When Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off debuted in January of 2000 the TV landscape looked entirely different. Abbott, who has since gone to success with his semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Shameless and his police drama No Offence, had been working in television for a while. He’d worked on Children’s Ward, he was a Story Editor on Coronation Street and he’d end up taking over the reins of ITV’s mega-hit Cracker when creator Jimmy McGovern left the show after the masterful opening of series 2. Abbott had written all kinds of stories. His ITV crime drama Touching Evil was a vehicle for Solider Solider star Robson Green and somewhat overlapped with the leading man’s pop career. He’d work with Green again on Reckless, the story of a young doctor who falls in love with the wife of the senior doctor he’s working with and create a star vehicle for Liza Tarbuck with the BBC’s Linda Green.
When you look back at TV schedules in this era of television drama (only certain people get a little buzz from such activity) it’s clear that there was far more diversity of story at that time. Kay Mellor’s drama about an all-female football team Playing the Field had started two years before and ITV had had success with Cold Feet whilst Sally Wainwright’s At Home With The Braithwaites had started three days before Clocking Off. The emphasis in this era was on the relatable human story. Shows like Playing the Field, Cold Feet and At Home with the Braithwaites focused on people that felt like people you knew. They were real, they were human and they were easy to connect with.
Clocking Off took this approach a step further. Its setting, Mackintosh Textiles, is a bustling textiles factory with machines whirring, women working on sewing machines and trucks taking out deliveries. Abbott cleverly used the settings to tell varied stories about the co-workers of the factory without spending too much time there. It’s a similar trick that Jimmy McGovern would deploy six years later with, The Street. That told various stories of the people who lived on the same street using the odd neighbour as connective tissue.
It begins with The Leaches’ Story. Stuart Leach (John Simm) comes home, reads his paper in his kitchen, and says hello to his eight-year-old son. He’s bemused when his son starts calling hysterically for his mother who is hanging washing outside. When she does come in and finds Stuart standing in the kitchen, she shields the boy and fleas the room leaving Stuart even more confused. Back at the factory, Mack (Philip Glenister) is barking orders at his long-suffering secretary Trudy (Lesley Sharp) when a phone call comes in that sends Stuart’s brother Martin (Jason Merrells) into a tailspin.
It transpires that Stuart has been missing from his family home and his job at Mack’s for 13 months. Stuart has no memory of being gone and is utterly baffled by the reaction he receives from everyone around him. Martin also discovers stitches in Stuart’s back, the result of a sustained knife wound, and a half scribbled-down phone number that Stuart can’t remember the end of. It’s a very clever opening story because it introduces the key players at the factory. It establishes Mack as the no-nonsense boss who isn’t happy when Stuart resurfaces because his disappearing act left him out of pocket. It establishes the various friendship groups including Yvonne (Sarah Lancashire) who loves any gossip and Trudy, the put-upon secretary who isn’t seen as one of the girls because she has Mack’s ear. The structure of the series and the stories that Abbot was telling meant that big stars like John Simm would only need to appear for one episode and background players like Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran and Dianne Parish would get their own episodes to shine.
Lancashire takes the lead in the second (and my personal favourite) episode of the series. Gobby Yvonne leaves her three children with her mum for the night to go out with Julie (Siobhan Finneran). *The pair would later star in a show produced by Clocking Off’s Production Company Red Producutions as sisters in the wonderful Happy Valley. When they get back they discover Yvonne’s house is on fire, and worse still, the kids she had left at their nan’s are trapped inside. They get Yvonne’s mother, eldest daughter and son out of the house but middle daughter Adele is trapped in her bedroom and screaming at the window. *In an interesting quirk of casting Adele is played by Tina O’Brien and her brother Charlie is played by Jack P. Shepherd. The pair would go on to play siblings again, next time on Coronation Street as Sarah and David Platt.*
A neighbour, Jim (Christopher Eccleston) hears the commotion and races into the burning house rescues Adele and offers Yvonne and her kids a place to stay. The chemistry between Lancashire and Eccleston is electric. I remember people being surprised when Lancashire delivered her powerhouse performance as the tortured cop Catherine Cawood years later in Happy Valley but this script from series creator Paul Abbott allowed her to showcase all of her abilities. It’s properly laugh-out-loud funny as the pair but heads and Jim tries to ingratiate himself with the family. Yvonne punching Jim square in the face after he tells her what he thinks of the way she parents her kids is a particular highlight and the revelation that Yvonne and Julie deliberately started the fire to get back at an ex but were convinced the kids weren’t going to be there further complicates things. This episode encapsulates everything I would go on to love about the series. You can be terrified one minute, laughing the next, deeply moved and morally conflicted all in the space of one episode.
Abbott’s sharp writing meant the show had a pace unlike anything else. All helped along by Murray Gold’s brilliantly bouncy score. The sheer breadth of the cast of characters within the factory meant the stories always felt refreshing and different. Steve’s story looks at racism when Steve (Wil Johnson) and his wife Sylvia (Diane Parish), are targeted by an armed burglar, the police seem more determined to victimise them than catch the perpetrator. Often their messy homelives would spill over onto the factory looking at bigotry or old-fashioned views of their colleague and other times they’d feel self-contained and hidden away. This was a time before Sky+ or the DVR. It was a time when if you didn’t catch an episode when it aired you wouldn’t necessarily see it again. Abbott’s decision to make each story feel personal and self-contained fit that model perfectly meaning you could get invested in a story without feeling you’d missed anything that had come before.
