The Blog

'Okey Cokey, Pig in a Pokey' - Inside Britain's Re-employment Training

Fans of the League of Gentlemen will know that Royston Vasey is nothing without diabolical Job Centre Restart Officer Pauline Campbell-Jones, she of the many pens and the catchphrase Okey cokey, pig in a pokey.

I had my own experience of a Pauline, back in 1992. I'd graduated straight into a recession and in between bouts of temping, I was pressed into a week-long 'job search seminar course'. In fact, my experience was so similar that I've wondered if the writers went to the same job centre in West Yorkshire. Not that far-fetched actually, given that scriptwriter Rees Shearsmith went to Bretton Hall College near my home city.

I was on the course because I had to be - the choice was not between what may by most useful, but rather between attending or losing benefits.

My own Pauline lacked the prickly vindictiveness of her on-screen counterpart. But the organisation running the training more than made up for it. Try to question the programme, or ask for more tailored guidance, and you were told: 'that's not the right attitude!' Clearly, in their frame of reference, the problem lay with each of the three million unemployed.

On the first morning, we were given what we were told was a 'model CV'. Looking at the handout - a single typed out page - my jaw's dropping almost as much as it did 20 years ago. It was the CV of a pavement artist - yes, someone who sketches chalk drawings on pavements. In those dark days of mass unemployment, 'Tom Smith' was said to have supervised three other pavement artists.

As for quality, Tom's CV was a model of how not to write a CV. It was vague, the dates of his education didn't tally, he spent eight years as pavement artist. He added the following additional information: 'I am neat and tidy in appearance and I am always punctual'.

If in doubt about his suitability, the reader could contact his referee: a Councillor L White, who lived in - you guessed it - Royston.

Next, our Pauline wheeled in a 'steam age' top-loading video and TV. 'We're going to watch a video about two men who were unempl...' She paused awkwardly and cleared her throat. '...out of work, and the new and, if you like, interesting ways they go about finding a job.'

The video's opening music was of a brass band. The main characters were two fat, balding, middle-aged northerners, Dave and Stan. They lived next door to each other in two drab terraced houses. Dave' house was plain looking, but Stan's had been mucked up by trashy fake stone cladding and horrible plastic urns overburdened with flowers.

Scene one opens with both the main characters standing at their front doors.

Dave: Hello Stan.

Stan: Hello Dave, have you found a job yet?

Dave: No, but what can you do?

Stan: Just keep looking, I s'pose.

Dave: Yes, you're right. See you later.

Scene two, and Dave is seated at the kitchen table with his wife, over breakfast. As might be expected, they are eating a heavy fry-up.

Mrs Dave: I wish you'd get a job luv! Have you tried any of these in the Chronicle?

Scene three sees Stan and his wife in their kitchen. She's making the tea in a subservient manner, whilst Stan is planting some flowers into pots.

Mrs Stan: Oh I do wish you'd get a job luv. It'd be nice if you could do something you'd really like and enjoy. What are you good at?

Stan: Erm... well, err, gardening I s'pose, luv.

Mrs Stan: Don't you remember there's a new garden centre opening up the road, why not give 'em a try?

Cue Stan getting the Garden Centre's number from the bang-up-to-date Yellow Pages. He phones up, explaining his gardening skills and is immediately offered an interview, the details of which he carefully notes on a piece of paper next to the phone.

Meanwhile, hapless Dave, suitably dressed in duffle coat, flat cap and with fag hanging out of his mouth, is phoning about a job ad in the local paper. He's using the public pay phone in a greasy spoon. Trying to take down a name and address, he realises he's got no pen and borrows one from a waitress who just happens to be passing, holding the pen towards him at 45 degrees. Having nothing to write on, he uses the wall. Yes, the wall!

Of course, as we all know, someone who is unemployed is obviously stupid enough not to remember pen and paper when phoning up about a job, and would have no qualms about writing on a café wall in biro.

A few seconds later, a decorator comes along and paints over Dave's writing in yellow paint. Dave gets flustered. Poor, fat, bald, thick, unemployed, down-trodden, working-class, northerner Dave runs out of money for the phone box, and the pips go. Job application over before it's even started!

Stan on the other hand, has a superb interview with a nice upper-middle class lady bountiful. After he's toyed a little with her geraniums, she offers him a job on the spot.

The entire course had a distinct 'painting by numbers' feel.

But I wasn't the only one in my family struggling to get my head round this sort of thing. My dad was having a hard time in the recession too. He'd worked since leaving school at 14, and continued in employment right up to the massive coal pit closure programme of the early '90s. Dad lost his job a few days after his 61st birthday. Despite an impeccable record of paying his way, he was forced to attend demeaning sessions at his local Job Centre where he'd be asked such questions as 'How many GCSEs have you got?' and 'Do you know what a CV is, Mr Green?'

Two of us, at different times of life, finding ourselves playing out our own little version of the northern unemployed. Even if neither of us had a duffle coat or flat cap. For both of us, it felt soul-destroying.

I have no way of knowing whether that course, and that video, ever really helped anyone. Except of course the Chamber of Commerce, who ran the course at several venues and clearly got quite a bit of business out of the state.

Sadly, this system's been perpetuated over the years, with people put through awful situations and similar organisations kept in business. Perhaps you too can recognise a real-life Royston Vasey. If you do, I hope that you too have come through, sense of humour intact.

Oh yes - and if you do happen to have a copy of that Dave and Stan video lying about, please get in touch, I'd love to see it again!