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‘Can I help you?’

11 July 2014


IN EUCHARISTIC presidency, which do you prefer: facing God (and therefore with back to the people); or, as we irreverent souls describe it, over the counter? My memory of those urgent arguments central to the heady days of the liturgical renewal movement all those decades ago has been reawakened by Shopgirls: The true story of life behind the counter (BBC2, Tuesday of last week).

Dr Pamela Cox is revealing a phenomenon encountered daily, but seldom analysed. Until the mid-19th century, female shop assistants were officially invisible; this was man's work, an example of the apprenticeship system by which, in return for a premium, a young lad would be trained so that he, too, could eventually ply his trade as haberdasher or grocer.

It was only with the explosion of rising living standards, mass-production, and urbanisation that far more people were free to go shopping, and far more women were languishing at home, too refined for menial industrial labour and too poor to do nothing.

Gradually, being a shopgirl was seen as a respectable occupation, recognised by the end of the 19th century as a distinct and identifiable section of society, but it was only as the 20th century progressed that the women began to be paid a decent wage, were allowed shorter working hours, and were not required to live in dormitories.

My opening point is not entirely facetious. These programmes help to remind us that shopping is, indeed, quasi-liturgical, containing elements familiar from church: we must be prepared to make a personal sacrifice to gain the longed-for goal; and a minister guides the experience, offering either a free rein or subtly influencing our choice. Nowadays, in most big stores, the altar/counter has been done away with, and we are allowed to browse. All that remains is the alms dish: we have to hand over our collection.

They are fascinating documentaries - I just wish that the presenter did not feel the need to deliver everything with a cheesy smile on her face.

A gritty drama, Common, was awarded BBC1's prime Sunday-evening slot to point up the Corporation's evident pride in this production, drawing our attention to its commitment to contemporary social exploration.

A naïve lad agrees to drive three mates to the pizza shop - but they are really going to settle scores with a rival. An entirely innocent bystander is knifed, dying from his wounds. Although the young driver goes to the police, and admits his part in the crime, the prosecution decides to charge them all with Joint Enterprise, so that all share equal guilt for murder.

This was deeply compelling, the waste and banality of crime for once properly spelled out. A splendid cast drew us into the depth and roundedness of the characters, the limitations of their lives never compromising their personal moral responsibility.

But, for me, the drama was undercut by a series of set-piece speeches excoriating the evil of Joint Enterprise and its supposed political exploitation as a way of dispensing rough justice - a scatter-gun approach that avoids the necessity of establishing individual guilt.

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