Lesley Sharp’s time in the spotlight is another highlight of that perfect first series. When Trudy’s beloved father suddenly passes away, it sends her into a spiral of grief. She undergoes surgery for breast implants but the treatment sends her further into grief with the world feeling like it’s closing in on her. In the middle of a manic episode, with Trudy talking about Mack’s wife Katherine, who he worships but Trudy knows is cheating on him, the hospital call Mack in for help. The moment that Trudy realises Mack has overheard everything she has said is brilliantly done. A dumbfounded Mack stands staring at Trudy who stops in the middle of her rant and breaks down. Sharp and Glenister have brilliant chemistry. They too would go on to co-star as husband and wife in Sky’s short-lived comedy-drama Living the Dream, and this episode sees them at their very best. There’s a history between the pair that goes beyond their working relationship. In a perfect world, Trudy would like to be with Mack and deep down he knows it. Her outburst, though embarrassing and deeply out of character for Trudy, only makes their friendship stronger growing forward. The series excels because the people here do ordinairy jobs. They live ordinary lives but the stories are incredibly compelling because they feel as if they could happen to you or someone you know and love.
After winning a BAFTA for Best Drama series in 2001, the second series saw Abbott invite new writers to tell their stories. Danny Brocklehurst (who would go on to write his own form of Clocking Off type series in Ordinary Lies for the BBC) Jan McVerry and John Fay all wrote compelling stories in the vein of the series. By the third series, Abbott had pretty much walked away from the series and by its fourth and final series, he left it in the hands of Danny Brocklehurst. The series never lost what made it special. It never forgot its roots and the point of telling human-led stories. Series 3’s Alan’s Story written by Peter Bowker is another memorable episode. When he undergoes a vasectomy Alan (Robert Pugh) learns that he has a rare condition meaning that he has been infertile since birth. This means the two boys he believed were his own couldn’t be. The great thing about the series is never knew what you were going to get. Robert Pugh is marvellous as Alan, a man who has learns this horrific truth about himself that changes everything in his life. It was kitchen-sink drama at its very best.
In another series 3 episode, Mark’s story the plotting and tone feel closer to a thriller. The episode, written by new writer Matt Greenhalgh, sees new employee Mark (Jim Murray) join the factory. He’s quick to make friends, but things change when he’s contacted by the police and dark secrets are unearthed. The structure of the series lent itself to any story Abbot and his team wanted to tell. They all felt rooted in truth however funny or serious they were.
The cast is still as whose who in Britsh talent. John Simm, Philip Glenister, Sarah Lancashire, Christopher Eccleston, Siobhan Finneran, Lesley Sharp, Jason Merrells, Ricky Tomlinson, Lindsey Coulson, Sophie Okonedo and David Morrissey to name just a few of the leading cast still bring in huge audiences.
By the fourth and final series, Abbott had moved on. Glenister had left the series and the majority of the familiar background players had left too. The final nail in its coffin was being put up against the final series of the equally beloved Cold Feet which was still a huge ratings winner for ITV. In an article published in The Guardian, when news of the BBC axing the show was announced Paul Abbot had an interesting response.
“I felt there was a real shortage of writers who have something to say in the single drama format. You give them 60-minutes to tell a single story and a lot of the things we rejected felt like sub plots from Playing the Field,” he said.
“I was shocked by how unambitious writers were,” he added, blaming the inability of writers to come up with ideas that could fill a 60-minute single drama format on the fact that most learn their trade on the soaps.
Abbott said writing for the soaps led to “metronomic” writing of a certain style, which left little room for “clear thinking”.
“I wrote for Coronation Street for 10 years, and it took me two years to get over it. You find yourself still writing about someone walking from home to the pub, and you have to then write a buffer scene to fill in the time they are en route. Why not just cut?,” he added.
The single story strand is certainly something we’ve lost today. Jimmy McGovern found success with it in The Street which ran for three series on BBC One and again with 2010’s Accused which ran for two series. Danny Brocklehurst took inspiration from his work on Clocking Off to implement a similar style of individual storytelling in his 2006 series Sorted about the employees of the Royal Mail and in 2014’s Ordinary Lies which centred around the workers in a car showroom for its first series and in the warehouse of a sports goods company for its second.
Increasingly, it feels as if British television is moving away from the story of the week format in favour of telling one long story over the course of however many episodes. Seeing something like Clocking Off, At Home With the Braithwaites or Cold Feet feels very unlikely now too. We’re living in an age where broadcasters and commissioners are more and more aware of selling their shows abroad and that means that there’s a trend towards bland thrillers that rely on people being hooked in by the next big twist rather than having a compelling character at the centre. All of the shows in the early 00’s felt like they were telling quintessentially British stories that speak to who we are. These weren’t archetypes or tortured souls, these were ordinary British people who woke up, went to work and had their private lives. Clocking Off was the best of these types of shows and I’ll always hold it up as one of the best examples of character-led storytelling. I can appreciate that our TV landscape is entirely different, but the key here, and I discovered this when rewatching a lot of these episodes for the purpose of this piece, the characters, and the themes at the heart of each of their stories haven’t dated. They still feel relevant and important and speak to me even though they were made at a time when the internet was in its infancy, nobody really used a mobile and when people worked in factories. Great characters, great stories and great performances don’t age and Clocking Off still stands as one of the best British dramas ever made.
Clocking Off is available on the BBC iPlayer.