. In these workplaces, silence is golden, rewarded in bonuses and promotions and invitations to drinks with the boys.

But I’m making the series sound terribly earnest, when really it’s as gripping as a pair of the high-tech leggings they sell at Fly Dynamic, the sportswear company at which it’s set (a business that may or may not bear some resemblance to Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct). How to describe it? Its chief preoccupation is with office mores: specifically, with the clash between platitudinous, 21st-century HR-speak, with its emphasis on mental health, diversity and respect, and the superannuated attitudes of those who began their working lives long before this stuff went mainstream. But it’s also madly interested in money, sex and social class, about which it is vaguely satirical, and it has a highly specific setting. It was filmed in Frodsham, in Cheshire, whose Tudorbethan vibe stands service for the plush, footballer towns – Knutsford, Alderley Edge – that lie further east. Think The Office meets The Real Housewives of Cheshire, with a hint of Line of Duty thrown in for good measure.

Anyway, it’s great, even if it does go batshit crazy at the end. When the series begins, we already know something seriously bad is going to happen: the story is told in flashback. But what? Who is the woman who sits in an ambulance, wrapped in a piece of gold foil that makes her look like an Eighties clubber the morning after the night before? And what is she doing there? In fact, this turns out to be Sam Thompson (Maxine Peake), Fly Dynamic’s chief operating officer. Sam is a throwback, a relic of an age when women had to make like men if they wanted to get on. The men in question being borderline Neanderthals. Sam and her bosses, Owen (Ben Batt) and Gareth Jenkins (Kieran Bew), are preparing the company set up by the brothers’ late father to go public, and for this reason are engaged in a massive PR drive. A key element of this campaign is their new recruit as head of HR, Maya Benshaw (brilliantly played by Rakhee Thakrar), a woman whose job, though she doesn’t yet know it, will be to make Fly Dynamic appear squeaky clean in the eyes of investors.

But it’s not squeaky clean. It’s toxic. Everyone in the place is either relentlessly horrible or a member of the walking wounded – or both – and it’s this, I think, that makes the series so delicious: the nastiness! Fowler’s writing is so unapologetic. Whenever you start to believe that the forces of righteousness might, at last, turn out to be victorious, she’ll always confound you. Of particular toothsomeness is her portrayal of the Jenkins brothers’ wives and their circle, a Botoxed group whose cheese nights are a joy to behold. Also, of their mother, Anita (Alison Steadman), the Cheshire version of a mafia matriarch.

Fowler’s dialogue is magnificently waspish and witty, and yet it feels grounded in reality. If you know anything at all about the flashier corners of the north, or of the vapidity of human resources speak, it will ring in your head like a bell. “Let’s start with Mr Whippy, and then we can work our way up to group masturbation,” Sam says to Maya drily, unconvinced that offering staff free raspberry ripples on a Friday will help staff to bond. We’ve every reason to be suspicious of brittle, raging Sam – I mean it only as praise when I say that Peake seems to be channelling late-era Bette Davis in her performance – but on this point, surely, she speaks only the truth. Oh, boy. This is television for hardcore sceptics and, dubiousness being my preferred mode, I absolutely loved it.

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage