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We're not evil... everyone had a great time

Producer Samantha Martin defends E4's latest hidden camera show

I have never felt the need to comment or defend a show I’ve worked on before, probably because one look at my CV will tell you what an evil son-of-a-bitch I am (I used to work on Balls Of Steel) but I truly do love The Work Experience.

It hurts me to see this E4 show besmirched by so many of my beloved lefty papers as a cheap reality TV format specifically manufactured to humiliate desperate young job seekers in an employment market so woefully set against them.

The production was based around creating characters to exist in ‘the worst office in fashion PR’. The concept was more like; ‘What if someone who worked in Ricky Gervais’ The Office genuinely thought the place was real?’ rather than, ‘let’s see what these drongos will do to get us to give them a job.’

So we began a process of creating characters and a story that would both involve and perplex the interns. The idea was to find people who genuinely wanted a career in fashion PR and were prepared to invest in it. Fashion PR is a ridiculously exclusive industry where jobs are scarce and getting a foot in the door in nigh-on impossible without putting yourself through an internship.

Knowing this we offered placements with expenses of around £50 per day, aware that we needed people who were keen but would also stick it out for four days before leaving for their real internships once the game was up. This actually proved harder than we’d imagined.

Yes, around 150 people did apply for the internships but for the 100 or so called in for interviews perhaps 40 actually responded or turned up on time. A couple who were actually offered the internship actually failed to turn up on day one. This point is not to try to persuade you that we were acting as some benevolent foundation for the out-of-work, it is to illustrate that we were not just in the business of shoving anyone in front of TV cameras for entertainment. They were not chosen as schmucks to be humiliated, the successful applicants really had to be worthy of a job at the end of the process. We were asking top PR agencies to take on people for four weeks, they had to meet their criteria as well as our own.

When I had my first shot at working in TV I spent a month at a production company on one of their unpaid work experience schemes. Essentially they paid expenses of a weekly travelcard and then made you use it to deliver tapes, pick up props and fill the fridges of the execs in their Notting Hill houses. We were basically cheap couriers.

I spent my first day (incidentally my 22nd birthday) clearing out a cupboard that had been used as a dumping ground from everything from old props, boxes of defunct tape formats, to paint for the studio floors. I was not having fun.

At the very least, during their time at the fictional Grade PR our interns had ridiculous experiences that they could share and laugh about at the end of each day. And the hidden camera footage showed that this was exactly what they did. Far from feeling put-upon these fired-up young bucks spent their time gloriously gossiping over the ridiculousness of their co-workers and bigging each other up for their mettle in each increasingly bizarre situation.

If, during my month at Fuckwit Productions, someone had asked me to go and pick up sperm from a boy-band member, as one of our challenges on The Work Experience was. I would have been delighted. At least I could have regaled it to my friends in the pub, instead of trekking eight miles home to Homerton to spend the night picking bits of emulsion out of my eyebrows.

Perhaps survival of these incidents as part of working life are seen as a badge of honour but let’s be honest, no one who wants to work in TV or fashion wants a nine to five job.

I believe that exploiting desperate young people for work is wrong, of course it is. But The Work Experience is not the evil face of this.

When the show was finally finished we had a wrap party, not a traditional TV wrap party where we just all got drunk and told each other how amazing we were but a party to which all of the interns were invited and were a central part of the experience. We all watched the shows, caught up and laughed. These are young people who had an experience they’d enjoyed, made new friends and took an opportunity to show a new employer what they could do.

One of them now has a senior job in the PR firm he interned at after the show. They were all excited to watch ‘their’ show. They had been through the intern mill and come out the other side smiling.In an ideal world we would all share these kind of experiences at work.

I am proud to have worked on this show, in a career where I have often struggled for work and, on finding it, spent two days making 500 fake dog shits out of Smash, I can say that I know what it is like to work hard, feel put upon and want to stab my boss in the face.

However, in The Work Experience, I can say hand on heart that everybody had a good time. We are all friends and nobody felt as if they had been exploited, in fact most of them told us they wished Grade PR actually existed – it had been fun.

Young people looking for work have a hard time, no question, and it is not the business of employers to take advantage of this and use their desperation as licence to exploit. However, I think unpaid work experience is fine, if there is genuinely something to be learned and the prospect of a paid role in the future, providing, of course that the intern has done a good job.

The truth of the matter is that the market is shitty at the moment and competition is fierce. If young people are able and prepared to take time out to gain experience in their chosen field then they should.

I don’t believe anyone who wanted to work in a particular industry badly enough wasn’t prepared to wait tables at weekends or stand outside Liverpool Street Station handing out promotional cereal bars in order to pay their way through a month’s internship.

These internships generally apply to specialist and competitive fields, jobs that would not have existed 20 years ago, when the markets were less shitty. So they may be an inevitable part of job-seeking for those who want to work in fashion, PR, highly competitive law firms and have the chance to earn top-dollar in banking. This is all choice, it’s just a question of the people at the top, who perhaps spent the early years of their careers having to deal with similar bullshit, giving them a break.

Or they could just get a boring job. But who wants to do that?

Posted: 29 Oct 2012

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