What’s not to like about humble cleaners taking advantage of massive corporations and making money from insider trading in Sheridan Smith’s latest series Cleaning Up on ITV?
Having sung the praises of Eastenders before Christmas, I apologise unreservedly for the sudden descent, since January, into thoroughly silly plot lines - the worst being Mel’s endless dithering over whether to cover up for her chisel-faced son Hunter or whether to hand him over to the police for his own good as the 16-year-old is being unnervingly calm about shooting bigamist under-cover cop Ray (he had it coming!) and this week strolled home covered in mud having dug up Ray’s body in a ghoulish attempt to recover the incriminating bullet. So, I admit, in the last month Eastenders has somewhat veered off its mission to reflect the ordinary lives of working-class people. But it will get back on track. Remember, when Eastenders is good, it’s very very good; when it’s bad, it’s hilarious so just keep watching…..
Meanwhile, I am 4 episodes into 6 of ITV’s Cleaning Up. The premise is promising – in the shiny office blocks of Canary Wharf, cleaners are considered so menial they are practically invisible so why not bug, copy and steal information to do some insider trading? Giggly friends, Sam (Sheridan Smith) and Jess (Jade Anouka) start by buying a listening device on eBay to place it in the air vent above the offices.
The arrogant traders brush past them, bashing them with their briefcases, without apology or acknowledgement and wouldn’t recognise them in a line up so what’s not to like about cleaners taking advantage of massive corporations and making money from them? After all, Sam says,
“They’re just a bunch of rich guys getting paid to move even richer guys’ money about! Why should these greedy bastards cut corners and get away with it?”
But, despite this feisty defiance, what are the prevailing ideas that the story reinforces?
The stakes get higher and the risks vertiginous as Sam starts impersonating a trader (in clothes ‘borrowed’ from one of her cleaning jobs in Dulwich) and is drawn into a dangerous network of high-powered players (including the excellent Con O’Neill, necking champagne and spitting out stock market figures like a man chewing his way through an ashtray).
Despite a few silly inconsistencies (like why don’t finance people ever log off when they leave the office and leave so much highly confidential information available on desktops?), the story has so far hit home with valid points e.g. the divide between rich and poor is not fair; being a single mum rushing between zero-hour contracts would stress anyone out; poverty breaks up marriages and damages families; working-class people are smarter than you think; give them a chance and they could be bankers, hell, they could even run society!
Radio clips of the Maybot intoning “work is the best route out of poverty” are a damning backdrop as Sam works herself to the bone while the debt collector’s texts still ping into her phone. But implicit to the narrative is the assumption that money is what makes the world go round and everyone is a gambler – whether in the City or with online apps, scratch cards and fruit machines. Sam gambles as recklessly with her small handful of cash, we are drawn to conclude, as bankers gamble with their millions. We are all flawed in a flawed world that cannot change.
Which reminds me of the 1984 Mike Nichols film, Working Girl, where clever working-class Tess (Melanie Griffiths) bluffs her way up from temp to manager in a New York brokerage firm by impersonating her temporarily bed-bound boss. You can’t help but cheer when Tess says
“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.”
But when Tess does get her own office and secretary through great ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness, Nichols zooms out to show the skyscraper she’s in across a grid of identical skyscrapers, as if to say that she has triumphed but merely in becoming one of the thousands of money-making automatons across the world. The implication is that, firstly, nothing short of a freak series of events can elevate a working-class woman however smart she may be and, secondly, once she’s schemed her way up, what kind of success is it really to have won in a class society of grubby self-interest?
So, back to Cleaning Up, if the series ends well and our cleaners get away with their shenanigans, it will still end badly. I remember working in Borough Unemployment Benefit Office in the early 80s with some very enterprising colleagues who had set up a mess of fictitious claims to supplement their meagre incomes. My argument with them was that they should get active in the union and fight for better pay for all and not just for themselves. I had very little success until computers were introduced and they were forced to rethink their strategy and went out on strike (ha!) but it is the same argument I would have had with this series. How much more interesting it would have been if the zero-hour workers had unionised (just as cinema workers, McDonald’s workers and, yes, cleaners are doing right now) and fought collectively for better terms and conditions across all the nationalities and races that are hoovering their way through Canary Wharf and this series?
Better to overthrow the system than try to out-smart it. But then we would be in a society where, instead of watching the most determined careerist elbow their way to the top in The Apprentice – You’re Fired!, Dragons’ Den and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, we would watch the best activist bashfully apologise for their success and thank all their friends, family and fellow workers in The Union Rep – You’re Elected!, Best Pitch for an Insurrection and Who Wants To Seize Control of the Means of Production. Jeremy Hardy could have been the perfect host on all of them!
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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