The Railway: Keeping Britain On Track - Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm
Black Mirror - Monday, Channel 4, 10pm
Spending any more time looking at or thinking about overcrowded carriages, regular delays and rising fares would have sent my blood pressure soaring even higher. Now, when my only rail journeys are pleasant pleasure trips, I can watch this excellent new documentary series with equanimity and even recommend it – at least for those who don’t find the very thought aggravating.
The production team spent a year filming various parts of the rail network; episode one of six is about King’s Cross, the last or first stop in London for 47 million people a year, covering the months running up to the opening of its new concourse last summer. The renovation was sorely needed, according to plain-speaking Customer Service Assistant Alexis Bailey: “It is like a giant cave, it’s dark and dreary – don’t expect any niceties.” And she doesn’t think the service is very good value for money either – “You can go on a five-star holiday for some of these fares, can’t you?” Alexis should probably not apply for internal vacancies in the marketing department.
If that’s what the staff think, what about the customers? A scene shows a succession of them complaining in the travel centre, from the baffled philosopher asking, “Why does everyone always blame the system?” to the frustrated chap suggesting that if they can’t refund his money, he should just take a computer monitor in exchange, to the just plain angry: “You’re an idiot, mate.” It’s the “mate” that makes it. One man, quoted £331 for a return to Newcastle, literally boggles in involuntary shock.
In fact, it’s a wonder how good-humoured the staff seem, at least on camera. If grumpy customers aren’t bad enough, there are also deadly meetings to sit through where buzzwords about “delivering excellence” are thrown about. One man demonstrates how his lanyard and tie pull away so that no maddened travellers can strangle him. They’re advised to nod and make eye contact to show they’re listening; to “show empathy” by saying “sorry”, because “saying sorry doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong, it just means you’re sorry they have had a bad experience”. Pointless apologies which don’t fix the problem: a curse of our age.
While clearly showing the strains of running an under-funded, ageing train system where a train delayed for 70 minutes can end up costing the company a £10,000 fine, the documentary also features some interesting characters. The East Coast station manager, Steve Newland, has a definite David Brent vibe to him, as he bounds around showing off his happy staff. Ronnie, a cleaner, has been doing 12 hour shifts for 21 years and it’s made her deeply cynical about people – the junk they leave for someone else to deal with – and she prefers animals. But scheduler Laxman Keshwara is the opposite: retiring after 35 years at King’s Cross, his dedication and love for the job shine through his emotional goodbye. Finally he leaves, in First Class for once – and bang on time. The Railway is a revealing series: it should make us think again about whether this is really the rail system we want.
In series one of Black Mirror, writer Charlie Brooker showed us the Prime Minister having sex with a pig, a world where reality TV was mandatory and another where people could replay their every interaction. Where, you might ask, can he go from here? Would you believe … sincerity?
The first of three new episodes, Be Right Back – as in the internet acronym BRB when you step away from a chat – is a thoughtful and tender story as much about grief and relationships as it is a technological satire. Hayley Atwell is convincing as grief-stricken Martha, whose partner Ash has been suddenly killed in a car crash. A “helpful” friend signs her up for an online service which recreates his personality through the data – photos, social media, emails – he’s accumulated over the years, so that she can “talk” to him. And then things go a stage further and she’s actually talking to him – or rather, “him”.
Thought-provoking, this is a carefully constructed fantasy. There are a lot of interesting ideas: about how much you know people you speak to online, about how much of our memories of people are bound up with our limited perceptions of them, about how we format relationships into a pattern which suits us, about how grief can trap you in repetition and about technological changes and information storage. Are we more than a conglomeration of our habits or (Facebook) Likes?
But at heart this is an old-fashioned story, with hints of classic horror tale “The Monkey’s Paw”: be careful what you wish for. Ash comes back and is uncannily convincing: “You look like him ... on a good day,” says Martha, wondering. “The photos we keep tend to be flattering,” he replies. But he’s unlined: no wrinkles, no fingerprints, nothing that wouldn’t have been captured in a picture or a Tweeted thought. Nothing too private. None of the annoying bad habits, the failed sex, the hidden insecurities or secret whimsy or surprising behaviour. And without all that, what’s the point?