Sunday 8 November 2020

Just Another Day

Looking back at the past, during the midst of a pandemic, has provided a momentary respite from the unfolding tragedy outside our sanitised and mask-clad front doors. Getting nostalgic is far from a panacea, but it's comforting to remember what we, through rose-tinted glasses, deem as simpler times. It's even more intriguing, however, to compare and contrast these bygone times with our modern age. And the perfect source material for evidence of the former is Just Another Day. 

Helmed by the unseen journalist John Pitman, Just Another Day is documentary series which takes a literal look at "just another day" in a range of British professions and locations. Pitman, over the course of three series between 1983 - 86, makes his way through episodes which take in life amongst the bustling streets of Soho, the rigours of being a traffic warden and the eccentrics that make up the staff and inhabitants of the Tower of London. All of this is achieved with Pitman's lighthearted questioning, very much in the mould of a less gonzo Louis Theroux, and a selection of subjects who relish their fifteen minutes of fame.

It's a series which feels very much like a spiritual forebear to the late 90s classic documentary series Paddington Green. Both programmes present heartwarming depictions of their case studies and, most notably, they're London-centric. This factor was an intrinsic part of Paddington Green, but with Just Another Day it's most likely a case of being cheaper for the production to stay within the capital. Nonetheless, there's still room for excursions outside of the M25 with episodes dedicated to the exploits of a cross-channel ferry, life in the Cotswold town Fairford and a jaunt to seaside town Walton-on-the-Naze. 

Much is made of the engaging charm at the heart of
Just Another Day and it's an appeal which is impossible to deny. Will Wyatt, who was Head of Documentary Features at the BBC throughout the 1980s, revealed in 1985 that the first series had been a massive success. Starting off as a sleeper hit, the first series garnered huge audiences for BBC2 on its repeat airing. And when you watch the episodes - several are spread across YouTube and iPlayer - the genius of the series quickly reveals itself. By focusing closely on the inhabitants of these documentaries, Just Another Day presents a quirky range of idiosyncrasies rather than delivering a staid, generic look at its subjects. 

Young, female traffic wardens reveal the sexism they encounter as they patrol streets, infamous Soho landlord Gaston Berlemont of The French House muses philosophically about the charms of the area and a long-serving barber at Waterloo Station details the various nude nationalities he sees strutting around the station's showers. Perhaps most hilarious, however, is Tower of London toilet attendant Sandy O'Cunneff. Keen to list the toilet habits of various nationalities, O'Cunneff reveals that the French always leave a mess to clean up, the Japanese are quiet and respectful whilst the Germans are very clean. And she regales all these socio-lavatorial summaries to Pitman as she knits furiously. In fact the entire Tower of London episode is packed full of eccentric Beefeaters and tourists, so it's well worth seeking out on iPlayer.

Airing so long ago, there are, undoubtedly, huge differences in the way that life is portrayed in the early to mid-1980s compared to 2020. But some aspects remain as true now as they ever did. Fashions and haircuts are far too obvious an area for change, so there's no point focusing on them. However, cheeky chappy shoe repairers at Waterloo bellowing "You don't get many of them to the pound!" at passing females feels very alien to a modern set of sensibilities. Likewise, the sin and salaciousness of Soho demonstrated in 1985 is more prevalent compared to its modern cleaned up streets. But, guess what, traffic wardens are still detested all these years later by those who willfully flout parking regulations. And the driving school episode is as packed full of nervousness, stalls and disastrous three point turns as any driving lesson in 2020.

The biggest difference between the Britain of Just Another Day and of the one we currently inhabit is the lack of technology. There's no internet and, with mobile phones in their absolute infancy, it feels a very different world. It's one that's less fragmented and still part of the monoculture. This doesn't, of course, mean it's a better version of society. It was an era where race riots, in this country at least, were more regular and the threat of nuclear war loomed menacingly in the background. It's just a different world. No doubt, in 2055, the world of 2020 will probably seem very different. Actually, what am I saying? 2020 will feel different to almost every year for a significant time yet.

Anyway, Just Another Day is a fantastic and quintessentially British series. The majority of the episodes remain out of reach on a shelf in the BBC archives and this is a huge shame. As a historical article they're fascinating. But they are equally entertaining due to the rich, three dimensional cast that John Pitman meets along the way. There have been numerous documentary series about life in Britain produced over the years, but Just Another Day stands out in a way that puts it up there with the very best.

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